Elections are supposed to give us choices. We can reward incumbents or we can throw the bums out. We can choose Republicans or Democrats. We can choose conservative policies or progressive ones.
In most elections, however, we don’t get a say in something important: whether we’re governed by the rich. By Election Day, that choice has usually been made for us. Would you like to be represented by a millionaire lawyer or a millionaire businessman? Even in our great democracy, we rarely have the option to put someone in office who isn’t part of the elite.
Of course, many white-collar candidates care deeply about working-class Americans, those who earn a living in manual labor or service-industry jobs. Many are only a generation or two removed from relatives who worked in those fields. But why do so few elections feature candidates who have worked in blue-collar jobs themselves, at least for part of their lives? The working class is the backbone of our society, a majority of our labor force and 90 million people strong. Could it really be that not one former blue-collar worker is qualified to be president?
My research examines how the shortage of working-class people in public office affects our democracy and why there are so few former blue-collar workers in government in the first place. The data I’ve studied suggest that the working class itself probably isn’t the problem. It’s true that workers tend to score a little lower on standard measures of political knowledge and civic engagement. But there are many more workers than there are, say, lawyers — so many more, in fact, that there are probably more blue-collar Americans with the qualities we might want in our candidates than there are lawyers with those traits. If even only half a percent of blue-collar workers have what it takes to govern, there would still be enough of them to fill every seat in Congress and in every state legislature more than 40 times — with enough left over to run thousands of City Councils.
Something other than qualifications seems to be screening out people with serious experience in the working class long before Election Day. Scholars haven’t yet confirmed exactly what that is. (Campaign money? Free time? Party gatekeepers?) But we’re starting to appreciate the seriousness of the problem.
If millionaires were a political party, that party would make up roughly 3 percent of American families, but it would have a super-majority in the Senate, a majority in the House, a majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House. If working-class Americans were a political party, that party would have made up more than half the country since the start of the 20th century. But legislators from that party (those who last worked in blue-collar jobs before entering politics) would never have held more than 2 percent of the seats in Congress.
And these trends don’t stop at the federal level. Since the 1980s, the number of state legislators whose primary occupations are working-class jobs has fallen from 5 percent to 3 percent. In City Councils, fewer than 10 percent of members have blue-collar day jobs. Everywhere we look in government, almost no one with personal experience in working-class jobs has a seat at the table.
Their absence, moreover, has real consequences. Lawmakers from different classes tend to bring different perspectives to public office. John Boehner is fond of saying that he’s a small-business man at heart and that “It gave me a perspective on our country that I’ve carried with me throughout my time in public service.” And he’s right. Former businesspeople in government tend to think like businesspeople, former lawyers tend to think like lawyers, and (the few) former blue-collar workers tend to think like blue-collar workers. Edward Beard, a house painter from Providence, R.I., who was elected to Congress in 1974, always carried a paintbrush with him and tacked one to the wall outside of his Washington office — as a “symbol of who I am and where I’m from, the working people.”
Former house painters are the exception in Congress, of course. And although there are many white-collar lawmakers with good intentions, with so few leaders with experience in working-class jobs (from 1999 to 2008, the average member of Congress had spent 1.5 percent of his or her adult life in working-class jobs), economic policy routinely tilts toward outcomes that help white-collar professionals at the expense of the working class. Social safety net programs are stingier, business regulations are flimsier, tax policies are more regressive, and protections for workers are weaker than they would be if our lawmakers came from the same mix of classes as the people they represent.
The key is finding more lawmakers like Mr. Beard, politically adept working-class Americans. Or people like Representative Stephen Lynch, who worked as an ironworker in Boston for nearly two decades before attending law school and becoming a legal advocate for workers — politicians who worked their way up to white-collar jobs but who still remember what it’s like to push a broom.
My experience suggests that finding them will be the easy part. The hard part will be persuading the people with resources to help them. Many political gatekeepers still cling to myths about how there’s something “the matter with Kansas,” how workers are too backward to know what’s best for themselves politically. And people who value political equality already have their hands full with big challenges: mainly, the explosion of money and interest groups in Washington, and the large social class gaps in routine forms of political participation, including voting.
Even if we somehow stem the tide of money in Washington, even if we guarantee equal participation on Election Day, millionaires will still get to set the tax rate for millionaires. White-collar professionals will still get to set the minimum wage for blue-collar workers. People who have always had health insurance will still get to decide whether to help people without it. If we want government for the people, we’ve got to start working toward government by the people. The 2012 election offers us a stark choice between two very different approaches to economic policy. But it’s still a choice between two Harvard-educated millionaires. Even in an election that is supposed to be about the future of our economy, we don’t have a working-class option in the voting booth.
It’s time for citizens who care about political equality to start investing in working-class candidates. We know how to do this. In 1945, the House and the Senate were each 98 percent men. In the decades since, party leaders and interest groups have deliberately recruited many female candidates, and today women make up 17 percent of Congress.
If the old boys’ club isn’t invincible, the Millionaires Party probably isn’t, either. Changes like these aren’t rocket science. They just take a little hard work.
This commentary by Assistant Professor of Public Policy Nicholas Carnes was originally published in "The New York Times Sunday Magazine" on Oct. 13, 2012.