Prof. Nicholas Carnes, political science, Duke University, discussed economic inequality in government in a talk on Monday.

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Prof. Nicholas Carnes, political science, Duke University, discussed economic inequality in government in a talk on Monday.

February 28, 2018

Professor Examines Causes of Socioeconomic Inequality Among Elected Officials

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A Duke professor sought to answer one simple question in his lecture for Cornellians: “Why is the U.S. government an upper-class club?”

As the second speaker in a lecture series exploring “the difficulty of democracy,” Prof. Nicholas Carnes, political science, Duke University, sought to answer why less than three percent of state legislators are from the working class, which composes more than 50 percent of the population.

Carnes started the lecture by tentatively posing three potential answers to his question: working class individuals either cannot run for elected positions, are not being asked to run, or are simply uninterested in doing so.

Carnes quickly debunked the third explanation, concluding that the underrepresentation of working class individuals in political offices cannot be explained by a lack of political interest.

“I don’t think working class people are less interested in becoming politicians,” Carnes said. “I can’t find any evidence … of a link between a deficit in political ambition and the shortage of working class people in political offices.”

According to a 2014 statistical study that Carnes conducted, working class individuals are just as confident as the professional workers that have the qualification to hold public office.

However, he acknowledged that there is a clear gender disparity in this arena.

“Equally qualified men and women have very different perceptions of how qualified they are,” Carnes said. “There’s a huge, 20 to 30 percentage point gap. Occupation isn’t the dividing line when it comes to political ambition; it’s gender.”

Carnes then argued that the two remaining options — that working class individuals cannot hold public office or are not being asked to — are more viable explanations for the disparity.

He first argued that working people are discouraged from running for office by the practical burdens it takes to run a campaign. When working people were asked during the study about the factors that prevented them from running for office, they were significantly more concerned than professional individuals about the burdens of running a campaign, according to Carnes.

“In states where employers and managers make huge salaries relative to working class people, working class people are far less likely to hold office and they’re less likely to run for political office in the first place,” Carnes said.

He also pointed to a less obvious factor that explains this gap in political participation.

He said party leaders admit to not recruiting working class men and women to run for office because they view them as “less qualified,” “less electable” and less effective fundraisers.

Carnes argued that electoral politics must be reconfigured to target working class populations for recruitment.

“It is not enough to change the political landscape for everybody,” he said. “If you make running for office easier for everybody, it’s just going to make it that much easier for the affluent professionals to hold office.”

“What does seem to work on the ground are targeted programs that are responsive to the needs of working class people,” Carnes proposed.

Carnes said he hopes his work will question the idea that working class individuals are not in elected positions because “they’re no good and voters don’t want them.”

“If we keep thinking this way, we’re going to miss out on a lot of great people who would make great politicians,” Carnes added.