Carrie Sheffield and Taylor Jo Isenberg discuss the gender imbalance in the 113th Congress
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I’m Alexander Heffner, your new host on The Open Mind.
If the last two Presidential elections established a new political order, it dictates that demographics are destiny … this is not your Father’s electorate – if anything, it’s your Single Woman’s electorate.
As a mobilized voting bloc, young women were enormously influential in the 2012 presidential election – and they are poised again, especially in the battleground states, to tip the scales in 2016.
Yet both young women and young men are notoriously absent from the ballot box during non-presidential contests. Why this frequent midterm disengagement among young people…and how might it be remedied?
Our two guests today are superbly equipped to answer these questions as incisive observers of the contemporary American political landscape and of Millennial voters.
Carrie Sheffield, now a Columnist for Forbes.com, wrote a popular 2010 USA Today essay “Why the GOP Needs Non-Believers,” calling herself a secular conservative who views Republican religious zealotry as morally and politically problematic. In Sheffield’s estimation, less religion not more, equals more votes, particularly among young people.
Taylor Jo Isenberg, National Director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Campus Network, manages student chapters across the country. Isenberg spearheads the Campus Network’s “Government By and For Millennial America” Initiative to encourage progressive reform to government institutions.
Both Sheffield and Isenberg frame Millennials’ preference for good or better government rather than big or small government – for tolerance rather than ideological purity.
Before considering the impact of this pivotal 18 to 30 year old woman vote, let’s begin with where we are today: Despite being more reliable voters than their male counterparts, why have women not yet remade Congress?
And Taylor Jo, perhaps I might ask you this first … would former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt not be rolling over in her grave to see the imbalance in Congress … and I mean gender imbalance, as you know.
ISENBERG: Absolutely, I think if you look at the numbers and see how far we’ve come, or the lack thereof … Eleanor Roosevelt would absolutely be rolling over in her grave. And when you look at the imbalance average … look at the average Millennial … woman who are attending college above 50% … and you look at their representatives, they don’t see themselves.
And so, yes, Eleanor Roosevelt would be rolling over in her grave and I think it speaks to the amount of progress and work that we have to do to remove the barriers for women feeling and ready and, you know, being supported in their efforts to run for office.
HEFFNER: So, I turn to you, Carrie … what do you think are the propelling factors in young women’s minds as they enter the ballot box in this 2014 cycle?
SHEFFIELD: Well, it’s interesting that you brought up the point that, you know, young people in general don’t vote as often in mid-terms as opposed to Presidential …and I think it’s very interesting … I think some of it might be indicative of, you know, lack of engagement in the community. I mean people in general, especially among younger people, feel less trust or less involvement in their community. And I think that might be part of a driving factor in terms of local engagement and perhaps they feel more engaged at the national level.
But in terms of motivating young women to get to the ballot, you know I think there are a lot of issues. I mean it’s the same issues … you know, on my side of the aisle, we, we like to think of voters as an entire electorate and not, not sort of drive people on wedge issues or, or identity politics and … but I think in general … I mean women, you know, they care about the same thing that men do. To the same thing that older people do as well … so ….
HEFFNER: But do you think that Conservatives who don’t favor pay equity or reproductive rights … do you think they stand a chance?
SHEFFIELD: Well, I, I think the people on the Right … the Republicans are well poised right now in the battleground states, they’re very well poised to win the Senate. And, you know, I, I think these, these issues which, you know, people on the Left tend to identify as “women’s issues” … you know, I, I’ve written about this in Forbes that this, this idea that the Left likes to create a war on women, that the Right seems to be engaging in.
When you look at the data, when you actually look at the hard numbers … pay equity it has … it’s, it’s basically a fiction. It, it truly is. I mean when you at what women do in terms of the careers they are attracted to, the occupations they’re attracted to … the fields of study they go into … once you, once you do a multi-varied regression analysis that, that basically goes away … the supposed pay gap. It, it really does. And women, you know, tend to leave the work force more often to raise children. That’s, that’s great … I don’t think anybody wants to be in the business of trying to force women into certain blocks.
So, I, I think this is, you know, something that the Democrats are trying to bring up. But I think Republicans are trying to say “you know what, let’s look at the data here”.
