A Representative Government
Donald Trump’s cabinet, excluding him, of 23 people in July 2019 had a net worth of US$3.2 billion.1 Each cabinet member had an average net worth of more US$139 million and if we included Trump’s own net worth, that number would almost double. In contrast, Obama’s first cabinet had a total net worth of a measly US$67 million, not even half the economic worth of the average Trump cabinet member.2
Hats off to Trump & Co, because in a narrow sense, they’ve done extraordinarily well. There’s a lot more to life than wealth generation but at least let’s recognise that wealth is important and, in this sense, Trump and his cabinet are outstandingly successful.
They may not be great physicians, painters or social welfare workers – each of which is cause for celebration. But the cabinet is spectacular at making money.
An essential aspect to our democracy is that our government should be representative, it should, to refer to the French origins of ‘represents’, embody the people that it serves. This is not just some random tradition but has several important purposes to it.
An obvious one is that we, the people, want our government to see broadly the same world that we do; to not just intellectually understand through PowerPoint presentations and excel files our problems and ambitions, but to have visceral, living knowledge of our reality.
If we take an extreme example to illustrate this point, any government that goes about solving women’s social problems – while excluding women from government, from the process of understanding and solving the problems, is going to struggle. They may not even get that neither ‘women’ nor ‘women’s social problems’ are homogenous.
Likewise, any government that goes about tackling racism without including in its own ranks ethno-racial minorities to make sense of racism and present solutions, is again, going to struggle. There are different types of ethno-racism affecting different communities.
Both examples help surface a second important value of representation, that it enables legitimacy. In our first example, the government is vulnerable to accusations of gender bias, even misogyny while in the second example it’s just as vulnerable to accusations of racism. In the eyes of both the female and ethno-racial minority populations, the government will have lost legitimacy. For that matter, it could lose legitimacy with the broader population too.
And then the final reason why we want representative which is that it emotionally connects us citizens to those who are governing. Somebody from our identity, from our community is involved in government and specifically in tackling the task at hand. It gives citizens reassurance and connection, without which that same government begins to feel alien.
The median net worth of American households, which consists of 3.1 people, is US$97,300.3 The average net worth of an American is less than US$31,000, a stark contrast to the US$139 million average net worth of the cabinet, by a factor of 4,485.
This is a cabinet, as few before it, that struggles to understand the economic universe, with all of its limits, aspirations and challenges of America’s lower and middle classes. The people neither chose the president (remember, more voted for Hillary) nor the cabinet. We need to be aware for now that if we’re expecting Trump’s team to have a primal awareness of the economic reality of the vast majority of Americans, including the 46 million living in poverty, we may as well expect pigs to fly.