Why the Working Class Seldom Holds Office

Sanford School assistant professor Nick Carnes says barriers lie in resources, recruitment

Professor Nicholas Carnes discusses obstacles preventing working class people from running for office.
Professor Nicholas Carnes discusses obstacles preventing working class people from running for office.

Have you ever thought about running for office, but felt daunted by the financial cost of getting elected? According to Sanford School assistant professor Nick Carnes, you wouldn’t be alone.

Carnes presented his research on why only the wealthy seem to hold government positions to students and staff at a POLIS Lunch-and-Learn on Nov. 16 in the Sanford School of Public Policy.  His talk summarized some elements of his soon-to-be-released book, “The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run for Office,” scheduled for publication in August 2018.

The problem is not a lack of aspiration, according to Carnes. While there are significant gender gaps in political ambition, Carnes finds that qualified working-class individuals appear just as likely as professionals to express serious interest in campaigning and governing.

The barriers lie in resources and recruitment, he said.

“Qualified workers seldom run because they can seldom shoulder the practical burdens associated with campaigning, and because they are rarely encouraged by party leaders and other elite actors,” Carnes said. “That is, workers seldom hold office not because they don't want to, but because they can't and no one asks them.”

A striking example of the power of this barrier is hotel-maid-turned-city-councilwoman Carmen Castillo. When she first decided to run for the Providence, Rhode Island council, Castillo was a single mother of three, working full time to make ends meet. What tipped the scale? Encouragement and material support from her labor union, including help juggling a campaign, a full-time job and a family.

What will it take to break down barriers until we see a more representative governing body? The same thing that helped break down the barriers facing other social groups, according to Carnes: a concerted effort on the part of the politically well-connected to identify, recruit and support candidates from the working class -- and other historically under-represented groups.