ISENBERG: Push back … is … you know, in addition to issues around reproductive rights … which is very fair to say that there’s been a number of efforts on the Right to push back progress for women’s right … particularly at the State level.
The other piece of it is things like paid leave and medical leave. A number of efforts have been pushed … you know, for example here in New York and progress has been made on that front … but those issues speak to why women have to leave the workforce to raise children, which speaks to the barriers to entry and for women to progress in their careers.
I think the other issue that’s at the top of the agenda when we talk about the rising electorate is the minimum wage … not typically referred to as a woman’s issue. But women are disproportionately … make up the portion of the population that, you know, are the minimum wage earners … in addition to young people. You know, over 70% of young people make up that category of minimum wage earners.
HEFFNER: So going back to the start though, what is, what is undeniably not a fiction is this lack of balance. So, a lot of the centrist women who represented various states in the US Senate, they’ll say that they are most poised to counteract some of the malevolent forces in our democracy, whether that’s gerrymandering … but issues that are not partisan in nature.
So let me ask you both … how, how are women poised to solve some of these problems that their male counterparts, as I said in the introduction, seem ill-equipped to do. I mean, you know, what’s …
SHEFFIELD: Well, I mean certainly we did see this in the Senate, I mean women really were the ones who were able to be the adults, when it came to, for example, the shut down. And I was very highly critical of whether the Republican, mostly male leadership (laugh) was doing with the shut down. I think that was bad for the country and bad for the movement. So, I applaud the women who stood up, both on the Left and the Right side of the aisle. So, I mean that’s, that’s, you know, an area … but I think in general … I mean … so I used to work in investing … when you look at the investment style of a woman versus a man.
The women, in general, are they’re more reliable, they are less prone to reckless engagement. I mean you could say … you know that, “high risk, high reward” … but when you look at sort of the overall trend, women behave in ways that are more sustainable and more steady. And I think that would really play over well, when it comes to the political realm where we could actually get some things done.
ISENBERG: I would agree with that completely. While you don’t …. It’s the kind of an issue … it’s a little bit weird to make a gender issue on the ability of an individual to fix our, you know, broken political system. You know, I think when you think about the way that the average, you know, American voter … female voter … they’re thinking about their family, they’re thinking about stability. One of the words that particularly looking at younger people … that they wanted out of their, you know, economic system was greater stability. And I think that that is a top priority that you see women thinking about in a way that they’re going to think about building systems to be responsive.
HEFFNER: So more women and especially more young women are voting than young men. So, how does that translate into progress and I know, Taylor Jo, you manage chapters across the country dedicated to progressive causes, but they’re also very much invested in fixing our democracy. So how do those greater women votes … actual tangible votes … how do they translate into reform?
ISENBERG: I, I think it’s an interesting …. I think it’s changing the policy agenda. In a similar way that, you know, when elected officials, who those elected officials are … the issues that they’re open to addressing … their ability to connect to the constituencies that they’re serving leads to the policies that they enact and reform. I think when you see an increased number of women in office and you see an increase in women voting … those policy issues will come to the top of the agenda.
HEFFNER: In 2010, even after the successful passage of the Affordable Care Act, Democrats, though and especially young Democrats were missing in action. I wonder why do you think that there was that malaise, there was that inactivity … Carrie … if, if the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare is not this generation’s Social Security … what will they respond to in 2014?
SHEFFIELD: Well, it’s interesting … so I think in 2010 there was a lot of energy around to trying to … responding to the Affordable Care Act. But it was actually … like you said, it wasn’t the younger people … and I think they should have been responding because now we are seeing that, you know, this is creating unsustainable, you know, entitlements, that our generation, you know, we’re going to have to pay off.
And so it’s interesting that it was the older Tea Partiers who came out in 2010 to stand up against the Affordable Care Act. So, in terms of, you know what, what other issues might drive young people to, to the voting box … I mean I think it’s important to let young people exactly what the Affordable Care Act means for them. And the burden that’s placed on their shoulders and maybe, maybe it could motivate them.
HEFFNER: What is that burden? Because in addition to a burden and I want you to elaborate on that burden, young people can stay on their parents plan now until they’re 26.
HEFFNER: So, what … what’s the burden?
