Daniel Scioli, the hand-picked successor to President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, portrays himself as the candidate of continuity, promising to maintain the achievements in economic and social policy credited to Kirchner and her predecessor and late husband, Néstor Kirchner.
Meanwhile, Mauricio Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires, calls himself the candidate of change; he even named the alliance of parties supporting him “Let’s Change.”
Since Macri’s surprisingly strong showing in the first-round election on Oct. 25, politicians and pundits in Argentina have talked incessantly about one question: Will Argentine voters opt for continuity or change?
But in some crucial ways, that decision has already been made.
On Oct. 25, Argentines elected a new Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress. Some seats changed hands; Scioli’s party lost 26 seats, and Macri’s gained 21. And of the 257 seats in the chamber, 130 will be held by new deputies. What does this new Chamber of Deputies look like? What kinds of people will set national policy in Argentina for the next two years?
Like the previous Chamber, the new one will be overwhelmingly affluent. As Figure 1 shows, only nine percent of deputies in the new Chamber will come from working-class backgrounds. In a country where roughly 70 percent of voters work in manual labor or service industry jobs – as construction workers, day laborers, or maids – 91 percent of the newly elected deputies are white-collar professionals – lawyers, engineers, doctors and business people.
And 100 percent of the contenders for the presidency are affluent, too. Scioli is a successful and wealthy athlete turned entrepreneur. Macri, born into a family fortune, is a millionaire businessman and the former manager of one of Buenos Aires’s biggest soccer teams.
No matter what happens on Sunday, Argentina will continue to be governed by the rich.
Does it matter that so few of Argentina’s deputies are workers? We often assume that it doesn’t – that regardless of their backgrounds or personal preferences politicians respond to pressure from public opinion, interest groups and their party leaders. And they do.
In Argentina, Zach Warner and I studied a unique survey that was put to Argentine voters and to a sample of Argentine politicians. Using these data, we looked at the degree to which voters and politicians held similar opinions on a range of policy issues; that is, we measured the degree of what political scientists call congruence between voters and their elected representatives.
Crucially, we also disaggregated mass opinions between poor and rich voters. What we found is disheartening: Argentine politicians’ attitudes are consistently closer to the views of wealthy voters.
Of course, these are just the views politicians express in a survey. When it comes to making policy, legislators face a wide range of external pressures that mute the influence of their own views: parties, constituents, interest groups, social movements and so on. Even so, Nick Carnes and I find that these personal views shape the policy agenda.
When we looked closely at one legislative session in Argentina, we found that legislators from the working class tend to introduce substantially more progressive economic bills. In a typical legislative session, the shortage of Argentine legislators from the working class translates into roughly 50 fewer progressive bills being introduced.
It is impossible to know exactly how these missing bills might have affected economic policies, but we do know that the policy agenda would have looked more progressive.
It turns out that having so few working-class people in public office skews policy toward the preferences of the rich. The fact that legislators come disproportionately from affluent backgrounds biases the economic agenda.
None of this is unique to Argentina. Governments all over the world are disproportionately run by rich politicians. Across Latin America, only 10 percent of national legislators come from working-class backgrounds, even though 80 percent of the electorate hold working-class jobs. This phenomenon is also not new.
Argentina’s deputies have probably always been far more affluent than the people they represent. At least since the early 2000s, the proportion of working-class deputies has hovered in the single digits.
Sunday’s vote may have some important consequences for Argentine politics. In some ways, Scioli and Macri offer different policy options. But no matter who wins the presidency, Argentina will still be governed by people wildly more affluent than the voters who elected them. And that has real consequences for who wins and who loses in democratic politics. On that score, continuity has already prevailed.