Out of Pocket: The Underrepresentation of the Working-class in Politics

Article: Working-class people are underrepresented in politics. The problem isn’t voters.
Author: Dr. Nicholas Carnes
Publication Date: October 24, 2018

It’s been a while so I’ll quickly explain the premise. Since 2012, I’ve been saving articles to Pocket to read later. The number of articles I saved outpaced the number of articles I could read, and eventually, I stopped reading (but didn’t stop saving). In this space, I highlight an article that interested me. Now with that out of the way… giddyup.

I remember in the run-up to the 2008 election, Barack Obama said that if he didn’t win and become President he would never run again. He believed he would be too far removed from the people to truly be able to represent them, and his connection to people was his entire reason for running. But that makes how much are politicians truly connected to the average American? This is something that Dr. Nicholas Carnes jumps into on his article “Working-class people are underrepresented in politics. The problem isn’t voters.”:

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.

He follows this up with a graphic that shows how “workers make up half over half US citizens but less than a tenth of US elected officials.” I always thought of people in politics as wealthy, but put in such plain terms this was still jarring. It’s not just that they aren’t working class, but only 2% of the pre-congressional career of the average congressperson is spent working a regular job. To compound that no one from the working class (or below) has gone on to become a member of the Supreme Court, a governor, or the President of the United States. With these facts laid out how representative can the government be? According to Carnes, not very. 

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.


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.

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.

There is an assumption white-collar people are more qualified to be politicians by virtue of being white-collar. This status supposedly gives them the ability to handle the tasks they would be required to take care of while in office. The working-class person, on the other hand, is too ordinary and unable to navigate these waters. But what if they got the chance?

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.

Dr. Carnes’ study reveals that the reason we don’t have more working-class politicians is that they don’t run. The reason is a bit of a catch-22. To get more working-class people to run for office they have to take time off from work to campaign, but by virtue of their being working-class, it’s harder to take the necessary time off of work. It is a great sacrifice for anyone, but even more for someone who doesn’t have the means to take the time off. As a result, someone who in theory makes a good candidate is disqualified by their class.

So what happens? We according to Carnes we get more of the same as “people who recruit new candidates often don’t see workers as viable options and pass them over in favor of white-collar candidates.” So, as a result, the people who get into offense tend to fight the same issues in the same way. Carnes suggests that the best way to combat the wealthy’s influence on politics is by giving the working-class a voice inside of government. Such a move would allow people to make decisions based on their own experiences instead of having a proxy. He points to a potential solution:

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.

He points out that the pro-worker reform community would rather focus on how the working-class can impact things from outside. The cynic in me says it is to protect themselves, and their control. If you have a system where the working-class are excluded and their only hope is to pick a self-appointed protector, why change? The easy conclusion to come to after reading the piece is that this exclusion of the working-class, as presented by Carnes, isn’t a flaw but a strong feature that dates back to the beginnings of this country.

This is an important issue for our nation going forward as the middle class continues to shrink, and the divide between the haves and have-nots grows. Where millennials make less money than previous generations while everything is more expensive. How long can things go the direction they’re going now? 


#transparentTuesday: On Wednesday, Confidence, Compassion, and Fatherhood

I’m horrible at basketball.

My handle is extra loose, my jump shot is broken, but I still love playing. It’s one of the few things in life that I can think of that I enjoy despite being bad (only other thing I could think of is bowling). I remember asking someone how I could improve my shot and they said I just needed to have confidence in the shot. Confidence and consistency in my form. The advice sounded simple, but I had to stop and ask “what’s confidence?”

The question on the surface may sound ridiculous, but I was a teenager who spent most of his free time at a computer screen. Who set himself apart from his peers because of a confluence of depression, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder (all undiagnosed at the time). I knew what the definition of confidence was, but I didn’t know what it felt like. I was a teenager asking for basketball advice from a guy I knew through fantasy wrestling, and I didn’t have a clue and I wasn’t afraid (for once) to show it.

Questions that are perceived as ridiculous often are never considered by the target of the question. The reason being that person takes whatever the subject of the question is for granted. For example, blue is blue, right? How would you explain to someone who never saw the color what it looks like without showing it to them? The question goes into deeper meanings of the world around us… but long story short, I never got confidence in my jump shot. My jumper is still trash, and I haven’t played much basketball since I asked this question.

What I didn’t know at the time was that I did feel confidence, and that confidence was in my writing. I didn’t give myself room to doubt. Instead, I was plugging away at my computer. Writing more for writing groups online than I ever wrote for school. It was a passion that drove me, and eventually, I got good and I knew it. I just didn’t know how to translate this confidence elsewhere and then eventually I hit a wall and it all stopped.


I started working at the National Basketball Association in November of 2016, and by September of 2017, I was leaving for a new job. It would be the fourth switch between full-time jobs I would make since the Fall of 2014. While each prior change was an attempt to make more money, and advance in my career this one was different. By this point, my marriage was in shambles, and I was disillusioned by the world of working for a large corporation. I had a slight hope to save the marriage, but I felt like my days working in video full-time might be over. Now I was set to work in a high school.

I’d be lying if I said working in education was my first choice. I applied to any place that looked viable. I applied for a job at NFL Films, for a video editing/social media job at a lacrosse equipment company, and plenty of dead-end jobs. The job search was stressful because I knew I had to find something before the season started, and the new NBA season was set to start earlier than ever before. It was then that my ex’s friend suggested I apply for teacher’s assistant jobs. The selling point was the benefits package, a daytime schedule, summer’s off, and a decent wage. I went on to have my worst interview since graduating high school but I still got the job.

