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.
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.
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.