White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making


Eight of the last twelve presidents were millionaires when they took office. Millionaires have a majority on the Supreme Court, and they also make up majorities in Congress, where a background in business or law is the norm and the average member has spent less than two percent of his or her adult life in a working-class job. Why is it that most politicians in America are so much better off than the people who elect them— and does the social class divide between citizens and ...

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Eight of the last twelve presidents were millionaires when they took office. Millionaires have a majority on the Supreme Court, and they also make up majorities in Congress, where a background in business or law is the norm and the average member has spent less than two percent of his or her adult life in a working-class job. Why is it that most politicians in America are so much better off than the people who elect them— and does the social class divide between citizens and their representatives matter?

With White-Collar Government, Nicholas Carnes answers this question with a resounding—and disturbing—yes. Legislators’ socioeconomic backgrounds, he shows, have a profound impact on both how they view the issues and the choices they make in office. Scant representation from among the working class almost guarantees that the policymaking process will be skewed toward outcomes that favor the upper class. It matters that the wealthiest Americans set the tax rates for the wealthy, that white-collar professionals choose the minimum wage for blue-collar workers, and that people who have always had health insurance decide whether or not to help those without. And while there is no one cause for this crisis of representation, Carnes shows that the problem does not stem from a lack of qualified candidates from among the working class. The solution, he argues, must involve a variety of changes, from the equalization of campaign funding to a shift in the types of candidates the parties support.

If we want a government for the people, we have to start working toward a government that is truly by the people. White-Collar Government challenges long-held notions about the causes of political inequality in the United States and speaks to enduring questions about representation and political accountability.

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Editorial Reviews

Timothy Noah
“‘Where you stand depends on where you sit’ is a maxim seldom applied to the economic backgrounds of legislators. But Nicholas Carnes’s eye-opening study shows social class and work experience to be key determinants in shaping how Congress and state legislatures write laws and shape policies.”
Jacob S. Hacker
"If you’re wondering 'what’s the matter with Kansas?'—working-class Americans voting against their own class interest—you should be asking, 'what’s the matter with Congress (and state legislatures, the Supreme Court, and basically every other American political institution)?' As Nicholas Carnes engagingly shows, politicians with working-class backgrounds take positions very much in line with working-class interests. The problem is that there are hardly any of them in office. Sure to stir debate, White-Collar Government opens up exciting research vistas and new strategies of reform."
Martin S. Gilens
"White-Collar Government is a superb analysis of an important and long-neglected topic. Nicholas Carnes documents the overwhelming underrepresentation of the working class in America's legislatures and shows why it matters. At local, state, and national levels, the dearth of representatives from working-class backgrounds, Carnes shows, has bent public policies toward the interests of business and the well-to-do. This book combines fluid, accessible prose with methodological rigor to make a powerful statement about the causes and consequences of our disproportionately white-collar government. Anyone concerned with the health of American democracy needs to read Carnes' compelling study."
Ezra Klein
“That Congress contains more than its fair share of millionaires is fairly well known. But I’ve never seen it put quite this vividly. . . . Nicholas Carnes’s research—and common sense—shows that the simple fact of being a white-collar millionaire leads to different priorities. It leads to different social circles. It leads to different bills.”
Theda Skocpol
“A bold, compelling, and much-needed study of how the lack of working class individuals in public life shapes what government does. Nicholas Carnes undertakes a careful analysis to show how the disproportionate representation of people from white-collar professions skews government output toward conservative economic policies. The evidence he presents convinces me!”
Huffington Post - Glenn C. Altschuler
“Legislators with substantial working-class experience constitute less than two percent of Congress, whose members have a median net worth of $1.5 million, almost twenty times the amount held by the median family in the United States. In White-Collar Government, Carnes carefully documents this reality, which has been hidden in plain sight. And he demonstrates that it matters: politicians from the working classes, it turns out, think and vote differently from those with white collars on economic issues, including taxation, social spending and corporate regulations. With its compelling case that ‘who wins and who loses depends in large part on who governs,’ his rigorous book should command the attention of everyone who is concerned about the state of our democracy.”
Democracy - Tom Perriello
“America’s relationship to class is complicated, and tracking what is a powerful but often invisible identifier is a challenge. Carnes’s book offers scholars a much-needed jumping-off point for continued research on why the working class is vastly underrepresented in public office and how this affects policy outcomes.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226087146
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/5/2013
  • Series: Chicago Studies in American Politics Series
  • Pages: 200
  • Sales rank: 642,318
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Nicholas Carnes is assistant professor of public policy in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He lives in Durham, NC, and he has worked as a bus boy, dishwasher, and construction worker.

