Millionaires run our government. Here’s why that matters.

(20th Century Fox)
(20th Century Fox)

This is a guest post by Duke University political scientist Nicholas Carnes.

If millionaires in the United States formed their own political party, that party would make up just 3 percent of the country, but it would have a majority in the House of Representatives, a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate, a 5 to 4 majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House. If working-class Americans — people with manual-labor and service-industry jobs — were a political party, that party would have made up more than half of the country since the start of the 20th century, but its legislators (those who last worked in blue-collar jobs before getting into politics) would never have held more than 2 percent of the seats in Congress.

The economic gulf between ordinary Americans and the people who represent them in the halls of power raises serious questions about our democratic process. Should we care that so many politicians are drawn from the top economic strata and so few come from the working class? Do lawmakers from different classes actually behave differently in office? In my new book, White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making, I explore how the virtual absence of an entire class of people from our political institutions affects economic policy.

Political observers in the United States have always worried about the effects of government by the rich. During the Founding, Anti-Federalists warned that the Constitution would create a government of wealthy merchants that would “consist . . . of men who will have no congenial feelings with the people, but a perfect indifference for, and contempt of them.” Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton countered that although the Constitution might produce a white-collar government, the effects would be small because different classes of Americans would have the same basic views about economic policy. We all want growth, so what’s the harm in letting the upper class call the shots?

White-Collar Government is the first book to bring hard evidence to bear on this long-standing debate. In it, I’ve compiled every available source of data on how legislators from different occupational or social-class backgrounds think and behave in office.

What I found is squarely at odds with the rosy notion that class doesn’t matter in our political institutions. Pollsters have known for decades that Americans from different classes have different views about economic issues, that working-class Americans tend to be more progressive and that the wealthy tend to want government to play a smaller role in economic affairs. White-Collar Government shows that politicians are no exception.

When I examined data on roll-call voting in Congress, for instance, I found clear differences between legislators from the working class and those from white-collar backgrounds. The graphic below plots the average scores that members of the 106th through 110th Congresses (1999 to 2008) received on the Chamber of Commerce’s annual Legislative Report Card. Like ordinary Americans, legislators who worked primarily in white-collar jobs before getting elected to Congress — especially profit-oriented jobs in the private sector — tend to vote with business interests far more often than legislators who worked primarily in blue-collar jobs.

 


I found similar patterns when I examined other measures of how lawmakers behave: voting scores computed by the AFL-CIO, DW-NOMINATE scores (the vote-based ideology measures often used by legislative scholars), data on the kinds of bills lawmakers introduce, surveys of lawmakers’ personal views about economic issues, and aggregate-level data on the economic policies that state and city legislatures enact. At every level of government, in every time period and in every stage of the legislative process, the shortage of lawmakers from the working class tilts economic policy in favor of the conservative outcomes that more affluent Americans prefer.

Of course, class isn’t everything in our legislatures. The differences between lawmakers from different social classes are smaller once we account for other variables, like their parties and the views of their constituents. But even after controlling for these factors using a variety of statistical techniques, there are still significant differences between politicians from different classes. Legislators’ hands are often tied by party leaders, voters, interest groups and so on. But sometimes lawmakers base their choices on their own opinions about the issues before them, and in those instances, it matters whether we’re governed by former investment bankers or former blue-collar workers.

The consequences for economic policy are often enormous. In White-Collar Government, I simulated how Congress would have voted on several high-profile economic reforms if it had had the same social class makeup as the country as a whole. Several major conservative economic victories — including the regressive 2001 Bush tax cuts (which didn’t receive a single vote from a legislator with significant experience in working-class jobs) — probably wouldn’t have passed if Congress had been made up of the same mix of classes as the nation it represents.

Likewise, across states and cities, when working-class Americans are absent from our legislatures, tax policies are more favorable to businesses, social safety net programs are stingier, protections for workers are weaker, and economic inequality is significantly worse.

Government by the upper class promotes government for the upper class — and makes life harder for the classes of Americans who can least afford it.

Then again, government by the rich may be what the American people want. If working-class Americans are running for office and losing — or if there aren’t any qualified working-class candidates out there — the Millionaires Party might be our only option. In a second post, I’ll discuss the prospects for reform.

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Andrew Gelman · January 7, 2014