The president is the billionaire head of a global business empire, and his mostly millionaire Cabinet may be the richest in American history. His opponent in the 2016 election was a millionaire. Most Supreme Court Justices are millionaires. Most members of Congress are millionaires (and probably have been for several years).
On the other end of the economic spectrum, most working people are employed in manual labor, service industry, and clerical jobs. Those Americans, however, almost never get a seat at the table in our political institutions.
Why not? In a country where virtually any citizen is eligible to serve in public office, why are our elected representatives almost all drawn from such an unrepresentative slice of the economy?
It’s probably worse than you think
This year, it might be tempting to think that working-class Americans don’t have it so bad in politics, especially in light of recent candidates like Randy Bryce, the Wisconsin ironworker running for the US House seat Paul Ryan is vacating, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the former restaurant server whose primary election win over Democratic heavyweight Joe Crowley may go down as the single biggest election upset in 2018.
In reality, however, they are stark exceptions to a longstanding rule in American politics: Working-class people almost never become politicians. Ocasio-Cortez and Bryce make headlines in part because their economic backgrounds are so unusual (for politicians, that is). Their wins are stunning in part because their campaigns upset a sort of natural order in American politics.
[See Figure 1 here]
The figure above plots recent data on the share of working-class people in the US labor force (the black bar) and in state and national politics. Even in the information age, working-class jobs — defined as manual labor, service industry, and clerical jobs — still make up a little more than half of our economy. But workers make up less than 3 percent of the average state legislature.
The average member of Congress spent less than 2 percent of his or her entire pre-congressional career doing the kinds of jobs most Americans go to every day. No one from the working class has gotten into politics and gone on to become a governor, or a Supreme Court justice, or the president.
And that probably won’t change anytime soon. The left half of the figure below plots data on the share of working-class people in state legislatures (which tend to foreshadow demographic changes in higher offices) and the percentage of members of Congress who were employed in working-class jobs when they first got into politics. As a point of comparison, the right half of the figure plots data on the share of state legislatures and members of Congress who were women. (Of course, these groups overlap — a woman from a working-class job would increase the percentages in both figures.)
[See Figure 2 here]
The exclusion of working-class people from American political institutions isn’t a recent phenomenon. It isn’t a post-decline-of-labor-unions phenomenon, or a post-Citizens United phenomenon. It’s actually a rare historical constant in American politics — even during the past few decades, when social groups that overlap substantially with the working class, like women, are starting to make strides toward equal representation. Thankfully, the share of women in office has been rising — but it’s only been a certain type of woman, and she wears a white collar.
Government by the rich is government for the rich
This ongoing exclusion of working-class Americans from our political institutions has enormous consequences for public policy. Just as ordinary citizens from different classes tend to have different views about the major economic issues of the day (with workers understandably being more pro-worker and professionals being less so), politicians from different social classes tend to have different views too.
These differences between politicians from different social classes have shown up in everymajor study of the economic backgrounds of politicians. In the first major survey of US House members in 1958, members from the working class were more likely to report holding progressive views on the economic issues of the day and more likely to vote that way on actual bills. The same kinds of social class gaps appear in data on how members of Congress voted from the 1950s to the present. And in data on the kinds of bills they introduced from the 1970s to the present. And in public surveys of the views and opinions of candidates in recent elections.
The gaps between politicians from working-class and professional backgrounds are often enormous. According to how the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce rank the voting records of members of Congress, for instance, members from the working class differ by 20 to 40 points (out of 100) from members who were business owners, even in statistical models with controls for partisanship, district characteristics, and other factors. Social class divisions even span the two parties. Among Democratic and Republican members of Congress alike, those from working-class jobs are more likely than their fellow partisans to take progressive or pro-worker positions on major economic issues.
These differences between politicians from different economic backgrounds — coupled with the virtual absence of politicians from the working class — ultimately skew the policymaking process toward outcomes that are more in line with the upper class’s economic interests. States with fewer legislators from the working class spend billions less on social welfare each year, offer less generous unemployment benefits, and tax corporations at lower rates. Towns with fewer working-class people on their city councils devote smaller shares of their budgets to social safety net programs; an analysis I conducted in 2013 suggested that cities nationwide would spend approximately $22.5 billion more on social assistance programs each year if their councils were made up of the same mix of classes as the people they represent.