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Read an Excerpt

White-Collar Government

The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making


The University of Chicago

Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-08700-9


White-Collar Government

In 1971, a house painter from Providence named Edward Beard was elected to the Rhode Island state legislature. Beard's political prospects initially seemed uncertain: he had never held a public office before, and to make ends meet he had to continue working full time as a painter while serving in the state legislature. However, Beard was a determined politician, and his down-to-earth style quickly earned him a loyal following in his largely working-class district. In 1974, he stunned the state's political establishment by running for Congress and defeating an incumbent from his own party in a campaign that cost Beard just $900 and, in his words, "a hell of a lot of work" (Siddon 1977, 2). The following January, Edward Beard quit his house painting job and was sworn into the United States Congress.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Congressman Beard—who had "never earned more than $9,800 a year [the equivalent of roughly $35,000 today] before drawing his congressional salary" (Stuart 1977)—spent much of his time in Washington promoting causes that he saw as important to the interests of working-class Americans. He consistently voted in support of prolabor legislation; during his first term, the AFL-CIO gave him a perfect score in its annual ranking of legislators' voting records. By his second term, he had been appointed chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor's Subcommittee on Labor Standards. And in 1977, Beard founded the House's first Blue Collar Caucus "to let people know that blue collar workers can be in Congress ... [, that] Congress is not just for lawyers and professional people" (Siddon 1977, 2).

The connection between Beard's humble background and his energetic populism was not lost on political observers, or on Beard himself. He kept a small paintbrush in his coat pocket and on the door of his congressional office as a "symbol of who I am and where I'm from—the working people" (Associated Press 1980, J8). When asked why he founded the Blue Collar Caucus, Beard explained that "many of us experienced unemployment. Many of us know, from first-hand experience, what public works jobs mean. I shined shoes in Providence. I was a recipient of The Providence Journal Santa Claus Fund" (Tolchin 1977, 13A). Beard was also outspoken about the importance of encouraging working-class Americans to play more of a role in government. "It is a real shame," he often told reporters, "that only two percent of the members of Congress come from the majority of the voters" (Siddon 1977, 2).

Scholars have long recognized that people like Beard—people from what we might call the working class—are rare in American political institutions, especially compared to their numbers in the nation as a whole. As Donald R. Matthews (1985, 18) observed more than a quarter century ago, "almost everywhere legislators are better educated, possess higher-status occupations, and have more privileged backgrounds than the people they 'represent.'" Whether this enduring feature of our political process has real consequences, however, remains an open question. Although political observers, philosophers, and policy makers have expressed concerns about the social class makeup of our political institutions since the Founding, political scientists have done little more than speculate about the links between policy makers' class backgrounds—their past and present positions in our society's economic or status structures—and the conduct of government. Class-based differences in ordinary Americans' political views are well documented. So, too, are the connections between policy makers' choices and other personal characteristics such as their races and genders. For the past half century, however, scholars of US politics have acted as though the social class divisions that we observe in political opinion surveys, in election results, and in everyday life somehow disappear in our policy-making institutions.

This book provides a long-overdue look at how inequalities in the social class makeup of American political institutions affect public policy in the United States. Using data on US legislatures, I explore how lawmakers from different classes make decisions about the economic issues that have historically divided Americans along social class lines, issues like taxes, business regulations, and the social safety net. My analyses focus both on how legislators from different classes differ in office and on how these individual-level differences influence collective outcomes—how the shortage of people from the working class and the sharp overrepresentation of white-collar professionals affect the economic policies our government enacts.

The findings reported in this book provide the first evidence that the unequal social class makeup of our political institutions affects who wins and who loses in the policy-making process. Like ordinary Americans, lawmakers from different classes tend to think, vote, and advocate differently on economic issues. The numerical underrepresentation of the working class in our legislatures consequently skews economic policy making toward outcomes that are more in line with what more privileged Americans want.

These long-standing realities of American political life have serious implications both for contemporary debates about the government's role in economic affairs and for larger questions about policy making, representation, and political equality in the United States. Scholars, political observers, and those interested in reforming our system of government cannot afford to continue ignoring the fact that the working class is vastly underrepresented in public office, that policies that affect Americans from all walks of life are made by a white-collar government.

What Is Class?

Societies tend to be organized or stratified along widely accepted economic and status dimensions. Some people are well off and well regarded. Others are not. And most observers agree about which people are which. Scholars refer to groups of people who occupy comparable positions on these dimensions as social classes. People in a given class tend to have similar interests because of their similar places in society. Some recognize these common bonds and consciously identify with their class. Others are driven by their social endowments to adopt certain habits without giving much thought to how their place in society influences their views and choices.

