Where are all the work­ing class he­roes?

The Guardian Weekly - - Opinion - Ni­cholas Carnes

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 •

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