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.
About the Author
Nicholas Carnes is assistant professor of public policy in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He has worked as a cashier, bus boy, dishwasher, receptionist, and construction worker.
"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."
— Jacob S. Hacker, Yale University, coauthor of Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class
“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.” — Ezra Klein, Washington Post
“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!” — Theda Skocpol, Harvard University
“‘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.” — Timothy Noah, author of The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It
"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."
— Martin S. Gilens, Princeton University, author of Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America
“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.” — Glenn C. Altschuler
“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.”
— Tom Perriello
“In politics, class matters, and it matters immensely. . . . Carnes offers striking evidence that the class background of legislators profoundly influences the US political system. . . . White-Collar Government demonstrates that the working class is radically underrepresented in all levels of US government, and the consequences are substantial. I hope (and suspect) that Carnes’s findings will ignite a wave of research that builds on these conclusions.” — Congress and the Presidency
“[Carnes] explores the hidden role of class in economic policy making and presents a solution to the notion that legislators’ socioeconomic backgrounds have a profound impact not only on how they view issues but also on the choices they make in office.” — Journal of Economic Literature