The American Plutocracy

Nicholas Carnes’s new book, White-Collar Government, examines the prevalence of the wealthy in our government. If American millionaires had their own political party, he notes, it would have “a majority in the House of Representatives, a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate, a 5 to 4 majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House”:

Political observers in the United States have always worried about the effects of government by the rich. During the Founding, Anti-Federalists warned that the Constitution would create a government of wealthy merchants that would “consist . . . of men who will have no congenial feelings with the people, but a perfect indifference for, and contempt of them.” Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton countered that although the Constitution might produce a white-collar government, the effects would be small because different classes of Americans would have the same basic views about economic policy. We all want growth, so what’s the harm in letting the upper class call the shots?

White-Collar Government is the first book to bring hard evidence to bear on this long-standing debate. In it, I’ve compiled every available source of data on how legislators from different occupational or social-class backgrounds think and behave in office. What I found is squarely at odds with the rosy notion that class doesn’t matter in our political institutions. Pollsters have known for decades that Americans from different classes have different views about economic issues, that working-class Americans tend to be more progressive and that the wealthy tend to want government to play a smaller role in economic affairs. White-Collar Government shows that politicians are no exception.

In an interview last November, Carnes explained his current research project:

Right now I’m working on a big set of research projects designed to shed light on why there are so few working-class people in office. I just finished surveying all 10,000 of the people who ran for state legislature nation-wide in 2012, and in a month or so, I’ll survey all 6,000 of the people who lead the state and county chapters of the Republican and Democratic parties.  I’m also mining existing data on the social class makeup of state legislatures to see whether there are times and places where working-class people have made progress in our political institutions. My approach is essentially the same one that I used when I wrote White-Collar Government: I’m going to pull together every available source of data on this problem (including some that I have to collect from scratch) to try to get the most complete picture possible. In a few years, I hope to be able to definitively say, “These are the factors that are keeping working-class people out of public office, and this is what you can do about it.”