The dividing lines between social classes in most societies revolve around the labor market, that is, how people earn a living. Broad divisions—like those between the owner of a factory and her employees—are plainly apparent. Finer distinctions are, too. The CEO and the middle manager at a large firm are both part of management, but they fall in different places within that category. The foreman in a factory and the line worker he supervises are both workers, but most observers would say that the line worker belongs to a different (and slightly lower) rank or class. Occupations can be categorized in many ways: by how much money they pay, how much education they require, the amount of authority over others they entail, the amount of accountability to supervisors they demand, how prestigious they are, or—perhaps most famously—their relationship to the means of production. Each of these attributes affects the people in a given line of work in some way (and may affect which people choose a given line of work). Each therefore has the potential to create the shared interests that make classes an important feature of how societies work.

Of course, occupational differences are by no means the only dividing lines between social classes. A person's class is reflected in how she speaks and dresses, the kind of home she lives in, the kinds of recreational activities she pursues, and a wide range of other characteristics. These attitudes and behaviors are an important part of the way class distinctions manifest in everyday life. In general, however, they are strongly associated with how people earn a living. People in similar lines of work lead similar kinds of lives.

Although Americans often dislike talking about class, social class divisions color many aspects of our lives. In the United States, a person's class is one of the best predictors of a variety of behaviors ranging from matters of taste such as entertainment, art, and consumption (Holt 1998) to decisions about where to live (Lott 2002), whom to invite into our social circles (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Cook 2001), how to speak (Lamont 1992), and how to raise our children (Anyon 1996). Class predicts significant differences in health outcomes (Carpiano, Link, and Phelan 2008) and incarceration rates (Western and Pettit 2010). It creates material interests that pit people from different classes against one another in a variety of settings (Wright 1997). And it affects how involved people are in civic life (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995, chap. 7), how they think about a wide range of political issues (Campbell et al. 1960, chap. 13; Hout 2008), and how they vote on election day (Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee 1954; Hout, Manza, and Brooks 1995). We may not like talking about class, but it permeates just about everything we do.

Including holding public office.

The Unequal Social Class Makeup of American Political Institutions

By virtually any measure of class or social attainment, the average policy maker in the United States is vastly better off than the average citizen. The size of the social gap between citizens and their representatives varies somewhat across different political institutions and depends in part on how exactly we measure class. In general, however, politicians tend to be drawn overwhelmingly from the top strata of American society. According to the 2000 census, roughly 65 percent of Americans were raised in families headed by blue-collar workers (manual laborers or service industry workers), 54 percent worked in blue-collar jobs themselves, and 73 percent of people over age twenty-five did not have college degrees (Ruggles et al. 2009). The latest Federal Reserve estimates suggest that the median net worth of American families was $77,300 in 2010 (Bricker et al. 2012). On each of these measures, politicians in every level and branch of American government are considerably better off than the citizens they represent.

Historically, our presidents have been our most privileged leaders (Pessen 1984). At least since the start of the twentieth century, no blue-collar worker has ever become president; every chief executive has been a former business owner, farm owner, lawyer, or skilled professional (CQ Press 2008). Three-quarters of all presidents have had college degrees, and only one president in the last century (Harry Truman) did not. At least eight of the twelve postwar presidents have had a net worth equivalent to $1 million or more today when they took office (McIntyre, Sauter, and Allen 2010). And although many of our presidents grew up in families of modest means—five of the twelve postwar presidents were raised by low-income or working-class parents—even by this measure, presidents significantly outrank ordinary Americans.

The story is essentially the same in the other branches of the federal government. Every seat on the Supreme Court is filled by a lawyer who graduated from Harvard or Yale (Turley 2010). Millionaires currently make up a 5–4 majority (New York Times 2010, A11), and only two justices (Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor) were raised by blue-collar workers.

Even members of Congress—the branch of the federal government often touted as most closely reflecting the nation's diversity—are vastly better off than the people who elect them. Lawyers and business owners, who make up approximately 10 percent of the population, comprise at least half of both chambers, whereas legislators from working-class jobs make up less than 2 percent of Congress. Almost every member today is a college graduate. Only 20 percent grew up in working-class homes. And the median net worth of members of Congress is approximately $1.5 million (Center for Responsive Politics 2012), roughly nineteen times the median net worth of American families.

