The critically acclaimed play, Wicked, offers a reminder that broadly presented narratives are generally too readily accepted, despite the fact that they’re often created to sell a specific agenda on behalf of the person or interest group telling the story. The longer that narrative is unchallenged, the more difficult it is to reframe, even when it’s vital to do so.
Serving as the prequel to the Wizard of Oz, but released decades later, Wicked is about the difficult upbringing of the witch of the West, who in her later years becomes “malevolent”—or the stereotypically ghoulish character whom audiences have been programmed to hate.
As a child, she was bullied for things outside of her control. The “good witch” of the North, as she was portrayed in Oz, was nothing of the kind—in fact, she was responsible for tormenting her “wicked” counterpart. Despite earnest attempts to be part of the “in crowd,” the witch of the West was snubbed as inferior and rejected.
Of course, Oz is a fictional place. But to many Americans, Washington, DC — our country’s capital city — has increasingly felt out of reach, and even worlds away from their own life experiences. Why is that? And how often do similar social dynamics from the fictional story of Oz inform political judgments in today’s Washington? Not surprisingly, quite often.
But let’s not mince words. We’re talking about bias. Bias in American politics is largely determined by race, sex, religion, and of course, political affiliation. It is also based on class. Specifically, members of Congress who run for election, win, and represent districts populated by lower income, less educated, and less healthy constituents, are often deemed by each party and the apparatus that supports and analyzes Congress to be “extreme.” Which really just encapsulates the range of social dissonance assumed by elite cohorts in Washington (note: by “elite,” we mean Washington’s academic, media, and lobbying establishment).
Meanwhile, members of Congress from wealthier districts earn adoration and support from political elites. They are dubbed as more serious, thoughtful, and “moderate,” titles that signal to important people that one possesses a perspicacious temperament worthy of respect. In short, the “moderates” have just the right mix of education, viewpoints, and socio-economic background.
So how does this confluence of people manifest itself in Congress? The elite recoil and reject the more extreme members of Congress. The elites discount the decision of voters to send their representative to Washington. Because these members of Congress do not talk, look, or even dress like the elite, their proposals to represent their community have little merit to the “in crowd.”
Such bias was long quietly assumed rather than spoken. But with the advent of social media, and transformative social and political changes over the last two decades, it’s now out in the open. We know it’s true because we see it every day.
But from the perspective of social science, it’s been difficult to quantify. So we embarked on a novel approach: we decided to examine the Congressional caucuses, formed over time to address political, social, and economic issues of interest to specific groups of members of Congress. To our minds, these groupings helpfully illustrate, in microcosm, the political and intellectual biases now so prevalent in Washington.
Here’s a look at our methodology: We examined the major caucuses (six Democratic, four Republican, and two bipartisan) that help shape the agenda in Washington. We first ordered them according to the socioeconomic status of their communities. Then we cross-referenced their power, measured by seniority, with fundraising and political contributions.
Here’s the kicker, which to most observers is probably intuitive, but here, in our analysis, is supported by empirical data: “moderate” members raise more PAC contributions (which are controlled by government affairs professionals) than members who belong to more partisan, and, as some would have it, “extreme,” caucuses. This is the case even with members who have more experience and influence—for instance, if they are committee chairmen—than their less experienced, “moderate” counterparts.
Generally speaking, poorer, majority-white districts elect Republicans while poorer, black, and diverse districts elect Democrats. These are the “safe” seats in each party – meaning it’s extremely difficult for the opposing party to win. “Swing districts,” which are diminishing in number, are dominated by wealthier “centrist” voters. Over 60% of toss-up districts are represented by members of the wealthiest caucuses: the Problem Solvers, the New Dem Coalition, and the Tuesday Group. Meanwhile, the more partisan caucuses are populated by the poorest districts.
The chart below orders the congressional caucuses we reviewed by average median income to highlight economic disparities.
Similarly, the Congressional District Health Dashboard shows that the less healthy communities are heavily represented by members in more partisan caucuses, while the healthier ones are dominated by moderate and bipartisan affiliation.
