John Edwards

Be Wary of Self-Proclaimed Working Class Heroes

John Edwards
U.S. Senator John Edwards, the mill worker’s son

Both Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras (and to a certain extent, Allan Fung) have been on the air with ads about their humble beginnings as the children of factory workers. To a liberal electorate, that’s an easy way to signal that they’ll be economically progressive. Unfortunately, researchers from Princeton and Duke have a study due out on why politicians born of the working class don’t necessarily make the best friends of the working class. As researchers Nicolas Carnes and Meredith Sadin explain:

…once we take into account one or more of the political characteristics that a citizen might know about a lawmaker, there are no measurable differences between legislators who were raised by factory workers and those who were raised by doctors (and, likewise, no differences when we expanded our analysis to compare legislators raised by working-class people and affluent professionals more generally). Ordinary Americans who were raised in the working class but who hold high-paying white-collar jobs themselves tend not to be all that different from other white-collar professionals. The same seems to be true for politicians. Some lawmakers raised in working-class families may be genuine working-class heroes. However, they appear to be the exceptions, not the rule. Once we know a legislator’s party, knowing what their parents did for a living doesn’t help us predict how they will vote on economic issues.

Carnes expands on this to Avital Andrews in Pacific Standard Magazine:

“Voters should pay more attention to what the candidate did for a living herself, or what the candidate has already done in office. When a candidate flashes a parent’s working-class credentials, it should set off a little alarm in the voter’s mind that says, ‘This candidate is playing up an aspect of their background that doesn’t usually predict how politicians behave in office.’ It should give voters even more motivation to take a hard look at the candidate’s actual record on the issues.”

The problem is that when candidates tell the story of their upbringing, voters make an assumption that their economic policies being on the more liberal side of things. Carnes and Sadin point out the more important tell, is what the candidates did in their adult lives. So while the factory worker parent might have made more progressive decisions, the venture capitalist daughter or the lawyer turned housing judge son will make decisions like a venture capitalist and a lawyer. And we only have to look at the last four years to see the proof of that. Or as Carnes and Sadin say:

…when they get down to the business of governing, mill workers’ sons tend to look just like everyone else with a $400 haircut.


P.S. You might be saying that as an intelligent person well-versed in politicians’ tricks, you aren’t going to fall for this. Well, Carnes and Sadin found out that smartypants like yourselves, who are well-informed about current politics are more likely to make inferences of economic progressivism when a candidate deploys the working class roots story.


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