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American blue-collar workers disappear — from Congress

The portion of those serving in Congress who come from a blue-collar background is less than 2 percent.

According to a famous Lincolnian phrase (from the Gettysburg Address, no less), ours is a "government of the people, by the people...") But if you look at who governs, what we have is a "government of the people by the rich people," Duke University political scientist Nicholas Carnes told a Minneapolis audience Thursday.

For the most part, Carnes isn't talking about the power of the Koch Brothers, George Soros or other billionaire contributors. He's talking simply about the class background of those who hold office.

About 54 percent of Americans have held a blue-collar job for a substantial portion of their adulthood, Carnes has found. The portion of those serving in Congress who come from a blue-collar background is less than 2 percent.

On the other hand, those with a net worth of at least $1 million constitute about 3 percent of the U.S. population. Yet millionaires constitute a majority of the current members of the U.S. House, a supermajority of the Senate, a majority of the current membership of the Supreme Court, and one out of one of the current occupants of the Oval Office.

In fact, at least since World War II, we haven't had a president who worked with his hands for any substantial portion of his life, Carnes said.

Does it make any difference in how they govern? Carnes has studied the voting and legislative history of members of Congress and he says yes, a big difference. Government by the rich leads to government policies "that are good for the haves and not good for the have-nots."

Carnes (who hung drywall in early adulthood and who makes no secret of his sympathy for blue-collar workers) believes that a period spent working in a blue-collar job seems to shape the way a future office-holder looks at the world.

Boehner example

House Speaker John Boehner, he says, grew up in modest circumstances and was the first in his family to go to college. But out of college, Boehner got a job with a sales company and by the time he went to Congress was president of the company. Boehner likes to tell audiences that he looks at issues through the eyes of a small businessman. Fair enough. But when issues like the current hot topic of raising the minimum wage come up, looking at the world through the eyes of a small businessman versus through the eyes of an hourly wage-earner is likely to lead to a different result.

By the way, it's not that the electorate generally won't vote for a former blue-collar worker. Carnes' study concludes that those with such backgrounds have about the same chance of winning elections as those who have never worked with their hands. It's that blue-collar workers generally don't run for office.

Nicholas Carnes
Nicholas Carnes

And another "by the way," Carnes' analysis is not about whether a future politician grew up rich or poor. Several post-war presidents, including the current incumbent, grew up relatively poor. But they managed to get to college (and, in several cases, law school) without going through a period of working at a blue-collar job. Carnes has tried to study members of Congress based on whether their parents had a blue-collar or a white-collar background. He found it makes no significant difference in how they govern. The key is what the future politician did for a living before going into politics.

And one last "by the way." If you are thinking (as I was) that the role of campaign money in politics, and especially its role in the recent post-Citizens United years, is the key to his findings, Carnes says no. Historically, Congress has always been a rich man's club.

Carnes' book on the topic of this research is "White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making."

Carnes spoke at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School. The Center for the Study of Politics and Governance put together a small panel of elected officials with blue-collar backgrounds to react to his study.

State Rep. Debra Keil (R-Crookston) said she is one of just six farmers in the Legislature and finds herself often in a position of needing to add a farmer's perspective to discussion with lawmakers. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk (D-Cook) is a carpenter by trade. He found an occasion during the panel to bring up one of his pet peeves from discussions with legislators who have no experiences with construction trades. During bonding sessions, when the state is preparing to finance a bunch of big-road, infrastructure and building projects, he often hears legislative colleagues say about the jobs created by those projects that they aren't "real jobs." Apparently, he hears that a lot. Apparently, it really frosts him.

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Comments (11)

So, is he measuring

a shift in which part of the population achieves political office, or is he simply tracking the changes in U.S. demographics over the past century?

Before WWII maybe ten percent of the population went to college. So there was a pool of bright capable people without college educations who might seek a political future.
Now, close to 75% of the population has at least some post secondary education. There are more opportunities to move into 'white college' jobs, so that many blue collar workers (I'm not referring to burger flippers) are in their occupations by choice.
And of course there are simply fewer well paying 'blue collar' jobs available in this country.

So, Carnes has opened an interesting line of inquiry that asks as many questions as it answers (which is a good thing).

The differentiation

between blue collar and white collar work would be less instructive than the difference in attitudes between public and private sector work.

I'd be more curious to see who came to congress from a private sector job versus who came to congress from another government job. That would be more telling in terms of attitudes towards taxation, regulation, government spending, and the role of market forces versus government forces than any difference between blue collar and white collar job-holders would tell us.

Bachmann

worked for the IRS.
Mike Rogers graduated from a small private college, and went into congress from the FBI.
Darrell Issa entered politics from the court system (his background makes interesting reading).
I'm sure that there are plenty more Conservative Republicans who came from the public sector.
I 'm not sure how you would categorize Reagan. He started out in the movies (private sector), but moved into elected office from a union position.
And his only blue collar was on his horse.

Who came to Congress from a government job?

Perhaps you would care to discuss that matter with Paul Ryan?

Working With Hands

Didn't Carter 'work with his hands' while in the Navy? I'm not any kind of expert on Carter's biography, but I'd be surprised if he somehow kept his hands clean while working for years in submarines. Seems unlikely.
I'm somewhat sympathetic with what Carnes is talking about, but only somewhat. I'm more interested in whether or not our candidates have any experience with the bottom line. Some blue collar workers do. For instance, when I was younger, I did restaurant work and it wasn't hard to see how the hours available connected to the overall amount of work that was being done. I don't know if hanging drywall gives this same perspective but it could.
After he was done with politics, George McGovern tried his hand at running a hotel. He wrote about it here: http://www.inc.com/magazine/19931201/3809.html
He lamented that what he learned "would have made me a better legislator and a more worthy aspirant to the White House".

Carter

was an engineering officer in the nuclear submarine service. He had enlisted men to do any manual labor necessary.

I'm embarrassed to say that, as a fellow submariner, that was the reason I voted for him. I learned my lesson about using such criteria for political leadership afterwards.

Carter

Carter managed his family's peanut farm and warehouse before being elected Governor of Georgia. I think that would show experience with the bottom line. It also shows that business acumen is often overrated in politics.

Minimum Wage

One more quibble, I'd guess that whether one is right or left leaning has a much bigger impact on whether or not you want to raise the minimum wage than whether you worked with your hands. If there is data to the contrary, I'd like to see it.

T-Paw

Governor Pawlenty liked to talk about his blue collar roots. The son of a truck driver, native of South Saint Paul etc. But FDR, a son of privilege, had a far better feel for the needs and dreams of the working class.

Some times the apple rolls far, far away from the tree.

I would venture a guess

that FDR understood that he was privileged, that not everything he had or owned was a result of his own hard work.

T-Paw seems to be a typical Republican, thinking his success and good fortune are simply a result of his own actions, without any understanding of the benefit and privilege provided him by being a member of this society. It's much easier to forget about 'those people' who didn't work as hard to achieve something like he did.

Needs of the working class

Right. As a leftist politician he knew that you can get the rubes to vote for you by promising to give them things, paid for my someone else. Works every time.