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Congress Needs More Working-Class Members
You can’t represent most Americans with a government made up only of highly credentialed and wealthy elites.
There’s no greater positive myth in American life than the belief that our national government is “of the people, by the people, for the people” as President Abraham Lincoln famously stated in the Gettysburg Address.
Although this ideal may be theoretically true—the American system of government has lasted longer than any other system in the world, after all, with citizens electing their own representatives in regular and fair elections—a basic examination of the makeup of our current Congress reveals a few confounding facts that complicate our well-intended egalitarian beliefs about who runs the country. Consider this:
Contemporary members of Congress look nothing like the rest of America in terms of their educational attainment and job backgrounds. According to the Congressional Research Service, 94 percent of House members and 100 percent of Senators in the 117th U.S. Congress have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. For comparison, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2021 only 38 percent of Americans age 25 years or older had obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher. The near uniformity of college education among members of Congress today stands in stark contrast to mid-century trends when three-quarters of Senators and a little more than half of House members had obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Likewise, although you can find a smattering of social workers (7), union representatives (3), farmers or ranchers (27), police officers (6), firefighters (2), and one flight attendant and one fruit orchard worker in Congress, most national legislators today are some combination of former politicians (361), business types (320), or lawyers (230).
Legislators with backgrounds in manual labor, food and beverage industries, retail, transportation, or clerical work—traditional working-class jobs—are virtually non-existent in today’s Congress.
Contemporary members of Congress are extremely wealthy. According to Open Secrets, the total cost for all Congressional elections in 2020 approached $9 billion—an increase of more than $4 billion just since 2016. Not surprisingly then given the absurd cost of running for office, Congress contains a multitude of very wealthy members. Analysis of available financial disclosures shows that more than half of the members in the last Congress were millionaires.
In contrast, the median net wealth of American households is around $120,000—a decent nest egg or home investment for many people but not the starter fund for a political career in the U.S. Congress. The average worker in America has enough troubles trying to cover basic living expenses and save a bit for their kids or retirement, let alone spearhead and self-fund a multi-million dollar congressional race.
Does any of this class inequality in representation really matter in terms of the outcomes of American democracy?
One may argue that these educational, work, and wealth disparities between members of Congress and the public at large are relatively unimportant—highly educated and very rich people can still look out for the interests of the wider public and the country overall. Fair enough. FDR wasn’t called a “traitor to his class” without good reason. Although himself the son of an American aristocratic family, President Roosevelt steered the country through the Great Depression and WWII and put in place many of the major government efforts that helped build America’s middle class.
At the same time, would a legislative body that contained more secretaries, medical assistants, plumbers, longshoremen, waitresses, truck drivers, and stay-at-home moms focus on the same weird economic and cultural priorities that currently occupy the minds of the wealthy and credentialed elites running Congress?
In some cases, yes. Politics is national these days and strange policy and issue obsessions cross education and income lines. But at a minimum, the presence of more blue-collar, non-elite legislators in Congress would better represent the class interests of an entire range of non-college educated Americans from both rural and urban areas—including concerns about jobs and wages, the need for affordable health care, access to good education for their kids, and better retirement security. Reflecting the beliefs and values of most working-class Americans, increased class balance in Congress would likely produce more economically nationalist and culturally moderate politics overall, and less concern for the interests of corporations and the culture war obsessions of educated elites. A “pro-worker, pro-family, pro-America” agenda—of and by workers themselves.
Ultimately, we won’t know for certain whether more education and job balance in Congress would produce better policy representation without first giving it a shot.
In that spirit, the two parties should address the imbalance by dedicating a fraction of the $14 billion spent on national elections in 2020 to future efforts to recruit, train, support, and publicize more candidates with good old American jobs and schooling levels. And rather than spend huge sums of party money on research and messaging projects that treat blue-collar and non-college voters like some rare bird species, why not make more working-class Americans the central actors in party decision making and policy development?
This approach certainly wouldn’t be any worse than what is on offer now from credentialed elites, and would likely better represent what “real Americans” need and want in life—increased economic security, safe and enjoyable neighborhoods, and the freedom to live out their own values and beliefs.
To their credit, the parties are trying (albeit slowly) to increase the diversity of their ranks in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, age, and religion. Let’s apply these same diversity principles to recruit more Americans into politics who do the hard work of keeping the country running—those American workers who grow and distribute the nation’s food supplies; maintain our roads and transportation systems; run the offices and stock the stores; extract and build key energy sources; pack, ship, and deliver goods to people; and care for our kids and provide for the sick and elderly.
Only then will we be closer to achieving a government actually run by all Americans, for all Americans.