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? 

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