Congress doesn’t have to be a Millionaires’ Club

January 8, 2014
(CAROL PORTER FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
(CAROL PORTER FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

This is a guest post from Duke political scientist Nicholas Carnes.

In the mid-1990s, the New Jersey AFL-CIO was facing an uphill battle. Business interests had started pumping huge sums of money into increasingly sophisticated lobbying organizations. Local unions couldn’t keep up with the rising tide of corporate political spending in the Garden State.

So the New Jersey AFL-CIO decided to try a different approach. What if instead of simply trying to make the voices of workers louder in state politics, the union also started trying to make workers the ones doing the listening? The Federation continued lobbying lawmakers and encouraging workers to vote, but it also began exploring ways to get workers elected to state and local government. In 1997, the New Jersey Labor Candidates School opened its doors.

In a previous post, I highlighted the fact that working-class Americans almost never hold office in the United States, and I summarized some of the findings in my new book on the effects of government by the rich, White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making. The book shows that lawmakers from different classes bring different perspectives with them: how they think, how they vote, and the kinds of bills they introduce often depend on the classes they came from. The shortage of lawmakers from the working class tilts decisions about the distribution of economic resources, protections, and burdens in favor of the more conservative policies that affluent Americans tend to prefer. Social safety net programs are stingier, business regulations are flimsier, and the tax code is more regressive because working-class Americans are all but absent from our political institutions.

But can we do anything about it?

There have always been people who have argued that white-collar government is inevitable in the United States. Most have cited one of two common objections. Some have argued that government by the rich is what Americans want. This is a democracy, after all, and if we’re governed by affluent politicians, it could be because voters want the rich to run the country. Others have argued that government by the rich is what Americans need, that working-class people don’t have the skills or qualifications to govern.

In White-Collar Government, I show that there isn’t much evidence to support either of these views.

For their part, voters don’t seem to exhibit any particular preference for affluent politicians. The figure below plots the margins of victory of members of the 106th through 110th Congresses (1999 to 2008) against how much of their pre-congressional careers they spent in manual labor or service industry jobs. At the polls, members who had lots of experience doing blue-collar work tended to do just as well as other legislators.


Survey experiments comparing hypothetical candidates from different classes reach the same conclusions. In a groundbreaking series of studies, Meredith Sadin finds that people randomly assigned to evaluate a hypothetical candidate from the working class are just as likely to say they would vote for him as people randomly assigned to evaluate an otherwise identical hypothetical candidate from an elite professional background. Voters don’t seem to prefer more affluent candidates—they seem to like working-class candidates just fine.

They just don’t get the opportunity to vote for them very often. In 2012, I worked with Melody Crowder-Meyer, David Broockman, and Christopher Skovron on a national survey of the 10,000 people who were running for state legislatures at that time. Of the 2,000 who completed our survey, only about 3 percent were employed in working-class jobs—about the same as the percentage who went on to win office that year. Working-class Americans aren’t underrepresented in public office because voters send them packing—they’re underrepresented because they aren’t on our ballots in the first place.

Of course, that could be because there aren’t many blue-collar workers out there who would make good candidates. As I show in White-Collar Government, however, the available evidence actually points in the opposite direction. In national surveys, there are about as many working-class Americans with the personal traits we want in our leaders as there are white-collar professionals with those traits (e.g., knowledge about public affairs, confidence that the political process can be used to achieve real change, tolerance of opposing viewpoints). Workers aren’t underrepresented on our ballots because voters dislike them or because they’re unqualified; their absence probably has more to do with factors like the high cost of running a campaign, the practical burdens associated with running for office, and the gatekeeping decisions made by party leaders and interest groups.

In short, the underrepresentation of the working class isn’t a necessary evil. It isn’t an expression of the popular will. It isn’t an unavoidable result of differences in political qualifications. If people who care about political inequality put their minds to it, they can do something about it.

Some have already started. Since it was founded in 1997, the New Jersey Labor Candidate School has helped identify, recruit, and train hundreds of working-class citizens. The program’s graduates have a 75 percent win rate and have won almost 800 elections for offices ranging from school boards to the state legislature. Similar labor candidate schools are now in the works in California, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, New York and Oregon.

Programs like these are small compared to the entire landscape of American politics, but they represent a promising start. In 1945, the House and the Senate were each 98 percent men. In the decades that followed, party leaders and interest groups began deliberately recruiting female candidates. Progress has been slow, but today women make up 18 percent of Congress. Once gatekeepers and people with resources got serious about supporting female candidates, it quickly became apparent that Congress didn’t have to be an Old Boys’ Club.

It doesn’t have to be a Millionaires’ Club, either. The obstacles keeping working-class Americans out of office are far from insurmountable. If we want government that’s truly for the people, we’re going to work toward government that’s truly by the people. But that may be as simple as giving working-class candidates a helping hand.

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