Washington’s new Democratic congressional sensation Marie Gluesenkamp Perez sure doesn’t dance around when she’s talking about her own party’s core ailment: its elitism.
Asked in a recent interview whether Democrats are struggling with “class diversity,” she answered: “Abso-[bleeping]-lutely.”
“How [bleeped] is it that we don’t respect or listen to people until they have a college degree?” she went on, on the national podcast Pod Save America (a political show hosted by former Barack Obama aides). “That’s ... shame.”
These bleeps are not your typical parlance of Congress — not in public interviews, anyway. It was a blunt way of expressing how emphatically she thinks her own party has become America’s enclave of the rich.
Gluesenkamp Perez is one of only five Democrats in the U.S. House who represent areas carried by former President Donald Trump in 2020. One of the others, Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, has been passing out a chart lately showing all 435 congressional districts in the nation, ranked by median income.
It shows the sea change that’s taken place in politics in recent years — both nationally and in Washington state.
Democrats now represent 9 of the 10 wealthiest districts in America. Of the 195 districts richer than the national household median income (about $71,000), Democrats out-represent Republicans by 2 to 1. While the 240 districts below the median are represented 2 to 1 by the GOP.
Tech-rich Washington state is a major part of this trend. We have 3 out of the nation’s 25 most prosperous political districts, all represented by Democrats — the Eastside’s 1st District (ranked No. 10 wealthiest) and 8th District (ranked 24th), along with Seattle’s 7th District (ranked 25th).
The 1st District, with a median household income of $121,000, is represented by one of Congress’ , Suzan DelBene.
Meanwhile the only two congressional districts in the state with incomes below the national median are the two represented by Republicans. Eastern Washington’s 5th District, domain of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, is the state’s poorest, its median income of $62,800 ranking it 282nd.
All of this is part of the “big sort,” in which Democrats increasingly are the party of college-educated, tech-dominated, coastal city dwellers. While Republicans have a growing lock on the rural working class.
For a new member, Gluesenkamp Perez is blistering in her critique of how tone-deaf her party can sound sometimes on issues of money. Take, say, the politics of climate change.
“People who work can’t [bleeping] pay — we’re not buying Teslas,” she said, dropping yet another f-bomb, this time on the Democrats’ push to switch away from gasoline cars. “People who get paychecks, and then look at them, aren’t buying Teslas.”
Her district, the 3rd of Southwest Washington, has a median household income of $79,000 — a bit more than the national figure, while a bit less than the Washington state figure of about $82,000. Most of the wealth is concentrated in Clark County, home of Vancouver. It’s a warning for her political prospects that she lost in most of the poorer counties, such as Lewis and Wahkiakum.
One of her responses to all this has been to throw in with the populist cause of term limits. She has already co-sponsored two constitutional amendments to restrict the terms of Congress.
“We need more representatives who work for a living instead of those who have made a living off politics,” she said about the latest measure, to limit House members to 10 years and senators to 12 years.
Of course the joke in Congress is that term limits have become the system’s official way to show you’re not part of the system. There’s zero chance of them passing, so it’s risk-free. Just this past week, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was fundraising off his proposal to limit senators to two terms — which he had introduced as part of his campaign for reelection to his third term.
What’s fascinating to me about all this, as someone who has covered politics for more decades than I’d like to admit, is how this political migration of wealth has unsettled the very purpose and identity of the two parties.
Republicans, the old party of the country club, now overwhelmingly represent the districts of the working stiffs. They still crusade, though, on their old platforms of cutting taxes on the rich — most of whom don’t vote for them anymore — and slashing the programs aimed at helping the very people who do.
Meanwhile the party of the new baron classes, the Democrats, continues to pursue policies aimed at taxing the barons and redistributing much of that money to programs for the working classes — who are nevertheless fleeing them in droves.
It’s been a tectonic shift. The phrase when I started covering politics was “It’s the economy, stupid.” But that phrase itself has become stupid. As the last election showed yet again, it isn’t the economy anymore — it’s more about culture, values, race or religion.
Can these couple of Democrats, one of whom has been in office only three months, crawl their party back from these polarizing (and perhaps Electoral College-losing) trends? On the other side, is there any Republican out there who is even trying to talk to the cities anymore, the way Gluesenkamp Perez (a Reed College economics major, by the way) is at least attempting to speak to the rural trades, f-bombs and all?
One other thought: MGP reminds me at this stage of another local rebel who shocked and upbraided the establishment back in the day, name of Patty Murray. Thirty years ago, when MGP was 4, Murray too stormed into the gilded Capitol arguing that Congress should look and talk — and be — more like normal America. And that the job shouldn’t morph into a permanent, insulated career.
The system does have a way of assimilating the nonconformists.
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