The national poverty rate for children in 2021 was 16.9%. The Problem Solvers and Tuesday Group have averages of children in poverty at around 13.8% and 13.7%. In contrast, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) average is 21.3%, Republican Study Committee (RSC) is 16.2%, and the Anti-Woke Caucus is 16.5%.
In short, the poorer the district, the less healthy it is. Not surprising, then, that these constituents, and the members who represent them, often strike notes discordant to elite sensibilities. You won’t find them talking about “bridging the partisan divide,” or taking stances that “reflect the values and priorities of most Americans” — platitudes common to members from wealthier districts and bipartisan caucuses. For those from more partisan caucuses, it’s more likely that their constituents, rather than luxuriating in easy, high-minded discussion, are just trying to reach an equal quality of life.
Cross-referencing the socioeconomic backdrop of the caucuses with the levers of power in the Capitol tells an even more interesting story. While the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) represents the poorest and least healthy constituents, it’s members have the second longest tenure in Congress, with each serving an average six terms in Congress. Only the Blue Dogs (a much smaller caucus of only nine members) has a higher average term in office. Meanwhile, the bipartisan and moderate caucuses that represent wealthier, healthier districts have between two to three fewer average terms in office.
In a world free of bias, attention and support would flow to the most senior and influential members of Congress. After all, lobbyists and communications experts are hired to inform and influence Congress. But that’s not what happens.
Three of the caucuses with the highest average PAC dollars – which are largely controlled by lobbyists, or groups of influential individuals who determine how to use a corporations’ or wealthy donors’ money– are the less tenured, bipartisan or moderate identifying groups: the Civility & Respect Caucus, the Problem Solvers, the New Dem Coalition, and the Tuesday Group. Although the CBC has one of the highest seniority averages, its members do not receive nearly as many PAC dollars as the Blue Dog Coalition or its other more bipartisan counterparts.
Similarly, conservative-aligned caucuses that share very similar socioeconomic conditions as the CBC, such as the Freedom Caucus and the Anti-Woke Caucus, also have among the lowest PAC contributions.
Together, the CBC rescued the 2020 presidential campaign of Joe Biden while the Freedom Caucus continues to dominate the Republican conference in the House of Representatives. A heady bunch, you might say, or to the average American observing the comings and goings in the halls of power. But not according to Washington’s political elite.
In a democracy, such biases, while powerful, aren’t dictatorial. From time to time they are challenged, and successfully so, leaving the elite class frustrated and even more confused about their country than they normally tend to be.
The Congressional Black Caucus (the poorest in Congress) is the most influential voting bloc in the Democratic Caucus. The Freedom Caucus (one of the poorest in Congress) has arguably equal power in the Republican Conference. And Washington’s elite, for all its self-imputed wisdom, should take note. Feelings can be a powerful driver of our politics today, but humility and a little hard data can offer a better path for our representative democracy.
See generally U.S. Census, Annual Household Income Data (2023) https://www.census.gov/mycd/
(each caucus was separated and annual household income data was collected from each individual members district within the caucus, each caucus members totals were summed and then averaged).
See generally NYU Langone Health, The Congressional District Health Dashboard (2023), https://www.congressionaldistricthealthdashboard.org/about
(each caucus was separated, health and poverty data was compiled by member district for each caucus, summed and averaged by caucus)
PAC Data from Open Secrets, Fundraising Totals: Who Raised the Most? (Accessed in 2023)
(each individual member was accessed and recorded for the 2021-2022 cycle, totals were summed and averaged by caucus affiliation).
See generally U.S. Census, Annual Household Income Data (2023)
https://www.census.gov/mycd/ (data from household income for all 435 districts was put into ascending order from highest to lowest, percent calculated from top 100 and bottom 100).
Caucus Averages: https://eig.org/economic-wellbeing-of-congressional-districts/
Life Expectancy https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.LE00.IN
See generally U.S. Census Bureau 2021 American Community Survey 1-year estimates https://www.census.gov/mycd/