SHEFFIELD: Well, it’s, it’s a public sector burden. I mean it’s an overall entitlement burden. It’s basically … creates additional … you know … debts and subsidies that are given to people who may or may not be working. And a lot of it is, is taking … skimming the middle class … and so, it’s, it’s adding to an already very burdened system that we already have. Especially with … you mentioned Social Security … I mean things have changed. I mean when Social Security was created, you know, there were … the life span was significantly lower. However, some of that was skewed by the infant mortality rate. So once you account for that the, the ages … it went up by a few rates … a few years. But the big difference now compared to when Social Security was created is the nature of work. The nature of work was much more physical, it was much more labor intensive.
And so when you’re in an information based economy, people can actually work longer and when our worker to retiree ratio is so much more skewed today than it was before. We’ve really got to do something and people from our generation don’t, don’t seem to be caring about that and it’s unfortunate.
ISENBERG: I have a good friend who I think … its always really stuck to me when we talked about this. He says that one of the, you know, greatest victims of the polarization that we’re facing at the Federal level is an inability to recognize that we are passing sweeping legislation on the scale of something like the Affordable Care Act.
In the past, as an example, being Social Security … you could go back and make the incremental changes. It was, you know, policy itself as an experiment. But you can adjust. You can change it. You can make it work, you know, for example … and also adjust when the political realities become available. Social Security one of FDR’s, you know, crowning achievements did a terrible job of covering African Americans in the beginning. And that was a reform that, you know, took place later on.
I think with the Affordable Care Act and why I would disagree a lot with Carrie on its value to young people … you know there are changes that need to be made over time. But when we have a polarized atmosphere of complete absolutism, you know you in … there’s an inability to actually make things work as the continue to evolve. I think that’s an important consideration and a result of why, when we go back to making government work is such an important topic about where it’s going to matter to young people … whether it’s a hot button issue this mid-term election or continuing forward, it’s going to be the case.
But how do you make government able to solve these problems? And I think that question is definitely at the top of young people’s minds because they do believe government should play an active role in solving collective challenges. So it isn’t a matter of big or small, it is a matter of effective, which means it has to be well-resourced to be effective.
HEFFNER: Well and to fuse your two answers, it occurs to me that the nature of work has changed, the nature of voting can potentially change in the future … when we were in college we voted for Student Council President and leadership online. Do we think that in order to translate into actual progress in the Democratic process we have, we need to get voting online. Is that, is that something that’s a realistic target?
SHEFFIELD: I think it makes sense. I mean … it brings up security concerns whether we can make sure that the vote is confidential . But I think it makes … it does make a lot of sense to be heading in that direction.
ISENBERG: I … I would say that it needs to be online … we need to have same day voter registration, we need to have early voting registration … I think, you know, the tech piece is definitely one that speaks to … in its … the … perhaps more sexy version of all the reforms that we need to be speaking to.
But the simple fact is across the board our voting system is out of date. And I think that, you know, online voting is, is an accessibility question. And it can open up a number of doors. But it definitely has to be part of a broader package.
HEFFNER: Right. I mean it’s a question of whether or not voting should be as accessible as tweeting or Facebook messaging or texting. There are potential concerns and pitfalls with that, but at the end of the day don’t we need that same online energy to not evaporate, but to instead facilitate a robust democracy, Carrie. I mean is, is that …
SHEFFIELD: Well, it’s …
HEFFNER: … is that something that …
SHEFFIELD: … that’s interesting.
HEFFNER: … is in sync with you ….
SHEFFIELD: … I mean I … I, on the one hand I, I do want to see more people voting. I would hope they wouldn’t be so casual or cavalier about what they’re doing as they might be for a tweet … because as we know, Twitter is used for a lot of frivolous things (laugh).
But, no … I mean … I, I think would be a good way to sort of, you know, attach the voters to, you know, having a … more of a direct engagement with democracy. Which would be a good thing. I think it is very telling that, you know, we have … you know, I don’t, I don’t know how many … let’s say … you know, Comcast … however many million subscribers Comcast has and yet only several million can sign up for, you know, Healthcare dot gov … it’s just really interesting how the private sector seems to function so much better … and when we move to government … there seems to be a breakdown in terms of the technological piece, so …
HEFFNER: Well, I ask you this question because in that 2010 essay in USA Today, you talk about being a secular, agnostic Conservative …
HEFFNER: … and taking refuge and some of the comments from the non-traditional Conservative today, who used to be the Rockefellers, and the Romneys …the elder Romney … and I just wonder if tweets had dictated that outcome of the Republican primaries in 2008 and 2012 … Ron Paul would have …
HEFFNER: … likely been, been the nomine. What does that say?
