On November 7th, in a 234-188 vote, the United States House of Representatives voted to censure Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib following Tlaib’s comments on the Israel-Hamas war. Twenty-two Democrats joined two hundred twelve Republicans to formally express their disapproval of Tlaib’s rhetoric surrounding the war. For many years, Tlaib has been very vocally critical of the Israeli government, thus facing substantial criticism herself, but never in her career has she faced such intense scrutiny by the United States Congress. It is important to note that while censorship does not amount to expulsion and has few substantial effects on the stability of Tlaib’s position in Congress, it is still a serious action that is intended to formally punish and potentially stifle her expression.
When justifying the censure resolution, Republican Congressman Rich McCormick of Georgia claimed Tlaib’s rhetoric surrounding the Israel-Hamas war to be antisemitic in nature. He claimed that Tlaib has “levied unbelievable falsehoods about our greatest ally, Israel, and the attack on October 7.” Tlaib’s promotion of the phrase “from the river to the sea” was also specifically cited and debated in the resolution, with Democrat Brad Schneider claiming the phrase to call for widespread, anti-Jewish violence. While such violence is undoubtedly unacceptable and must be condemned, Tlaib maintains that “her criticism of Israel has always been directed toward its government and its leadership.”
Tlaib, representative of Michigan’s 12th congressional district, is the only Palestinian American in the United States Congress. Therefore, not only does she act as a voice for many Palestinian Americans, but she also acts as a voice for many Arab Americans, as the state of Michigan is home to the second-largest Arab population in the country. Tlaib’s position in Congress is thus vital to the House of Representatives even beginning to be truly representative of the American people.
One of the founding principles of democracy is representation, and adequate representation often gives way to inclusion, or the creation of a political society in which the perspectives of all citizens are recognized and valued. When Congress voted to censure the only Palestinian-American in the House, it effectively excluded every Palestinian American, Arab American, and American in general who stands with the Palestinian people. There can be no “rule of the people” when the voices of an entire population are unfairly excluded from civil society. This therefore represents a dangerous erosion of the principles of American democracy.
In chapter twenty-one of his work Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, political scientist Joseph Schumpeter argues that in order for democracy to function, the management of public affairs must “be entrusted to specialists” who have special attitudes and techniques that enable them to carry out the will of the people. Schumpeter claims that a committee of these “specialists” must be popularly elected by individual citizens, with the responsibility of those elected being to “voice, reflect, or represent the will of the electorate.” American congresspeople act as these “specialists,” offering formal and legitimate voices to those who may lack the authority, expertise, or time to actually engage in policymaking. This model of democracy is not only more efficient for decision-making, especially in communities with many voters, but it also promotes inclusion, allowing for the valuing of diverse voices in the decision-making process.
In order for democracy to truly function in the United States specifically, elected representatives, or “specialists,” must also “voice, reflect, or represent the will of the electorate.” Congresspeople such as Tlaib must be able to freely express the varied perspectives of their constituents without fear of retaliation from colleagues. There must be a diverse body of voices that are equally valued in decision-making processes. When the voice of a congressperson such as Tlaib is condemned, so too are the voices of her constituents. This dangerously undermines the principles of “the rule of the people,” sending a worrying message that the voices of certain people are not welcome in civil society.
Many may argue that certain voices, such as those that are violent or hateful, are not, in fact, welcome in civil society, and this is undeniably true. It is absolutely necessary to reject violent and hateful ideologies in order to protect human rights and to maintain inclusivity in political society. Tlaib has proven to reject these ideologies, claiming the phrase “from the river to the sea” to be “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction or hate.”
The censuring of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib represents a dangerous erosion of democratic ideals in the United States. American democracy is built upon foundations of representation and inclusion, and the stifling of the only formal representation for Palestinian Americans in Congress violates these foundations. By censuring Rashida Tlaib, Congress has made it clear that Tlaib is not welcome to truly be representative of her constituents. This action has therefore cast doubt on the stability of the principles of representation and inclusivity in American democracy.