Congress has never been run by large numbers of working-class people, but if we extrapolate from the behavior of the few workers who manage to get in, it’s probably safe to say that the federal government would enact far fewer pro-business policies and far more pro-worker policies if its members mirrored the social class makeup of the public.
As the old saying goes, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.
The problem isn’t workers, and it isn’t voters
Now, defenders of America’s white-collar government will tell you that working-class people are unqualified to hold office, and that voters know it and rightly prefer more affluent candidates.
Alexander Hamilton said it (“[workers] are aware, that however great the confidence they may justly feel in their own good sense, their interests can be more effectually promoted by the merchant than by themselves”). Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists have said it (“voters repeatedly reject insurrectionist candidates who parallel their own ordinariness ... in favor of candidates of proven character and competence”). Donald Trump has said it (“I love all people, rich or poor, but in [Cabinet-level] positions, I just don’t want a poor person.”).
However, this line of reasoning is flat wrong. The raw personal qualities that voters tend to want in a candidate — honesty, intelligence, compassion, and work ethic — are not qualities that the privileged have a monopoly on. (In fact, two of the traits voters say they most want in a politician, honesty and compassion, may actually be a little less common among the rich.)
When working-class people hold office, they tend to perform about as well as other leaders on objective measures; in an analysis of cities governed by majority-working-class city councils in 1996, I found that by 2001, those cities were indistinguishable from others in terms of how their debt, population, and education spending had changed.
When working-class people run, moreover, they tend to do just fine. In both real-world elections and hypothetical candidate randomized controlled trials embedded in surveys (which help to rule out the so-called Jackie Robinson effect), voters seem perfectly willing to cast their ballots for working-class candidates.
The real barrier to working-class representation seems to be that workers just don’t run in the first place. In national surveys of state legislative candidates in 2012 and 2014, for instance, former workers made up just 4 percent of candidates (and around 3 percent of winners).
The problem is campaigning
So why do so few workers run for office? I’ve been researching this question for the past decade, and I think the answer is right under our noses: campaigns.
Let me say from the outset that I love our democracy, and I wouldn’t want to live in a country that selected political leaders any other way. But American democracy isn’t perfect — no system of government is — and one of the side effects of selecting leaders via competitive elections is that groups with fewer resources are at a huge disadvantage.
In democratic elections, people can only be considered for office if they take time off work and out of their personal lives to campaign. Even in places where candidates don’t spend a lot of money on their campaigns, they still put in a lot of time and energy — any candidate will tell you that running was a significant personal sacrifice. They give up their free time. They give up time with their families. Many of them have to take time off work.
For politically qualified working-class Americans, this feature of elections seems to be the barrier that uniquely distinguishes them from equally qualified professionals. In surveys, workers and professionals alike hate the thought of asking for donations. They say that the thought of giving up their privacy is a downside. They express similar concerns about whether they are qualified.
But it is the thought of losing income or taking time off work that uniquely screens out working-class Americans long before Election Day. When the price of competing is giving up your day job (or a chunk of it), usually only the very well-off will be able to throw their hats into the ring.
Elites recruit elites
But couldn’t party and interest group leaders help working-class Americans overcome these obstacles? Couldn’t foundations create special funds to encourage and support candidates from the working class?
Of course. But they usually don’t. The people who recruit new candidates often don’t see workers as viable options, and pass them over in favor of white-collar candidates. In surveys of county-level party leaders, for instance, officials say that they mostly recruit professionals and that they regard workers as worse candidates. Candidates say the same thing: In surveys of people running for state legislature, workers report getting less encouragement from activist organizations, civic leaders, and journalists.
The reasons are complicated. Some party leaders cite concerns about fundraising to explain why they don’t recruit workers, for instance, and in places where elections cost less, party officials really do seem to recruit more working-class candidates. However, by far the best predictor of whether local party leaders say they encourage working-class candidates is whether the party leader reports having a lower income him- or herself and whether the party leader reports having any working-class people on the party’s executive committee.
