Last week, a small group of extravagantly wealthy Americans shut down our federal government. They werent lobbyists. They werent big campaign donors. The millionaires who shuttered our civil institutions didnt have to buy influence from our politicians. The millionaires who shut down Washington are our politicians.
On both sides of the aisle, the vast majority of our lawmakers come from the most privileged slice of American society. If Barack Obama, John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell sat down to talk about how to solve the budget impasse, no one at the table would have a net worth under $1.7 million.
And they arent alone. Working-class jobs manual labor and service-industry positions make up a majority of our labor force, but people from those kinds of jobs make up less than 2 percent of Congress. Meanwhile, millionaires who make up less than 5 percent of the country control all three branches of the federal government: They have a majority in the House, a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate, a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House.
Were letting people who have always had health insurance decide whether to help people without it. Were letting people with personal fortunes that insulate them from the rest of society decide how much to spend on the schools and hospitals and other public goods that everyone else depends on.
And now they cant agree on a plan to fund any of it. The class of people who can easily weather a government shutdown just shut the government down.
Of course, its impossible to know how our lawmakers would have behaved if more of them had come from the classes of Americans who are being hit hardest by the shutdown.
But the available evidence suggests that our lawmakers would probably go much further to protect the middle and working classes if more of them came from those classes themselves. As I found in researching a forthcoming book, lawmakers from more affluent backgrounds tend to be stingy with social safety net programs and flimsy with business regulations. They weaken protections for workers and approve tax policies favoring the rich. Lawmakers from the working class, on the other hand, tend to take the needs of American workers more seriously even in the face of pressure from lobbyists, wealthy donors and extremist groups.
If our political institutions were made up of the same mix of classes as the people they represent, our lawmakers probably wouldnt have shut down the government over a health care law. Our white-collar government comes at a high price, not just for the less fortunate, but for all of us.
But it doesnt have to be this way. In my research, Ive found hard data that suggest there are droves of talented, politically capable, working-class Americans out there who would make great politicians. And when they run for office, they tend to do well.
But many of these potential candidates are currently being screened out long before election day by practical barriers like the difficulty of taking time off work to campaign or the high cost of running for public office.
However, innovative programs to recruit and support middle- and working-class candidates are showing tremendous promise. In New Jersey, the AFL-CIO runs a Labor Candidates School; its graduates have won more than 700 state and local races. Pro-worker groups have recently launched similar programs all over the country. This year, Oregon, California, Nevada and Maine were all home to campaign boot camps for politically talented blue-collar workers.
Programs like these are some of the most promising new directions in the fight for government that represents the will of the people. But until they really take root until candidates from middle- and working-class backgrounds stop being the exception and start being the rule were going to be stuck with a white-collar government, one that can turn on a dime when big banks are in trouble but squabbles and struggles when funding for retirees, veterans and children is on the line.
Is it time to start electing more middle- and working-class people to political office? That depends: Are you happy with how millionaires are running our country?
Nicholas Carnes, an assistant professor of public policy at Duke Universitys Sanford School of Public Policy, is author of the soon-to-be-published book White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making.