We Need a Working-Class Congress

US Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) at a press conference at the Capitol on July 15, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who proudly self-identifies as a working-class Latina from the Bronx, made national headlines when she defeated incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley for the Democratic nomination for New York’s 14th congressional district, in what has been called the biggest political upset in the 2018 midterm election.

In a viral campaign video, Ocasio-Cortez begins with the powerful statement: “Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office.” She adds: “I wasn’t born to a wealthy or powerful family — mother from Puerto Rico, father from the South Bronx.”

Ocasio-Cortez frequently appeals to her working-class background and her experiences working as a bartender and a waitress after college to support her progressive positions on economic policy.

So far, political experts have focused on what the success of Ocasio-Cortez’s winning Democratic-Socialist platform means for the Democratic Party. However, the 28-year old’s working-class background means far more for the party and for the American people.

Congress is notoriously rich, white and male. According to 2018 financial disclosures obtained and analyzed by Roll Call, the wealthiest member of Congress is Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who co-founded Directed Electronics and has a personal net worth of $283.3 million. The second wealthiest is freshman Montana Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte, who founded RightNow Technologies and has a personal net worth of $135.7 million.

The disparate wealth of Congress transcends political lines with Colorado Democrat Jared Polis and Maryland Democrat John Delaney coming in at 3rd and 6th wealthiest members of Congress, respectively.

Only about two percent of members of Congress come from a working-class background, yet more than half — 54 percent — of Americans are in working-class jobs. And contrary to prevailing political rhetoric, the majority of working-class Americans are not in manufacturing jobs, but in the service industry like retail, food, and health care.

Working-class Americans, from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, see the economy as being rigged for the wealthy and say their top issue is making the economy work for them, according to data from four major surveys collected by the Center for American Progress.

American workers overwhelmingly support policies to increase the minimum wage, ensure paid leave and equal pay, expand access to health care and retirement benefits, make college more affordable, regulate banks, and impose higher taxes on the wealthy.

But do the socioeconomic backgrounds of Congress matter? Is a working-class Congress member more likely to support policies that help working-class families? Is a wealthy Congress member more likely to support tax cuts for the wealthy? Political science research suggests that class does indeed matter when it comes to voting records.

Nicholas Carnes, political science professor at Duke University and author of “White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making,” found that representatives who grew up working-class voted significantly more liberal on economic issues than their upper-class counterparts, even after controlling for current wealth and income, district income, race, and ideology.

It’s not hard to fathom. If you grew up in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck, you probably have direct experience earning minimum wage, or benefiting from the Earned Income Tax Credit, and so you’re more likely to vote in the economic interest of the working class.

But working-class candidates face significant barriers to running for public office. Under current election law, congressional campaigns are largely funded by super PACs and private wealthy donors. According to data from the 2012 election cycle collected by MapLight, which tracks money in politics, House members, on average, each raised $1,689,580, while Senators, on average, each raised $10,476,45.

So how’s a working mother of 3 supposed to come up with over $1 million to run for Congress? One way we can incentivize more working-class candidates to run for office is to switch to a public financing system. Today, 14 states provide some form of public financing option for campaigns. Public financing in Connecticut, Maine, and Arizona has produced more economically and racially diverse candidates.

If we are committed to pushing Congress to support policies that will help the average working-class American, like Medicare for All, tuition-free college or a federal jobs guarantee, we must first examine Congress and its economic interests. We must elect more working-class Americans like Ocasio-Cortez to Congress who will represent the interests of the average working-class American and not just wealthy donors.

We can start by building a working-class party, one that is intersectional and responds to the demands of gender, racial and economic justice.

Alabama native. Paralegal @ACLU Voting Rights Project. @Georgetown alumna. Committee Member @MoCoCAHV. @TrumanApp Scholar. She/her. Views my own.

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