14 October 2012

The 1% Congress

Some time ago I read a paper* by Nicholas Carnes, a young political scientist at Duke University. He studies the economic class background of politicians, specifically members of the US Congress. Unsurprisingly, he discovered that there are a vanishing small number of representatives from working class backgrounds in the U.S. House and Senate. And, unsurprisingly, he postulates that this has skewed the policies that Congress enacts.

Now, you might think this is the sort of thing that everyone, including your grandmother and mine, knows. And a moment's reflection suggests that that likely is so. That said, I think this is smart research that shines a bright, unflattering light on the inbred shallowness of the discipline of political science. And it does underscore the class basis of American politics.

In any case, Carnes has this Op Ed in The New York Times this morning sketching his research findings. The one thing that seems lame to me is the diffuseness of his proposed remedy and the basis for it. He thinks we can turn the under-representation of working class Americans around with a bit of elbow grease. He basically says 'Hey Look, in 1945 only 2% of Congressional representatives were women and now 17% are! Let's congratulate ourselves!" But let's remember that it is now 2012. In nearly seven decades Carnes's numbers  indicate that we have made only glacial progress toward gender equality in political representation.**  And, let's remember too that the the members of the 1% who are represented in Congress have 0% reason to support (and 100% reason to oppose) anything like the decentralized electoral strategy Carnes gestures at. This is a problem that demands direct political action; it is another indication of why the progressive agenda following on OWS should be about political rights.
* Nicholas Carnes. 2012. "Does the Numerical Underrepresentation of the Working Class in Congress Matter?" Legislative Studies Quarterly XXXVII: 5–34.
Working-class citizens have been numerically underrepresented in policymaking institutions throughout most of America’s history. Little is known, however, about the political consequences of this enduring feature of our democratic system. This essay examines the relationship between legislators’ class backgrounds and their votes on economic policy in the House of Representatives during the twentieth century. Like ordinary Americans, representatives from working-class occupations exhibit more liberal economic preferences than other legislators, especially those from profit-oriented professions. These findings provide the first evidence of a link between the descriptive and substantive representation of social classes in the United States.

** As Susan points out, the increase in female Congressional representatives is overwhelmingly due to the election of African-American women. There are relatively few Republicans. And, I'd bet that the white women who do serve in Congress mimic the overall class background of the two houses.

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Blogger gus said...

I stumbled in here from a link by kenneturner.com, but I felt a need to say that I've read through quite a bit (and there's a lot of food for thought here.)

But the reason for this comment (and it's off topic entirely... so, feel free to delete or whatever) is that I wanted to recommend a blog done by someone doing some brilliant photography (mostly on the streets of NYC) of homeless folks. If you haven't already encountered his stuff, the blog is at: http://lustandrum.com/

I find this guy's images compelling enough to want to spread the word.

14 October, 2012 22:22  
Blogger trane said...

Hi Jim,

Interesting article, thanks for posting.

I think your reading of Carnes' 'remedy' is a little uncharitable. He is just saying that things can change, not that the 17 per cent women's representation is good enough. It is just better than what used to be.

Carnes also points out that workers do not lack sufficient skills to act in politics. They are being kept out, and we need to understand how.


16 October, 2012 07:14  

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