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.”
An assistant professor of public policy at Duke University and author of the forthcoming book “White-Collar Government: How Class-Imbalanced Legislatures Distort Economic Policy-Making in the United States.”