While politics in the United States has grown more racially and ethnically diverse, and while women continue their march toward parity, the economic diversity of Congress has actually gone down. The shrinking of trade unions has removed the primary ladder for working people to rise to political leadership, and the result is a kind of economic segregation that marginalizes most Americans.
A year ago, the Congressional Research Service analyzed the pre-Congressional occupations of all 535 members of the Senate and House. Their report concluded that the overwhelming majority of our elected representatives were either professional politicians (331), lawyers (202), or business people – most often, businessmen (273). (The total adds up to more than 535 because some listed more than one occupation.)
The Center for Responsive politics inspected the financial disclosure forms of our representatives and found more than half are millionaires. In society as a whole, that number is just over 3%. There are more retail salespeople in the U.S. than millionaires, but not a single one serving in Congress. The same goes for food service workers and clerks. In fact, of the nine most commonly held professions only one has any representation at all – there are four nurses in the House of Representatives.
People are not defined by their station in life. FDR enjoyed a privileged – even indulged – upbringing before becoming the champion of the downtrodden. But the fact remains that a legislative body made up of people with jobs that come automatically with health insurance will tend to see healthcare in more abstract terms than someone who’s had to choose between eating and buying their medication. A person who has never lived one broken-down car from economic catastrophe is never going to fully understand what life is like for someone living close to minimum wage.
It may be more important to have working people represented in Congress now than at any time in a century. Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are going to transform the economy in the next 20 years. There may not be a single job that will not eventually be performed more economically by machines. How society copes with this massive change, and how it distributes the value produced by robots, is one of the great questions of our time. (The other is climate change, which is also going to have enormous and unpredictable economic effects.)
This scale of economic change cannot be left entirely to market forces to sort out. We know from history that the development of new, disruptive technologies tends to concentrate wealth in ways that threaten freedom. It happened after the industrial revolution, when the first great American fortunes were accumulated in the hands of perhaps 300 bold industrialists. It is happening today, as the information age pushes us toward a society with no middle class. And it will certainly happen as robotics become dominant.
How we’re going to adapt remains to be seen, but if we are to remain a free, pluralistic society one thing is certain: the working people who are going to be most affected by the changes need a seat at the table where the decisions will be made. Their voices and experience and priorities have to be properly represented, and that is never going to happen as long as Congress is the exclusive province of the wealthy and privileged.
Contributing Editor: Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson is the Communications Director of the People’s House Project (@PHP2018), a political action committee dedicated to electing middle- and working-class Progresives to the House of Representatives.