Where are all the working class heroes?
This year at least two races for seats in the US House of Representatives will feature high-profile candidates with significant experience in workingclass jobs – the manual labour, service industry and clerical jobs that make up over half of the American labour force. In Wisconsin’s first district, the Democratic nominee is a delivery-driverturned-ironworker named Randy Bryce, nicknamed “Ironstache”, who takes credit for “scaring off ” Paul Ryan. In New York’s 14th congressional district, a former bartender and waitress named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made headlines for her stunning primary-election upset over incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley.
Candidates such as Bryce and Ocasio-Cortez – politicians with significant experience in the kinds of jobs most Americans punch in for every day – are genuine anomalies in 2018, and in US politics more generally.
I have been researching this issue for the past 10 years, and the results, published in my book, The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run for Office – and What We Can Do About It, are clear. Contrary to the cherished ideal of a government of and by the people, Americans are almost always governed by the very privileged.
The president is the billionaire head of a global business empire. His cabinet is mostly millionaires. Most members of Congress are millionaires. Most supreme court justices are millionaires. Millionaires make up less than 3% of the general public, but have unified majority control of all three branches of the federal government. Working-class Americans, on the other hand, make up about half of the country. But they have never held more than 2% of the seats in any Congress.
The root cause is that workers almost never run, even at the state and local levels. In nationwide surveys of people campaigning for state legislatures in 2012 and 2014, candidates from working-class jobs made up just 4% of both Republican and Democratic candidates.
So why are so few workers running? It would be convenient if we could say that the social class backgrounds of politicians don’t really matter.
Unfortunately, politics doesn’t usually work like that. Just as working-class people in the general public tend
Nicholas Carnes is associate professor of public policy and political science at Duke University
to be more pro-worker, politicians from different social classes tend to bring different perspectives with them to public office, especially when it comes to economics.
These differences, coupled with the virtual absence of working-class people in US political institutions, ultimately have enormous consequences. States with fewer legislators from the working class spend billions less on social welfare, offer less generous unemployment benefits and tax corporations at lower rates. Towns with fewer working-class people on their councils devote smaller shares of their budgets to social safety net programmes; an analysis I conducted in 2013 suggested that cities nationwide would spend $22.5bn more on social assistance programmes each year if their councils were made up of the same mix of classes as those they represent.
We also can’t blame government by the privileged
on some preference for affluent leaders on the part of American voters. When working-class people run, voters like them just fine. Between 1945 and 2008, members of Congress from the working class earned about as many votes as those from white-collar careers. In my book, I analyse every available source of systematic data that can shed light on why so few people from working-class backgrounds run for political office. Across this wide range of datasets, there appear to be two main obstacles facing workers.
First, workers seldom run for public office because of the fundamental personal burdens associated with campaigning. When I surveyed seemingly qualified working-class and white-collar citizens, the biggest gap in their concerns about running wasn’t a fear about being able to raise enough money, or a difference in political ambition; it was a more fundamental concern about losing out on income and work in order to campaign.
Second, and partly as a result, the party and interest group leaders who help people launch political careers often pass over workers in favour of more familiar white-collar candidates. In a 2013 survey of the leaders of county-level political parties, most were quite open about their preference for white-collar candidates. Qualified working-class Americans almost never appear on the ballot in part because powerful people are less likely to encourage or support them.
White-collar government isn’t caused by voters, or some deficiency on the part of workers or even the soaring cost of political campaigns. It is caused by the simple reality that campaigning requires taking time off work and getting help from political elites, and workingclass Americans often can’t do either.
From a reform standpoint, that is actually good news. Making public office more accessible to a broad cross-section of the economy won’t require significantly changing laws. People who work in and around government just need to devote more attention and resources to qualified working-class candidates.
A half century ago, women were anomalies in congressional elections, and in US political institutions more generally. Today they aren’t. Ironworkers and restaurant servers don’t have to be either •