Elections are supposed to give people choices. When it comes to the economic backgrounds of politicians, however, voters rarely have any option but to cast their votes for someone vastly better off than the average citizen.
The recent presidential race was no exception: A fabulously rich businessman squared off against a wealthy career politician. Regardless of who won on Nov. 22, the incoming president would have been from an economic stratum that most citizens can only dream of.
And, no, we didn’t get the date wrong. We’re talking about Argentina, where Mauricio Macri won a presidential runoff Nov. 22, 2015.
One of the most striking constants across electoral democracies around the world is the tendency to elect leaders who are vastly better off than the citizens they represent. In both developing and advanced democracies, politicians tend to be far wealthier, more educated and more likely to come from white-collar jobs than the citizens who elect them.
Here in the United States, working-class citizens — people employed in manual labor, service industry, clerical, or informal sector jobs — make up more than half of the labor force. And yet the typical member of Congress spent less than 2 percent of his or her pre-congressional career in working-class jobs.
Across Latin American democracies, workers make up 60 percent to 90 percent of the general public, but lawmakers from those occupations make up just 5 percent to 25 percent of national legislatures. In Europe, blue-collar workers make up large proportions of the electorate but rarely have made up more than 10 percent of national legislatures.
These inequalities in who governs seem to have huge consequences for policy. Just as the shortage of women or racial and ethnic minorities in office can affect policy outcomes on issues related to gender and race, the shortage of lower-income and working-class politicians — who tend to be more leftist on economic issues in most countries — appears to bias policy on issues, such as wage supports, taxation and social welfare toward the more conservative positions typically favored by affluent citizens.
Why, then, are politicians so often drawn from the top strata of society? One idea that often surfaces around election time is that government by the rich must simply be the will of the people. When “voters . . . elect wealthy politicos,” as one CNN contributor wrote, it’s because they “want a mix of personality and power, but only if they come with a pedigree and bank account to match.” In political systems where voters are free to choose just about anyone to hold office, if affluent people are numerically overrepresented in public office, isn’t that just an expression of what the voters want?
Here’s how we studied this
We recently put this idea to the test in studies published this month in the American Political Science Review. Up front, we had reservations about the notion that voters prefer privileged politicians. Lots of other social and political forces could be behind the global phenomenon of government by the rich — elite recruitment, social class gaps in qualifications, differences in political ambition and so on.
And there are lots of reasons to doubt that voters really prefer to elect the wealthy. After all, candidates often try to play down their privileged economic circumstances. Think of Mitt Romney talking about how he used an ironing board for a dining table.
To see whether voters are really behind the global phenomenon of government by the rich, in 2014 and 2015 we conducted survey experiments in the United States, Britain and Argentina. In all three countries — as in most democracies — working-class people seldom become politicians.
In most other ways, however, these three countries differ significantly. Their democratic systems run the gamut from old to new, presidential to parliamentary, majoritarian to proportional, and two-party to multiparty.
In our experiments, we showed voters in each country short vignettes about two hypothetical candidates, then asked which one they would be more likely to vote for (along with a few follow-up questions, including which candidate they thought was more competent, more likely to understand the voter’s concerns and more ideologically leftist).
Unbeknown to the voters taking the survey, each candidate’s personal characteristics were generated at random. That included occupation (blue-collar worker or business owner), gender, education level, race and political experience.
We found no evidence that voters prefer wealthy politicians
Like studies of actual elections, these experiments didn’t find a shred of evidence that voters prefer more affluent politicians. The figure below shows the effect of occupation and other variables on the share of votes each candidate received. If anything, working-class candidates were slightly more popular than business owners.
We did, however, find significant differences in some views. Voters viewed working-class candidates as slightly less competent, but also slightly more likely to understand the problems facing people like themselves.
In the end, the two seemed to cancel out: The average citizen was just as likely to say they would vote for a candidate regardless of whether the candidate was a blue-collar worker or a white-collar professional.
If voters don’t care, then something else is keeping non-wealthy people from winning office
Simply put, voters in the United States, the United Kingdom and Argentina seem to like working-class candidates just fine. Whatever barrier is keeping working-class people out of office is happening long before Election Day.
By the time most voters get to the polls — whether in the United States, Argentina or most other democracies — their only options are affluent candidates. That’s a far cry from a popular mandate.
Nicholas Carnes is assistant professor of public policy and political science at Duke University and the author of “White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class Econimic Policymaking” (University of Chicago Press, 2013).
Noam Lupu is associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and the author of “Party Brands in Crisis: Partisanship, Brand Dilution, and the Breakdown of Political Parties in Latin America” (Cambridge University Press, 2016).