The people of Washington, D.C., want congressional representation. They have wanted it for a long time, and have said so in explicit terms. In 2016, a district-wide referendum in favor of statehood passed with 78 percent of the vote. Because these voters have no congressional representation, lawmakers have little incentive to heed them — and indeed, most of them haven’t. D.C. still isn’t a state, its residents still have no voting representation in Congress, and only recently has it looked like anything will change.
After federal police brutally repressed protests in the district, statehood for D.C. inched its way into plausibility. The House passed a statehood bill mostly along party lines. Senate Democrats held a hearing on statehood on Wednesday. But in the Senate, Republicans remain an obstacle.
“You get outside the Beltway and the craziness here of Washington, D.C., the American people agree with us,” Senator Steve Daines of Montana said on Wednesday. “Sometimes I think it’s important for senators and congressmen, in fact, most of the time, get out of this city and go out to where the real people are at across the country and ask them what they think.” Daines did not explain how he distinguishes “real people” from the fake kind, which is unfortunate. The answer would be illuminating. But curious minds can consider similar rhetoric from other Senate Republicans, and arrive at a possible explanation.
Take Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who claimed the push for statehood was not really “about enfranchising people.” It is a nefarious plot with one goal, he added, and that was to pass a “radical” Democratic agenda. On Twitter, the senator elaborated:
Days earlier, Tom Cotton took to the floor of the Senate to explain exactly why the 700,000 people who live in Washington, D.C., do not deserve congressional representation. “Wyoming is smaller than Washington by population, but it has three times as many workers in mining, logging, and construction, and ten times as many workers in manufacturing,” the senator observed. “In other words, Wyoming is a well-rounded working-class state. A new state of Washington would not be.” A fascinating distinction to be certain. Credit Cotton for this much: Wyoming and Washington, D.C., are in fact different places. The district has no logging industry to speak of, nor can it boast of any mines.
But D.C. does have a working class. The people who serve Tom Cotton in the Senate dining room belong to it. So do the staff who scrub the Senate’s toilets, who sling beers for rowdy Hill staffers, and who power the city’s restaurant scene. Anyone who’s ever had brunch at Le Diplomate ought to thank the working class for the privilege. The lobbyists and attorneys and pundits who make up the city’s one percent are just that: the one percent. They are a fraction, a way for politicians to paper over unpalatable truths.
D.C., after all, differs from Wyoming in at least one other fashion. The nation’s capital is 46 percent Black. Wyoming is 92 percent white. If the district’s working class is invisible to Cotton, or at least less visible to him than Wyoming’s mostly white population, it’s worth asking why. If the residents of D.C. are something other than real people, Daines should have to explain what makes them fictive. The idea that people can be at once less than human and a threat has a long racial history in America. Republicans in the Senate will hide behind polling to deny this; they will insist, as Daines tried, that public opinion supports them.
In Maryland, at least, that’s not true. Residents of that D.C. border state favor statehood for the district, the Washington Post reported last year. Elsewhere, Senate Republicans have half a point. Nationwide polls show little support for D.C.’s statehood. So what? Public opinion is certainly one reason to deny someone the full franchise, but the history of that argument is ugly, too. To avoid that history, Republicans once again perform sleight of hand. It’s easier to blame K Street under control, and say you want to keep it under control, than it is to admit the obvious. The enfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Black voters endangers a party that wins on white grievance. In an era of protest, some realities are harder to hide.