Commentary: The wealthy dominate government. Democrats should work to change that.


Democrats are struggling to win over working-class voters, which spells trouble for the party because these voters compose a commanding majority of the electorate. But Democrats’ blue-collar blues also reflect a much larger problem: the total dominance of our government by the rich.

The United States has long been governed by millionaires. In 2020, more than half of all members of Congress were millionaires, including nearly two-thirds of senators. It’s also true for more than 80 percent of those who have served as president, after adjusting for inflation.

In the tens of thousands of times that congressional seats have changed hands since 1789, lawyers have succeeded lawyers, millionaires have succeeded millionaires and millionaire-lawyers have succeeded millionaire-lawyers. But as Nicholas Carnes, a political science professor at Duke University, documented in his 2018 book, “The Cash Ceiling,” “two former blue-collar workers have never served in the same U.S. House seat back-to-back.”

Progressives often appeal for greater representation of women and minorities in government. Yet rarely is the case made for working-class lawmakers, even though the percentage of women and people of color who run for (and hold) public office far exceeds the percentage of ordinary workers who do the same. If members of the working class were proportionally represented in Congress, they would make up 60 percent to 70 percent of lawmakers, instead of the 2 percent to 5 percent that have historically won seats.

Unfortunately, Democrats don’t seem likely to increase their number of working-class officeholders anytime soon. A new study I co-authored for the Center For Working Class Politics found that of the 925 Democratic candidates who competed in the 2022 midterm elections, only 2.3 percent worked exclusively in blue-collar jobs – in manufacturing, construction or the service sector – before entering politics. Expand that to include pink-collar workers – such as elementary and high school teachers, librarians, social workers, and nurses – and that figure grows to a measly 5.9 percent.

(Don’t count on Republicans for more working-class candidates, either. Despite their attempts to rebrand as worker-friendly, they increasingly draw from the uber-rich. Several GOP Senate candidates this year are multimillionaires. One, Jim Justice of West Virginia, might even be a billionaire.)

The lack of working-class representation matters. It means workers’ political, economic and social interests have been shoved into the back seat while the wealthy drive the car. As CWCP will show in a forthcoming study, only 18 percent of Democratic political ads from 2022 mentioned jobs at all. Less than 2 percent mentioned the need for good, high-paying, living-wage or union jobs, and issues such as reshoring manufacturing and implementing a bold industrial policy were virtually absent.

Even President Biden’s own signature economic policies barely registered. Candidates were 6.5 times more likely to talk about abortion than the Inflation Reduction Act, the Chips Act or the bipartisan infrastructure law. No wonder many working-class voters don’t think Democrats represent their interests on the campaign trail.

In 2020, Democrats lost the non-college-educated working-class vote by four percentage points, and recent polls suggest that deficit could worsen in November. Fixing the party’s reputation among working-class voters won’t be easy, but recruiting and running working-class candidates could be a good first step for three reasons:

First, it’s good politics. The Democratic Party needs to win swing-states, especially Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – home to a disproportionate share of working-class voters. Our research has shown that such voters prefer working-class candidates over those from elite backgrounds. These candidates are more prone to highlight working-class interests on the campaign trail, such as jobs, wages and making big investments in left-behind regions. And our findings show that when Democrats put forward a strong pro-worker message, they can win crucial working-class toss-up districts.

Second, working-class officeholders are good policymakers. Compared with their elite counterparts, politicians from working-class backgrounds are likelier to pursue the sort of progressive economic agenda that Biden has tried to champion. They can provide a needed counterweight to the profound influence that the rich have in the halls of power.

Third, working-class candidates are surprisingly well-suited to challenging Republicans on their home turf. Cycle after cycle, Democrats pour energy and money into their own liberal backyards, home to the richest congressional districts in the country. By focusing on running up the score in safe, affluent blue districts, the party has neglected huge swaths of small-town and rural America, where many working-class voters struggle to get by. These voters rarely hear political appeals from the left, but there’s no reason working-class Democrats can’t go toe-to-toe with the GOP in Trumpland. Who better to challenge hedge-fund corporate executives than candidates drawn from the working class?

The good news is that efforts to recruit and run working-class candidates, with a pro-worker campaign message, have been successful. The New Jersey state affiliate of the AFL-CIO has helped train and run more than 1,000 working-class candidates – from City Hall to Congress – and boasts an impressive 77 percent success rate. Democrats ought to emulate that model if they are to have any hope of winning our democracy back from the grip of the rich.

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Dustin Guastella is a research associate at the Center for Working Class Politics and the director of operations for Teamsters Local 623 in Philadelphia.

(Disclaimer:The views expressed here are the author’s alone.)



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