State and local officials tend to be slightly less privileged, but even in these jurisdictions, most policy makers are considerably better off than the citizens they represent. According to the most recent data available, blue-collar workers make up just 3 percent of the average state legislature (National Conference of State Legislatures 2011) and 9 percent of the average city council (International City/County Management Association 2001). Almost 75 percent of state lawmakers (Chronicle of Higher Education 2011) and 68 percent of city council members (ICMA 1991) have college degrees, fewer than in Congress but still far more than among the general public. There are no nationwide surveys of the financial resources and family backgrounds of state and local legislators, but there are signs that these measures are likely skewed toward privilege as well: the median net worth of state lawmakers in Florida in 2008, for instance, was more than $700,000 (Kam and Smith 2008)—just shy of Congress's median net worth at that time.

These inequalities in the makeup of our political representatives even cross party lines. Between 1999 and 2008, the average Republican in Congress had spent about 1 percent of his precongressional career in blue-collar jobs, and the average Democrat had spent about 2 percent, a statistically negligible difference. On some class measures, Democrats are closer than Republicans to the typical American: in the early 2000s, the average congressional Democrat had a significantly lower net worth (approximately $640,000) than the average Republican (just under $1 million). However, even on measures like this one, congressional Democrats are still closer to their colleagues in the GOP than they are to the typical American family (which had a net worth of approximately $120,000 in the early 2000s). Republican politicians may be slightly more privileged, but both parties are, in a descriptive sense, the party of the well off.

Figure 1.1 summarizes how presidents, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, state legislators, city council members, and ordinary Americans rank on four common measures of social class: occupation (measured as the percentage of individuals who worked in manual labor or service industry jobs), educational attainment (the percentage without college degrees), financial resources (the percentage who were not millionaires), and family background (the percentage who were raised by poor or working-class families). Viewed this way, it is easy to see how the gap between politicians and citizens varies across different class indicators and different political institutions. The most striking feature of figure 1.1, however, is how consistently political decision makers outrank ordinary Americans. Compared to the average citizen, the average politician in each set of institutions was at least 20 percentage points more likely to come from a white-collar (that is, non-working-class) family and at least 40 percentage points more likely to have a college degree, to come from a white-collar occupation, and to be a millionaire. At every point in the policy-making process, people with significant social and economic advantages are running the show.

These imbalances are by no means recent developments. They have persisted, moreover, even as other underrepresented groups have begun to break through the glass ceiling. Figure 1.2 plots the percentage of members of Congress who served between 1901 and 1996 who were women, racial or ethnic minorities, and who were from the working class (that is, who last worked as manual laborers, service industry workers, or union officials before entering politics). Although women and minorities were still underrepresented at the end of the twentieth century, both groups gained considerable ground during the postwar period. In sharp contrast, working-class Americans—who have made up more than 50 percent of the labor force for at least the last hundred years—have never made up more than 2 percent of Congress.

This long-standing feature of American political life isn't going anywhere any time soon, either. Data on the makeup of state and local legislatures—which tend to foreshadow demographic changes in national offices—suggest that, if anything, working-class representation may decline even further in the short term. In state legislatures, for instance, women's representation skyrocketed from 8 percent to 24 percent between 1976 and 2007, and the share of lawmakers who were black or Latino grew from 9 percent to 11 percent. During the same period, the share of state legislators from blue-collar jobs fell from 5 percent to 3 percent. The path to political office has always been difficult for the working class, and it doesn't seem to be getting any easier.

Excerpted from White-Collar Government by NICHOLAS CARNES. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1      White-Collar Government
            What Is Class?
            The Unequal Social Class Makeup of American Political Institutions
            The Elephant in the Room
            Why Does Class Matter?
            The Evidence
2      Voting with Class
            Legislative Voting as a Window into the Importance of Class
            Measuring the Divisions
            Class and Legislative Voting Today
            Class and Legislative Voting during the Postwar Period
            The Enduring Imprint of Class
            Representational Inequality in “Ayes” and “Nays”
3      Before the Votes are Cast
            Legislative Entrepreneurs
The Role of Class
Measuring Legislative Entrepreneurship
The Policies Legislators Propose
The Policies Legislators Pass
Leaving the Working Class Off the Agenda
4      Class, Opinions, and Choices
            Out of Touch, or Out of Step?
            Inside the Mind of a Member of Congress
            The Importance of Opinions
            Who’s Out of Touch Now?
            Out-of-Step Government
5      Economic Policy Making in Class-Imbalanced Legislatures
Representation and Policy Making
What Would a Class-Balanced Congress Have Done?
When the Working Class Holds Office
Blue-Collar Government
The Economic Consequences of White-Collar Government
6      Fixing the Broken Mirror
What’s Keeping the Working Class Out of Office?
Thinking Bigger about Inequality       
Up Front There Ought’a Be a Man in Black

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