Saturday, January 11, 2014

Congress is a millionaires' club. Why that matters, and what we can do about it.

This week at the Monkey Cage blog, Duke University political scientist Nicholas Carnes wrote a fascinating pair of posts arguing that, when it comes to America's political system, class matters -- even more than a lot of us thought. The posts are based on his recent book, White Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making. It's hardly news to American voters that our elected officials tend to be wealthy, to a wildly disproportionate degree. But the extent to which this is so is stunning.

Carnes points out that, although millionaires make up only 3 percent of the population, they "have a majority in the House of Representatives, a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate, a 5 to 4 majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House." At the same time, working class people -- whom he defines as "people with manual-labor and service-industry jobs" -- make up more than half of the population, yet people from working class backgrounds have never held more than 2 percent of the seats in Congress.

You might suspect that a legislator's class background would not independently affect the policies she supports -- that, once you control for other factors like political party and constituents' views, the impact of class would disappear. But this is not the case; as Carnes writes, "even after controlling for these factors using a variety of statistical techniques, there are still significant differences between politicians from different classes."

Looking at roll-call data in Congress, Carnes discovered that:
Like ordinary Americans, legislators who worked primarily in white-collar jobs before getting elected to Congress — especially profit-oriented jobs in the private sector — tend to vote with business interests far more often than legislators who worked primarily in blue-collar jobs.
Moreover, Congress is hardly the only government institution where class matters. Carnes also found that:
At every level of government, in every time period and in every stage of the legislative process, the shortage of lawmakers from the working class tilts economic policy in favor of the conservative outcomes that more affluent Americans prefer.
Carnes performed simulations that showed that a number of important economic victories for the right "probably wouldn’t have passed if Congress had been made up of the same mix of classes as the nation it represents." The 2001 Bush tax cuts, for example, "didn’t receive a single vote from a legislator with significant experience in working-class jobs"(!). In general, the absence of working class legislators is associated with "tax policies [that] are more favorable to businesses, social safety net programs[that] are stingier, protections for workers [that] are weaker, and economic inequality [that] is significantly worse."

What can we do to alleviate this problem? According to Carnes' research, the issue isn't that voters are biased in favor of rich candidates. Nor is it the case that working class Americans lack the talents to govern. The most basic problem is that so few working class people run for office in the first place. In 1997, the New Jersey AFL-CIO, seeking to encourage a more economically diverse pool of candidates, started a program designed to "identify, recruit, and train" working class people to run for office. The project that resulted is the New Jersey Labor Candidates School. The school's graduates:
have a 75 percent win rate and have won almost 800 elections for offices ranging from school boards to the state legislature. Similar labor candidate schools are now in the works in California, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, New York and Oregon.
The labor candidate schools are one promising approach, but the much more is needed. Carnes doesn't mention campaign finance reform, but publicly financed elections might also significantly alleviate the problem. When it comes to fund-raising, working class candidates are at a significant disadvantage. They can't self-finance, they're far less likely to be connected to networks of rich donors than wealthier candidates are, and they're also much less likely to champion the kind of conservative economic policies that would attract the support of moneyed special interests.

Of course, the chances of passing a reform like publicly financed elections would be dramatically improved if we elected more working class people to Congress in the first place. As is so often the case where economic inequality is concerned, unequal institutions become even more so because the self-dealing elites who dominate them tend to support policies that entrench their own power at the expense of the 99 percent. We desperately need to break this vicious cycle, in all its manifestations at all levels. Congress might be great place to start.


  1. who are currently the less than 2 percent of congressman that qualify as having working class backgrounds that you used for this article?