But the available evidence suggests that our lawmakers would probably go much further to protect the middle and working classes if more of them came from those classes themselves. As I found in researching a forthcoming book, lawmakers from more affluent backgrounds tend to be stingy with social safety-net programs, flimsy with business regulations, weaken protections for workers and approve tax policies favoring the rich. Lawmakers from the working class tend to take the needs of American workers more seriously — even in the face of pressure from lobbyists, wealthy donors and extremist groups.
If our political institutions were made up of the same mix of classes as the people they represent, our lawmakers probably wouldn’t have shut down the government over a health care law. Our white-collar government comes at a high price, not just for the less fortunate, but for all of us.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Hard data suggest there are droves of talented, politically capable working-class Americans who would make great politicians. And when they run for office, they tend to do well. But many of these potential candidates are being screened out long before Election Day by practical barriers such as the difficulty of taking time off work to campaign or the high cost of running for public office.
On the up side, innovative programs to recruit and support middle- and working-class candidates are showing tremendous potential. In New Jersey, the AFL-CIO runs a Labor Candidates School; its graduates have won more than 700 state and local races. Pro-worker groups have recently launched similar programs all over the country. This year, Oregon, California, Nevada and Maine were all home to “campaign boot camps” for politically talented blue-collar workers.
Programs like these are some of the most promising new directions in the fight for government that represents the will of the people. But until they really take root -- until candidates from middle- and working-class backgrounds stop being the exception and start being the rule -- we’re going to be stuck with a white-collar government, one that can turn on a dime when big banks are in trouble but squabbles and struggles when funding for retirees, veterans and children is on the line.
Is it time to start electing more middle- and working-class people to political office? That depends: Are you happy with how millionaires are running our country?
Nicholas Carnes, an assistant professor of public policy at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, is author of the soon-to-be-published book “White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making.”