There’s something different about the new U.S. Senate. For what appears to be the first time ever, lawyers are in the minority in the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” In the House of Representatives, where they fell into the minority in the late 1970s, lawyers are now down to just a third of the total.
These numbers, part of the Vital Statistics on Congress database updated this week by the Brookings Institution, only go back to 1953. But Stanford University political scientist Adam Bonica has assembled data back to 1789 indicating that the Senate has until now always had lawyer majorities. In the 1800s, both the House and Senate were often more than 75 percent lawyers. The decline in lawyer-legislators, which has also been occurring in state capitals, thus marks a big change in how politics is done in this country.
Now of course lawyers are going to write law review articles saying that the decline in lawyers’ political clout is a bad thing. But a 2016 paper written by political scientists Bonica and Maya Sen of Harvard together with political scientist/lawyer Adam Chilton of the University of Chicago Law School does offer some quantitative backup for the idea that lawyers are different, and perhaps better equipped to bridge political divides, than legislators with backgrounds in other fields. Of seven groups of well-educated professionals whose political contributions they tracked in the Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections, lawyers had by far the most evenly distributed political leanings. That is, they skewed leftward overall, but there was also a big concentration around the spot on the political spectrum occupied by Mitt Romney, and significant numbers at every part of the spectrum other than the far right and far left. (The least evenly distributed political leanings were found at technology firms, at newspapers and magazines, and in academia, all of which had a strong leftward skew and pretty much nobody in the middle.)
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