A Congress Representing The Rich

K. Sabeel Rahman unpacks Nicholas Carnes’ White Collar Government, which documentsthe dominance of upper class individuals in the composition of legislatures”:

The intuition that class skews politics is mainstream by now, but Carnes provides a novel account of the mechanics of class identity in public policy. The issue for Carnes is not income levels so much as occupational background—the ways in which policymakers have earned their living in the past. Work, in his view, is what most centrally shapes daily life, and as a result, political attitudes. Carnes shows that working-class backgrounds—having the experience of working in occupations that provide little material security and generally require less formal education—characterizes 65 percent of American families, but are vastly underrepresented in Congress. This has major repercussions for Congress’ political views and outcomes. Even when controlling for differences in party affiliation, constituencies, campaign contribution sources, and demographic factors, legislators with working-class backgrounds are systematically more liberal on economics—in both their individual voting records and political attitudes towards issues like the role of government and the importance of social safety net policies. …

In real-world terms, turning the tables would have a major impact. If Congress’s class composition reflected the country as a whole, Carnes estimates it would be more labor-friendly and less business-friendly—enough to flip approximately six major legislative policy issues per term. If we were to reweight the last few Congresses to reflect the country’s actual class composition (while retaining other partisan and geographic features), a host of corporate-friendly liability shields and tax incentives would have failed, as would the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 and the financial bailout.