The Cash Ceiling
Why Only the Rich Run for Office--and What We Can Do about It
Why working-class Americans almost never become politicians, what that means for democracy, and what reformers can do about it
Why are Americans governed by the rich? Millionaires make up only three percent of the public but control all three branches of the federal government. How did this happen? What stops lower-income and working-class Americans from becoming politicians? The first book to answer these urgent questions, The Cash Ceiling provides a compelling and comprehensive account of why so few working-class people hold office—and what reformers can do about it.
Using extensive data on candidates, politicians, party leaders, and voters, Nicholas Carnes debunks popular misconceptions (like the idea that workers are unelectable or unqualified to govern), identifies the factors that keep lower-class Americans off the ballot and out of political institutions, and evaluates a variety of reform proposals.
In the United States, Carnes shows, elections have a built-in “cash ceiling,” a series of structural barriers that make it almost impossible for the working-class to run for public office. Elections take a serious toll on candidates, many working-class Americans simply can’t shoulder the practical burdens, and civic and political leaders often pass them over in favor of white-collar candidates. But these obstacles aren’t inevitable. Pilot programs to recruit, train, and support working-class candidates have the potential to increase the economic diversity of our governing institutions and ultimately amplify the voices of ordinary citizens.
Who runs for office goes to the heart of whether we will have a democracy that is representative or not. The Cash Ceiling shows that the best hope for combating the oversized political influence of the rich might simply be to help more working-class Americans become politicians.
Nicholas Carnes is the Creed C. Black Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy. He is the author of White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.