Working Class People Deserve Working Class Representation
Lia Lemieux (PPS ‘24)
In the United States, for people who don’t identify as a white, middle to-upper class, straight males, there is a lack of representation in public office. Women make up just over half of the US population, yet they only represent 27% of our current Congress. At the same time, racial and ethnic minorities make up 40% of the US population, but they only make up 23% of Congress. One demographic that is often overlooked when it comes to underrepresentation in public office is working-class people. However, they are not a minority of the population, and therefore their underrepresentation does not generally make its way into the discussion.
A minority of the US population, just under 33%, hold four-year college degrees, and an even smaller minority, below 15%, did not receive the equivalent of a high school education. Despite this, 95% of Congress holds at least a four year degree. This is just as pressing, if not more pressing, as the underrepresentation of minority groups because it affects an even higher proportion of Americans.
Nicholas Carnes, an expert on the underrepresentation of blue-collar workers in politics at Duke University, contends that “government by the privileged” causes steep oversights in decision-making on policies that affect most Americans. It can be argued that having the most qualified people possible will result in the best legislation. However, when the legislators live in a completely different world than their constituents, they cannot make laws that are best for a world they do not know and are not part of. What makes someone “qualified” to craft legislation if they don’t know the people they’re making the legislation for?
The elite class of Ivy League graduates and law school alumni does not have the same day-to-day experience as an average, or typical, American. Most of the Congress is made up of this class. However, they’re not facing the same issues as their working-class constituents. Although these constituents are free to contact their representatives, there are barriers that leave their voices unheard.
First, awareness is not the same as experience. A representative may be aware of their district or state’s struggle to pay rising property taxes, difficulties accessing safe greenspaces for their children, and fears of police violence, but they generally do not live in these same experiences. Most of these politicians can comfortably deal with rising housing costs, do not live in neighborhoods lacking parks for their children, and are not likely to be a victim of police violence. So, while they may have an awareness, they almost never have a true understanding of the burdens placed on their constituents.
Next, not all citizens have equal access to their representatives. Studies show that those who are more likely to be engaged with politics and legislators are those who demographically align with the legislators themselves. The politically engaged are predominantly middle-to-upper class, privileged people who have the resources to be engaged. This is a problem because it leaves the majority working-class without a voice once again. When representatives are left to make decisions based upon such a narrow set of the population, the outcomes will be skewed in favor of the elite minority no matter the intention of the legislator.
This is not to say that all working-class people have the exact same problems. There are nuances within every group; a policy to support workers in the steel industry may not directly benefit workers in the service industry. But, by enabling the working-class to obtain positions with political power, it’s more likely that a representative of steel workers or service workers will provide aid to the working-class generally.
While representation of minorities in public office is on the rise, representation of blue-collar individuals is not. Similar strategies to the ones that have been used to increase minority representation can be used to increase working class representation. One of the most straightforward ways of getting working class people into public office is putting money and other resources on the table. In his most recent book, The Cash Ceiling, Carnes argues that the key to getting anyone into office is ensuring that they plentiful access to as many resources required in campaigning as possible. When working-class people are given time, money, and support to run successful campaigns, representation of the working-class population is no longer limited to issues that the governing elite deem worthy of addressing. They will finally have the platform to bring their lived and living experience to the table with the weight it deserves.
Lia Lemieux (PPS ’24) is a Public Policy Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘22 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.