When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declared last November that she didn’t have enough cash on hand to afford an apartment in Washington, her critics howled. Her communications director soon revealed that she had less than $7,000 in savings, provoking further scrutiny of the new progressive star.
Most revelatory about the firestorm over Ocasio-Cortez’s net worth was how few people expected someone to run for office with a savings account that wasn’t flush with tens of thousands of dollars. Members of the working class are rare among those seeking office. When they do run, they encounter challenges unlike those confronted by more conventional candidates. Unless we do more to get working-class people into power, policies in Washington and elsewhere will remain slanted against them.
Consider the example of Taylor Sappington, a 27-year-old waiter and town councilman in Ohio who ran against a much more prosperous Republican state representative last year. Since he was young and clearly lacked the fundraising network to compete with a Republican who had amassed more than $430,000 since 2016, Sappington, a pro-labor progressive, was mostly spurned by the sort of local party machines and national progressive groups who help elevate candidates. Even after Barack Obama endorsed him, along with 80 other candidates across America, institutional support was slow to build.
The night before the election, when candidates are typically focused on phone-banking or campaign stops to rally the base, Sappington was at Texas Roadhouse, the restaurant where he works, for a staff meeting. The next night, he lost 58 percent to 42 percent.
When I ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in New York City, I saw these difficulties firsthand, and I was luckier than Sappington. I’m a journalist and novelist who had enough of a network to allow me to raise more than $100,000 for a primary. I wasn’t waiting tables. Still, my social stratum wasn’t filled with white-shoe lawyers and lobbyists who could easily cut four-figure checks.
Had I not traveled in media and political circles beforehand, my road would have been tougher. Unless you have the rare campaign that can galvanize an online following — most local candidates can’t — your fundraising is only as strong as the people who inhabit your economic milieu. It’s why so many well-heeled attorneys, consultants, businesspeople and executives seek office, especially Congress.
This is the reality of American politics today: We are governed chiefly by wealthy people. Very few candidates come from the ranks of the vast working class and poor. This disconnect drives policy discussion and alienates the people from politics who need responsive government the most.
The outgoing 115th Congress was startlingly affluent. The median net worth of all members of the House and Senate was $511,000, quintupling that of the typical American household. Multimillionaires populated both sides of the aisle. While the wealthiest member of Congress, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), did not seek reelection, many of his moneyed colleagues remain, including Republican Greg Gianforte of Montana, worth $136 million, and Democratic Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, worth $90 million.
The average age of members of the House and Senate in the 115th Congress was 57.8 years and 61.8 years respectively, among the oldest ever, according to the Congressional Research Office. Apart from “public service” and “politics,” the most dominant professions were in lucrative fields such as business and law.
Even if running for Congress is fast becoming a million-dollar proposition, ever lengthening campaign cycles mean that once you run, you end up running full-time. Ocasio-Cortez, for example, quit her job as a server in a restaurant in February 2018, almost nine months ahead of Election Day. For most Americans with even less in savings, a lower education level, or a precarious employment situation, taking the step of quitting a job to run for office is unfathomable. Even if they somehow overcome those hurdles, they will lack the connections and social capital to raise the money required to run competitively.
Ocasio-Cortez was the exception, not the rule. She was recruited by Justice Democrats, which lent a progressive campaign infrastructure to make her competitive. That said, her working-class perspective is already shaking up Washington. Few young people from low-income backgrounds can afford the privilege of an unpaid internship, de rigueur for anyone who wants to get ahead in Washington. Ocasio-Cortez publicly shamed politicians across the spectrum, including Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), for failing to pay interns, potentially setting a new standard in which college students and recent graduates won’t have to choose between supporting themselves and chasing their political dreams. It’s clear that candidates with backgrounds like hers have an important role to play, one that has the potential to resonate throughout Washington.
We’ve seen repeatedly how out-of-touch political elites pursue policies that hinder the working class and poor, whether by passing a massive tax cut for the rich, defending pharmaceutical companies or doing the bidding of energy lobbyists seeking to shred environmental regulations that protect the most vulnerable.
Few legislators understand how punishing and precarious low-wage work can be. Even well-meaning Democrats such as Obama — a Harvard-trained lawyer — forge alliances with corporations such as Walmart and Amazon, failing to understand the danger of lending legitimacy to corporate titans that make their billions through the systematic exploitation of labor. (Amazon chief executive and founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) What if we elected more Democrats and Republicans who worked in Walmart superstores and Amazon warehouses? How would our laws change?
Our president claims to be a billionaire, our Congress is culled from the highest levels of white-collar work, and personal wealth is increasingly becoming a requirement for a viable campaign. Until we change the type of people we send to statehouses and the halls of Congress, we will keep living in a republic that resembles an oligarchy.