The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats are making Congress look more like America. Republicans are fighting this.

Minnesota state Rep. Ilhan Omar (D) is one of two Muslim women elected to Congress on Nov. 6 (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Yesterday’s primary elections were important in that they reinforced two very different trends. On the Republican side, it gets clearer all the time that, in both personnel and policy, this is Donald Trump’s party. The Democrats, on the other hand, are committed to creating a Congress that actually looks like America. Come January, that will be more true than ever before. But we still won’t have gone far enough.

The most notable winners yesterday were those marking new kinds of diversity, some in ways that would have been not just remarkable but shocking a few years ago:

  • In Vermont, Democrats nominated Christine Hallquist to be their candidate for governor, making her the first transgender gubernatorial nominee in U.S. history.
  • In Minnesota, voters nominated Ilhan Omar to a seat all but guaranteed to stay Democratic; she’ll likely be the first Somali American in Congress, and with Rashida Tlaib, who just won the nomination for a House seat in Detroit, the two of them would be the first Muslim women in Congress.
  • In Connecticut, Jahana Hayes, who has a compelling personal story — raised by her grandmother because her mother suffered from addiction, a teen mother herself who rose to become national Teacher of the Year — is likely to become the first African American to represent Connecticut in the House.

It’s not just those notable firsts, though. This year has seen a flood of women candidates into races at all levels. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, 198 women have won primaries in House races so far, 19 women have won Senate primaries, and 13 women have won gubernatorial primaries — all record highs. In every case though, at least twice as many of them are Democrats as Republicans.

If politicians focused on issues important to black women, everyone would benefit, including President Trump's base, says Global Opinions Editor Karen Attiah. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

But it’s important to know that even if Democrats have a wave election, the most overrepresented group in politics will still be white men, who make up about 30 percent of the American population. Right now the House is 81 percent male and the Senate is 77 percent male, which is not much to be proud of. The House is 78 percent white, and the Senate is 90 percent white. So while many new women and racial/ethnic minorities will be taking office, we’ll still have a distance to go before Congress actually looks like America.

But it’s clear that one party is committed to that goal, while the other party is fearful of it. There’s another emblematic result from yesterday, the failure of former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty to win his party’s nomination to get his old job back. Pawlenty is, of course, whiter than a mayonnaise sandwich on Wonder Bread. But he always represented a “Minnesota Nice” brand of conservatism, one that didn’t use racial grievance as its foundation. After the race was called, Pawlenty was clear about what happened. “The Republican Party has shifted,” he told reporters. “It is the era of Trump, and I’m just not a Trump-like politician.”

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So what we have here is a Democratic Party embracing a vision of a more diverse America, both because it will benefit from it politically and because its members see that diversity as an inherently good thing. And we have a Republican Party that sees the future in increased immigration restrictions, more deportations and a less diverse America, both because it would benefit from it politically and because its members see such a future as an inherently good thing.

Neither one of those considerations, the moral or the political, is the only “real” reason the parties take the positions they do. Both matter. But as Democrats cheer the victories of people like Ilhan Omar and Jahana Hayes, Republicans will feel more and more threatened by the idea that their power is being taken away from them.

And, of course, there’s an entire media apparatus devoted to feeding their fear and resentment. Laura Ingraham tells them that “the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore” because “Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people.” Tucker Carlson runs scare stories about communities being taken over by immigrants, saying “this is more change than human beings are designed to digest.” And, of course, the president of the United States is a stone-cold racist who ran a white-nationalist campaign in 2016 and will almost certainly do so again in 2020.

There is no question that, as the country continues to change, the Democratic Party will both become more diverse itself and see diversity in the U.S. population as its source of electoral success. On the other side, Republicans in recent years have deftly used the backlash to demographic change to gain and hold power. That doesn’t show any signs of changing. But a couple of big losses — in 2018 and 2020, say — might lead them to conclude that the strategy has played itself out.