SHEFFIELD: Well, it says that his, his voter base is very plugged in … it’s younger, and I think in the primary in 2016 we’re going to see probably … if Rand Paul does end up running, a good portion of his, his voter base going to come directly from his father, so that will be interesting.
HEFFNER: And he, it seems, is creating a national platform building networks in various states …
HEFFNER: … the Democratic Congressional campaign Committee in a recent Washington Post article disclosed that it, Carrie, is, is building a network of … to court the women vote. And to capitalize on what has been the base … and I should bring Taylor Jo into this conversation, too … do you think that those tactics are ultimately useful? I mean beyond just the politics of it … knowing that young women … their backgrounds, their interests, their professional statuses, is that something that our campaign should be knowing about us?
ISENBERG: I would hope so (laugh). I do, I think this and I do want to build off of something that Carrie spoke to … around … you, you see this … this very vibrant movement among young Libertarians right now who are actively using the online space.
I think, you know, it’s an interesting question because I think there are some questions around the diversity of this generation and how that plays out online. You focus on women here, but the other big demographic shift that should be focused on should is people of color and the fact that, you know, over 50% of our births today are people of color and that also it … you know, plays into the question … because they more traditionally vote Democratic. But I think in terms of this, you know, network of, you know, finding and playing and understanding women speaks to their ability to relate to them. Which I think is, of course, extremely important. I was thinking earlier about two examples that I thought were an interesting contrast.
One, I got an email from the DNC recently, a fund raising email … in follow up to the predictions by Nate Silver that, you know, Democrats are going to lose in this mid-term election and they’re saying “Well, Nate Silver also, you know, predicted that Duke was going to win” … you know, the basketball season and I think that, that’s a cultural signal, right? Like recognizing that there … that people have an affinity to sports, right?. But the more recent “Laughing Stock” piece was the, the hipster GOP commercial, right.
So if you don’t know your audience and you’re not up … and, and to say … often … that if your people aren’t a part of your, you know, party or whatever … I think that’s represented in the messenging and the framework. But, you know, that doesn’t fit on the fact that you now have over 50% of young people who are identifying as Independent as well.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I know, I mean I would agree with you, Taylor Jo about the lack of outreach from the Right to people of color. And I think … I mean I’ve talked about this and Brookings did a great blog about what happened at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference …
SHEFFIELD: … that happens every year. And they had a panel on minority outreach and they were basically tumbleweeds going across the room. And then the panel immediately after … people started to spill in because they thought it was ready but it wasn’t done yet and they were ready to crowd the room for a panel with the NRA spokesman. So, it really kind of, for me I was disconcerted about sort of the show of priorities here. And it really doesn’t bode well from a demographic perspective.
HEFFNER: Well, one of the thrills I think young people experienced in 2008 was the idea that they could truly impact history and the course of history. But we’ve seen that the socio-economic status of people of color has not drastically changed under President Obama.
I wonder, with the possible candidacy which seems inevitable to some people, of former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton … is there a sense that a second Clinton Presidency would be different insofar as there would be no defensiveness towards this idea that “Yes, I am a woman. And yes I’m going to advance the cause of women”. And I wonder, Taylor Jo, how your chapters and your students would respond to that idea?
ISENBERG: The … it’s a great question … you know, most of our chapters … I think this is representative of, you know, a larger Millennial base that leans progressive … is it lack of interest in this … in the Federal side of things and in terms of Federal politics. And, you know, we encourage our chapters to think about local engagement because that’s actually where most … policy that directly impacts people day to day life is made.
And so I think that, you know, there’s this back and forth whether Hillary Clinton is or is not going to capture people’s fascination. But, I know our membership which tends to be a little bit more, you know, heavy in the weeds of policy making … are more interested in the ideas and I think there is an element of … “I am a woman, but I also care about these other issues, as well”. And so there is the symbolism, but I think that you should show, you know, how Weber … you know my own political appreciation of Obama’s Presidency or not, that symbolism isn’t everything in terms of how a President of, you know, a certain demographic background is going to, you know, speak to that constituency’s needs.