After I found out I was hired there was a change inside me. I stopped thinking of it as a stopgap job, a bridge to another profession, and I started thinking of it as a transition into a new field. I scrolled upon videos that explained the importance of black male teachers, but more than that I saw the damage Betsy DeVos was doing to public education in America. It was at that moment that I saw this as my being part of the resistance. I was never going to be the one to march, or protest, but I don’t think people have to make their stand in the same way. It was almost as if this was a calling.

This year was the first year since I graduated that I hadn’t switched jobs. Every day I work with kids with special needs. I talk with them, I encourage them, I make jokes about myself and them, but most of all I find myself caring about these children and wanting them to succeed. I see kids with anxiety, depression, ADHD, behavioral issues, poor upbringings, and I see kids who want to see someone who cares. It is in these spaces where I don’t think about confidence at all because I realize it is not about me at all. As an assistant, I don’t carry even half the workload a teacher does but working beside them I see where I want to be. It’s no longer working for a major corporation in video production but teaching a classroom and hopefully helping them develop into greater versions of themselves as they age.

I relate to these children because in many ways I was one of them. I still am. I still lose track of chunks of time because I’m doing something irrelevant in the morning. I still find myself avoiding things (sometimes as simple as shaving), and sometimes I find myself unable to leave the house. But as I’m living I’m learning how important self-compassion is and how you have to forgive yourself. How to be kind to yourself even if you’re mad about a misstep.

It’s definitely been a process.


There was one moment this past summer that broke my heart.

My ex sent a text saying how my son cried about coming to my place. She said he told her that I told him to stop kissing me. The context of why I told him that didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was denying him, because what he was doing annoyed me. My son is a touchy, feely, and affectionate child. Denying his kissing wasn’t a small thing. It was denying who he was. Cameron was only three at the time, but that didn’t make his feelings any less real.

There’s this weird moment with kids where you realize they aren’t just living breathing creatures, but creatures who are capable of making connections, forming conclusions, and communicating it. This change becomes painfully obvious when they move from two to three (and even more so when they turn four). And here I had a three-year-old who wasn’t made to feel welcome in my home. That hurt me because I remembered times I didn’t feel accepted in my home growing up. So it was at that moment I made a change and became more affectionate.

I’m not a perfect father, but I strive to be better every day. With this, I began to hug him, kiss him, encourage him, and tell him how much I love him. Where I used to channel my Dad and yell when I was frustrated now I work to communicate more, and if I do yell I apologize after the fact. When I see my son I see all the possibilities in the universe, and I want him to feel comfortable with me in a way I never was with my father. I want Cameron to be able to come to me with the questions that might seem ridiculous, and if I don’t have the answer? I want to tell him that I don’t know and encourage him to find out.

Book Report: Hang Time: Days and Dreams With Michael Jordan

Title: Hang Time: Days and Dreams with Michael Jordan
Author: Bob Greene
Year: 1992

I have a problem.


Every time I see a library book sale I fall in love. The libraries could easily donate the books once the sale is over, but the librarians want the books to go to someone who wants them. So deals for $5 hardcovers morph into $5 to fill a bag with books. They’re so desperate to get rid of books that they promise they’ll look the other way if the bag rips. So now there was enough room for one more book and then I saw Hang Time: Days and Dreams With Michael Jordan by Bob Greene. The back cover promised unique insights into Jordan, and I was sold. The book was practically free so the decision was made as I stuffed it into the bag.

Full disclosure: I’m not a Michael Jordan fan. He’s a great player, and most likely the greatest ever, but I can’t stand the mythologizing. It was happening in real time and has only grown worse over time. I figured I would be getting real-time insights of Jordan as everything was happening. Instead, there were milquetoast quotes, and a near deifying of Jordan by Greene, a non-sports writer.

Greene had once in a lifetime access to Michael Jordan. He followed the Bulls closely during their first two championship seasons (1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons). He was there for the release of Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules (which revealed the conflicts of the 1990-91 Bulls), he was even there for the uncovering of Jordan’s gambling habits. Greene sat with Jordan for hours over the two seasons, and he gave us less than breadcrumbs. As a lifelong skeptic, I can see how this book received a Jordan seal of approval and provided a side that counters that of Smith’s. The book became a national bestseller and a friendship was born.

While the book is full of fluff there are interesting tidbits. We see Jordan not only as a megastar but how he is cut off from the world. During the second championship, he doesn’t trust any of his teammates, his thoughts on then-NBA commissioner David Stern handling his gambling, and that he wanted to win the second title for himself. Jordan received more criticism than he was used to, and he wanted to take it out on everyone. It was here that we saw his bitterness seep through his well-manicured facade. Why didn’t Greene delve further into that? My only response is:

Highlight: Bob Greene has a discussion with Jordan and decides it’s time to bond over Elvis, but Jordan doesn’t care. Greene stresses that it’s important, but Jordan cares less. It’s here that Greene learns “Elvis was a hero to most, but he doesn’t mean shit to (Michael Jordan).” (c) Chuck D. It was completely patronizing, and MJ’s response was perfect.

Grade: 2villain
2 (out 5) villains