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Assessing class in government policy making

Which is preferable: Government by the working class? By white-collar workers? By the One Percent? Some blend of the three? None at all?

Panelists Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Debra Kiel, Thomas Bakk, and Nicholas Carnes during "White Collar Government" at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, March 7, 2014.
Panelists Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Debra Kiel, Thomas Bakk, and Nicholas Carnes during "White Collar Government" at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, March 7, 2014.
William Fietzer
Cover of the book on political policy making by Nicholas Carnes.

Some might choose the fifth option. And others might claim class doesn’t matter because few politicians have it anyway. But Duke University Professor Nicholas Carnes says “Politicians are people, too.” The policies they endorse tend to “be shaped by what they did before entering office.” That premise highlighted the panel discussion “White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Makin,” held at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs on March 6, 2014.

Other panelists Minnesota state Representative Debra Kiel, state Senator Thomas Bakk, and former House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher shared Carnes’ conviction that America “must find more ways to get ‘The People’ into government.” A former carpenter, Bakk said that his working class background provided fine training in how to get things done and how to cooperate. Red River farmer Kiel felt the hard work needed to be successful in modern agriculture gives excellent preparation for politics because “Life is changing on the farms” just as it is in modern society. And Kelliher agreed every day she spent as a politician was “an easier day than one I’d spent on the farm.”

They also agreed on the road blocks hindering more working class involvement in politics: Time and money. Bakk observed that during his twenty years of political service legislators received one pay raise from $29,000 to $31,000. Consequently, political participation is a non-consideration for working class people—they can’t afford it. That’s why in politics, Carnes says, “the working class perspective is almost totally absent, especially at the national level” where “never more than two per cent of Congress” came from working class backgrounds.

Despite the unanimity, the discussion contributed few concrete ways to increase that percentage. Technological changes such as conference calling or Skype were dismissed because the panelists felt politicians “need a central place to meet, where networking goes on” to witness intangibles like a colleague’s body language. A concept like “policy entrepreneurship” could alleviate newcomers’ general anxieties about what Bakk called “drinking from the fire hose” as budding legislators, but it doesn’t address the many different challenges faced by legislators in smaller districts or how to “tell people ‘No’.”

To reduce the number of retirees and One Percenters in government, Carnes advocates small tweaks to the system like revitalizing the political contribution tax refund. John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney’s “Dollarocracy” claim the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision has doomed such small initiatives to failure. America’s political history since its founding has been one of expanding political enfranchisement. To promote their concerns, working-class citizens must go beyond being “ones and zeroes” on politicians' spread sheets and actively participate in government because, as Kelliher quipped, among those politicians “some are more zeroes than ones.”

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