HEFFNER: Well, why don’t you talk about the local engagement because we were asking this question from a macro perspective …
HEFFNER: … but from a micro perspective what is the equivalent Town Hall today? Does the Town Hall still have the same relevance to young people? Because we talked about virtual engagement meet-ups and then the Dean Machine creative idea of meet-ups …
HEFFNER: … that is Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004. So how has this evolved since 2004?
ISENBERG: A number of ways, you’re aware, for example working very closely with “Ask Them” right now which is a online platform that’s using Twitter to directly connect with politicians. So you can Tweet at … a question at, you know, your representative … and, you know, most of them of, you know, State based or local based … get a certain number of people to sign on to your question and then get it answered. And “Ask Them” helps facilitate that process, helps put the pressure on the politician to answer.
And, for example, one of the questions, most recently was answered by, by Brodlander here in New York and turned into a piece of legislation. So I think that there’s all these interesting new vehicles by which this question of how people are coming together. So, when we speak to the Town Hall, I don’t think the Town Hall is dead, I think it’s changed venues.
HEFFNER: So the Town Hall isn’t obsolete, but Carrie what would you say is revolutionary or can be revolutionary in, in terms of courting young people to engage in the political process?
SHEFFIELD: Well, I think … I mean I think you touched on a lot of sort of the, the technological or the new ways of engaging and I think we’re seeing that across the country. Steve Goldsmith, he’s at the Harvard Kennedy School … he was a former Mayor, he’s written a lot about … in cities … how we see Mayor’s who are, you know, keep partisanship, or party affiliation aside … they’re, they’re relying on data and I think data driven governance is the way of the future.
People are using data … everything from, you know, filling potholes to responsive or predictive analytics of … you know … “If, if this building has x number of characteristics, it’s vacant, it has … you know, whatever inputs you want to put in … it’s likely to have a fire that’s going to happen.” So, you can, in many ways, predict what’s going to happen and allocate resources accordingly. So it’s been really interesting to see an efficient use of resources and as a Conservative, I like that (laugh).
HEFFNER: So how can you use that efficient use of resources and directing it, directing it towards combating gerrymandering? I mean it seems to me that this is the most problematic area of contemporary democracy. And it affects Democrats in California and Republicans in Texas.
You have all of these highly concentrated districts of only one ideology. So how can, how can young people, young women in particular use the networks that exist online and actually, physically to do something about problem?
SHEFFIELD: Well, it’s really interesting … I, I … actually my … well, the question of whether something is gerrymandered or not … that’s, you know, something that the courts decide. And I think it’s interesting to think about just the way our country has become more … or just, just looking at the question of whether we want a society that is more of a melting pot or a mixing bowl. Do we want districts that are homogenous or heterogeneous and you look at the work of Robert Putnam for example, who shows that when societies are more diverse or more suspicious … they become more suspicious of each other and you actually have social capital that breaks down, which, you know, led to the point that maybe we need more of a melting pot society. And I think in some Congressional districts maybe the Representative is actually giving voice to a district that is very cohesive. And I wouldn’t necessarily say that that’s a bad thing or that it’s gerrymandering. I wouldn’t put, you know, some sinister label on it.
HEFFNER: Taylor Jo?
ISENBERG: The Progressive in me, of course, is, is it hates the idea that, you know, that differences lead into decline of social trust, but you know, while, there, there’s definitely, you know, data and research on that … you know, I believe we can aspire to more. But I think that in addition to this question of demographics … when it comes to gerrymandering … is to question incumbents, right? When you don’t have competitive districts, you know, politicians have less sense of having to win, you know, other people over, right? And so I think that, you know, the question around gerrymandering … why isn’t the question … do we have a vibrant active democracy? And does the average citizen, on a regular basis … feel like their vote matters. And I feel like that one of the challenges of the how entrenched … you know, the system has become … is that the average voter doesn’t feel like they have a voice. And, and I think gerrymandering does play a part … one of many … but it does play in that.
SHEFFIELD: Well, I think the issue of incumbents getting an unfair bias could be addressed by looking at term limits, I think that’s something that people on both sides …
HEFFNER: That could also potentially counteract gerrymandering …
SHEFFIELD: Yes. HmmMmm.
HEFFNER: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there, but thank you both so much for joining us today on The Open Mind.
ISENBERG: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time.
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