Praising the new, 113th Congress for being the most diverse in history is like praising Lindsay Lohan for not shoplifting this week. It’s easy praise when there’s nowhere to go but up.
So yes, 81 women were sworn into the House of Representatives this year and 20 women in the Senate. There are now 42 African Americans in the House and one in the Senate—Tim Scott, the first black Republican in the Senate since 1979. There are 29 Latinos in the House and three in the Senate. The Senate also has its first Buddhist and the House now has its first Hindu and its first openly bisexual woman.
Which is great. Really. But let’s look at the flip side. Of the 535 voting members of the 113th Congress, 359 are still white men. In other words, white men—who comprised 34 percent of voters in the 2012 election—still occupy 67 percent of the seats in Congress. Legacies of oppression in America are still paying handsome dividends in yielding disproportionate power for white men. At best, the increase in diversity among the 113th Congress is a sign white patriarchy is now shaky in America. But it has not toppled.
Also, a more bisexual Congress is a far cry from a more bipartisan one.
John Boehner, never exactly a champion of the policy needs of women and communities of color, was re-elected Speaker of the House last week. I should say, this is probably a good thing, given those on Boehner’s right flank are even more hostile toward the constructive role of government in redressing inequality and creating opportunity. And yet, whether because of his own ideological shortcomings or the constraints of his right-leaning caucus, Boehner will no doubt continue to try and “lead” our country off a sharp ideological cliff.
The first act introduced by Republican leadership in the 113th Congress? Not the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Not legislation to control gun crimes in our cities and schools. Not an infrastructure bill to strengthen our roads and bridges and put millions of Americans back to work. Not even a bill to fund disaster recovery following Hurricane Sandy.
No, the first piece of legislation introduced in the 113th Congress was the repeal of Obamacare. The same legislation House Republicans have introduced and voted on 33 other times.
Voters overwhelmingly backed liberal ideals in the election, including poll after poll showing support for raising taxes on the rich, preserving social programs that help the poor and middle class, green energy investments, strong public schools, civil rights issues and much more. One would hope that Republicans would be shocked to their senses by their shellacking in the 2012 election and start to change their tune on everything from fiscal policy to immigration and marriage.
And yet, the House of Representatives remains dominated by staunch fiefdoms of conservative extremism, elected by small but powerful pockets of the country that are increasingly carefully preserved through redistricting. And so while the vast majority of Americans voting nationwide have rejected, in sum and substance, conservative extremism, it remains alive and well in the House of Representatives, wherein we get dynamics like the fiscal cliff negotiations in which Republicans in sum have no leg on which to stand and yet manage to exact concessions from President Obama through the sheer willfulness of their obstructionism. And there are still plenty of them to be obstructionist.
This is not tyranny of the majority; right wing conservative white men are no longer the majority in America. House Republicans represent a tyranny of the minority. Their ideological dominance is eroding as quickly as their demographics. Their current power and influence is merely an historical vestige. House Republicans are the appendix of the political body—useless but still able to rupture.
Where does that leave us? Unfortunately we can no more dismiss the practical power and influence of House Republicans than we can ignore a broken coccyx. And a different political future, demographically and ideologically, won’t just evolve naturally but will, like any progress in America, involve a fight. Fortunately, the 113th Congress has a few more women and people of color and some great white male allies as well who will continue the struggle toward progress and justice. But the fight itself remains unchanged.
*Sally Kohn is an activist, writer, political analyst on Fox News and regular contributor to Colorlines. You can find her online at SallyKohn.com. *