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America’s white-collar Congress

Factory and retail workers don’t get elected — and that matters, says Nicholas Carnes

Nicholas Carnes, professor of public policy at Duke University.Les Todd/Duke Photography

Since 2008, Americans have been talking with increasing concern about the nation’s spiraling economic inequality and about whether a political solution exists. The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 famously framed the problem as a struggle between the 1 percent and the 99 percent, or the millionaires versus the rest of us.

A new book by Nicholas Carnes, however, locates a far more precise cause for the disparity. In “White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making,” Carnes, a professor of public policy at Duke University, argues that the main issue is not millionaires’ influence on policymaking, or even political apathy among less well-off voters. The problem, he says, is that the people making policy all come from a particular class. The numbers are stark: Of the 783 members of Congress who served between 1999 and 2008, only 13 had spent more than a quarter of their prior careers doing blue-collar jobs, like factory or retail work. The overwhelming majority came from white-collar backgrounds, in such fields as law and business.


Does that really matter? Carnes draws on an impressive array of data to argue that it does. Your congressperson’s previous occupation, he found, will often determine his or her vote on major economic issues such as corporate regulation, the tax rate on millionaires, the extent of the social safety net, and union bargaining rights. Carnes also uses data to simulate how roll-call votes in Congress on major economic reforms might have differed if Congress’s class status reflected the country’s as a whole (as of 2000, 54 percent of Americans worked in blue-collar jobs). In that scenario, he finds, policies that skew benefits most heavily toward the already wealthy and well-off—notably the Bush tax cuts of 2001—would not have become law.

If Carnes’s critique sounds radical in a nation hesitant to talk about the impact of social class, perhaps its most startling aspect is that it’s as old as America itself. He repeatedly cites the Anti-Federalists, who 225 years ago argued that the Constitution would create a distant federal government more accessible to “the few and the great,” or people whose occupations had brought them fame and respect, than the “poor and middling class.” According to Carnes, they were more prescient than we may realize.


Carnes spoke to Ideas by phone from Kansas City. This interview has been edited and condensed.

IDEAS: Your book’s focus on occupation is interesting. You’re quite specific that you’re talking about class—in large part, the question of how people make their money, not just their earnings.

CARNES: People know this intuitively: You ask someone when you first meet them, “What do you do for a living?” A lot of people focus on income or net worth, but if you just did that you’d actually miss a lot of important differences between rich politicians in nonprofits and rich politicians in the private sector.

One of the first challenges of doing this research is that class is key in our political process, but most people aren’t comfortable talking about it. And yet it’s a crucial determinant of behavior.

IDEAS: How did you come to focus on class in government?

CARNES: I started to get focused on this topic as a PhD student at Princeton. I’d gone to college at University of Tulsa....There weren’t very many people in my cohort at Princeton who had ever hung sheet rock or bused tables or made Cinnabons or been a cashier at the world’s largest Walmart, and I noticed that my experiences in those jobs were sort of coloring the way I saw issues like minimum wage and union bargaining rights.


IDEAS: You found that elected officials with white-collar backgrounds tend to vote for policies that shift money towards the already well-off. Are your findings solely applicable on the national level, or is there a difference locally?

CARNES: I also look at a state and local level to see if there’s a difference in how states and cities spend their money based on people from which background are in government, and I find the same results there. And the dollar amounts are big—we’re talking potentially billions of dollars a year if you add up policy in all 50 states. Billions of dollars going into the pockets of corporations, siphoned off from programs helping people who’ve lost their jobs, for instance.

IDEAS: It’s possible to think of counterexamples. Ted Kennedy was undeniably white-collar.

CARNES: Part of the reason Ted Kennedy’s such a memorable political figure is that he did sort of cut against a lot of our expectations—it’s important to keep that in mind that there are exceptions. But on the other hand, virtually excluding a large class of people from our political institutions has a serious effect.

IDEAS: The way this divide is often talked about is that if you haven’t lived the working-class experience, you don’t know it. But you say that’s not the problem.

CARNES: What my research found was that it’s not that white-collar politicians don’t know what working-class people think or how policy will affect them, they just have different views about what the right mix of economic policies are. White-collar politicians tend to be more pro-business; blue-collar politicians tend to be more pro-worker. It’s a legitimate difference in viewpoints.


Of the 783 members of Congress who served between 1999 and 2008, Carnes found that only 13 — the small wedge below — had spent more than a quarter of their prior careers doing blue-collar jobs, like factory or retail work.

IDEAS: Does that mean these views are harder to change?

CARNES: Yes, one of the implications of this finding is that the strategy of trying to change politicians’ minds may not work....The right way forward might be not to lobby politicians to care more about workers, but to bring in politicians who already care about workers from the start because they were workers themselves.

IDEAS: To what degree is it possible to recruit blue-collar workers to run for office? Mechanisms that encourage working-class political participation, like unions, appear to be on the wane.

CARNES: No one just wakes up one day and says, “I’m going to run for office.” Everybody’s recruited and trained; all that needs to change is that the people doing the recruiting and training need to make more of an effort to bring working-class candidates into the process. Every time I talk to party officials at the local level, both Republicans and Democrats, I hear the same thing: They would love to run someone from this district who is a underdog, who has worked their way up, who can relate to voters, but they don’t know many people like that....So I’m encouraged by the fact that so far I’ve seen no prejudice against the working class; it’s more like a missing link, a social distance, which is a lot easier to overcome.

IDEAS: One thing people talk about in American politics is apathy among blue-collar and working-class voters. Do you think that having more blue-collar candidates would increase voter participation?


CARNES: That’s a question I’m really interested in....I don’t have hard evidence, but my hunch is that a lot of political cynicism comes from the fact is that people look at their political institutions and they don’t see many people like themselves.

IDEAS: How do you think blue-collar politicians would compare to John Edwards or even Kennedy, who crafted their public profiles around advocating for the working class but were upper class themselves?

CARNES: The really interesting thing about John Edwards is that he tries to shore up his credentials with voters by reaching back into family history, to his dad, for a working-class relative. Edwards actually spent his entire career as a high-flying attorney. What I find in my research is that politicians who had working-class parents but didn’t do working-class jobs don’t tend to look different than other white-collar politicians. What really matters is what politicians did for a living before getting into office.

Matthew Wolfson, a writer who lives in New York, has written for publications including The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.