Yascha Mounk, writing in The Atlantic, laments in familiar terms the rise of powerful corporate lobbies and the purportedly corrupting role of money in U.S. politics. He includes this claim: “Often, when faced with a vote on a bill of concern to their well-heeled backers, legislators don’t have to compromise their ideals — because they spend so much of their lives around donors and lobbyists, they have long ago come to share their views.”
Of course it is the case that politicians are deeply influenced by their social circles and by the assumptions and biases associated with them, but I am skeptical of the implied mechanism. Rather than thinking of Washington as a place where diverse, free-thinking people from around the country come to be intellectually and politically homogenized, we would do better to understand Washington as a place that attracts members of a certain class of Americans who already share similar assumptions and biases — because they already are members of the same social circles, read the same books and periodicals, have similar educational and professional backgrounds, etc.
(Warning: Wikipedia biographies and English-major math ahead; feel free to double-check my numbers and correct me if I’ve made an error.)
When the 113th Congress was seated five years ago, it was hailed as comprising the most diverse legislators in congressional history: still disproportionately white and male and old, but less so than in previous years. But there is diversity and there is diversity: Forty-one percent of that Congress’s members were graduates of law schools. Would you like to know what the share of lawyers is among, say, the Congressional Black Caucus today? It is 40.8 percent, by my reckoning. The overall representation of lawyers (to be more precise: law-school graduates) in Congress has declined a little in recent years and radically since the 19th century, when up to 80 percent of representatives and senators were lawyers, but it remains just under 40 percent.
I considered the case of the Congressional Black Caucus because race (and sex, and sometimes religion and sexuality) is what we usually are talking about when we talk about “diversity.” But what you’ll notice about the Congressional Black Caucus is that its members have a great deal more in common with the general run of representatives and senators than they do with statistically typical black Americans. Much more likely to be law-school graduates, of course, but throw in one or two other variables — degrees in public administration or backgrounds in public-school management — and you’ll cover a substantial majority of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Only 17.7 percent of African Americans 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree. All but a handful of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus do. Yvette Clarke was elected before finishing her bachelor’s degree at Oberlin (a matter of some controversy during the campaign) and Donald Payne Jr. attended Kean University but did not finish his degree. Here, Congress at large and the Congressional Black Caucus much more closely mirror one another than either does the general population. About 95 percent of members of Congress have at least a bachelor’s degree, while only one in three Americans holds a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Representatives Clarke and Payne have something in common with one another that also is much more typical of a member of Congress than a member of the general public: Representative Clarke entered politics by taking over a New York city council seat that had been held by her mother, while Representative Payne holds a seat held before by his father. Congress is full of second- and third-generation officeholders: Rand Paul (son of a congressman), Darin LaHood (lawyer, son of a congressman), Lisa Murkowski (lawyer, daughter of a senator and governor), Shelley Moore Capito (daughter of a governor), Tom Udall (son of a congressman and cabinet secretary, nephew of a congressman, cousin of a senator, and, inevitably, a lawyer), etc. In 2015, Greg Giroux put the number of senators and representatives with a parent who had served in Congress at 20.
You can dice the demographics however you like, and you’ll generally come up with similar findings: Fifty-seven percent of the gay members of Congress are lawyers, 50 percent of the wealthiest members of Congress are lawyers, 50 percent of the women in the Senate are lawyers, etc. (Only one third of the Arab Americans in Congress are lawyers.)
No doubt Washington molds its denizens to a considerable extent. But it is also the case that the United States has something like a ruling class, a class of people who are attracted to politics and who in many instances begin preparing themselves for political careers very early in life. That class has franchises in every city and country district from coast to coast. Indeed, one of the creepy and dispiriting experiences typical of Washington is meeting the new deputy undersecretary of this or that and realizing that this bright-eyed and intelligent person has been preparing . . . his entire life . . . for that role.
Washingtonians don’t get turned into what they are by having lunch with some lobbyists. The terrifying truth is that they show up that way.