Candidate recruitment is a deeply social activity, and political leaders are usually busy volunteers who look for new candidates within their own mostly white-collar personal and professional networks. The result is that working-class candidates are often passed over in favor of affluent professionals.
What about foundations, reformers, and pro-worker advocacy organizations? Couldn’t they help qualified working-class Americans run for office?
Of course. But they usually don’t. There are models out there for doing so, actually — the New Jersey AFL-CIO has been running a program to recruit working-class candidates for more than two decades (and their graduates have a 75 percent win rate and close to 1,000 electoral victories). But the model has been slow to catch on in the larger pro-worker reform community.
To the contrary, the pro-worker community has focused on reforms aimed at addressing the oversize political influence of the wealthy that have historically tended to look at on inequalities in political voice, imbalances in the ways that citizens and groups pressure government from the outside. We’ve heard the same story for decades: If we could reform lobbying and campaign finance and get a handle on the flow of money in politics, the rich wouldn’t have as much of a say in government. If we could promote broader political participation, enlighten the public, and revitalize the labor movement, the poor would have more of a say.
The key to combating political inequality, in this view, is finding ways to make sure that everyone’s voices can be heard — and the idea of giving workers influence inside government has never been a part of the mainstream reform conversation.
That may change someday, and I hope it will — especially considering the practical and political roadblocks facing other reforms like increasing voter turnout and reforming the campaign finance system. The opportunity to go down in history as the Emily’s List of the working class is just waiting there for some forward-looking organization.
You can do something about it
In the meantime, what can you do? A lot, actually.
First, look up what the candidates on your ballot do for a living. Many people get sample ballots in the mail, or have the option to look them up online. Create your own occupational profile of your ballot — find out how your candidates earn a living (or if they work full time in politics, find out how they earned a living before). While you’re at it, look at the representation of women, people of color, people with disabilities, or any other social group you think is important. When you’re done, post the results on social media. The virtual absence of working-class people in American political institutions is something that people take for granted. Challenge that.
And if you aren’t happy with the mix of people on your ballot, contact your local party leaders and let them know that you would support a more economically diverse slate of candidates. Be nice to them — most local party leaders are volunteers with day jobs just doing their best — and express appreciation for all the hard work they do to keep your local party running. But also let them know that you’d like to see more people with experience in working-class jobs on your ballot. And if you’re willing and able, offer to help however you can.
When working-class candidates run, stick up for them. If they’re people you can get behind, donate to their campaigns, or send them encouraging notes, or talk about them positively to your friends. If you’re able, offer to volunteer for their campaigns. Working-class candidates start at a disadvantage, and they don’t get as much support from political insiders. Reach out to them and let them know that you see the sacrifices they’re making. If you’re one of the rare Americans who has a working-class candidate on the ballot, and if you support them, offer to help.
Regardless of whether you find a working-class candidate to support, call out social class stereotypes and prejudices when you see them in political media. When workers run, journalists often express amazement, or talk about them in class-coded ways that demean their intelligence and character. (The CNN coverage of opposition research on Randy Bryce is a great example.) When media outlets cover working-class candidates, ask yourself: Are journalists treating the other candidates in this race the way they’re treating this candidate? Would they say that about a candidate with a white-collar job and a big house in the suburbs? If the answers are no, write to their editors, or call them out on social media. Demand political news coverage that doesn’t slide into social class stereotypes.
Finally — and this is the big ask — set up an organization to recruit and train working-class candidates. Contact party leaders and interest groups in your area and organizations that work directly with working-class people, and ask what it would take to create a program to encourage workers to run for office. Start small — ask if you can help put on a simple candidate training program for workers in your area. Make it a one-time event. It will be easier than you think. Then do it again. And again. Give it a name, find funders, and make it your life’s work. (I told you it was a big ask.)
Campaigns have a built-in bias against working-class candidates. Call it an unintended consequence, a glitch in an otherwise admirable system, a side effect. Whatever it is, it isn’t a necessary evil, or an inevitability. Politicians work for you. If you don’t like what the millionaires have done with your government, fire them.
Nicholas Carnes is the Creed C. Black associate professor of public policy and political scienceat Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. He is the author of The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run for Office — and What We Can Do About It. Find him on Twitter @Nick_Carnes_.