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Working-class politicians aren't always best for the working class
"Even smart people can be taken in by myths about mill workers' sons"
 
Don't let those rolled-up shirtsleeves fool you.
Don't let those rolled-up shirtsleeves fool you. (William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

If you live in an area that votes Democrats into office, you've likely heard politicians go on ad nauseam about their humble beginnings. That's because when voters hear that a candidate has working-class roots, they assume that candidate is progressive on economic issues.

In reality, though, there's no difference between how a mill worker's child and a doctor's child behaves once elected.

That's according to a study, by Duke's Nicholas Carnes and Princeton's Meredith Sadin, that asked, "What, if anything, do voters infer when they learn whether a candidate was raised in a more or less privileged family?" and "Should voters believe what they hear about politicians raised in working-class families?"

To answer those questions, they amassed biographical data for every legislator in the 106th through 110th congresses (1999 to 2008), including their parents' professions. After identifying which ones came from working-class backgrounds, the researchers looked at the kinds of votes those lawmakers garnered in the previous election. To measure how the politicians acted while in office, the researchers examined those legislators' voting records on a variety of issues, especially those related to the working class.

Carnes and Sadin found that invoking a proletarian upbringing does work if you're after votes from the left. Not surprising, then, that these candidates — those that brandished modest upbringings — fared better in progressive districts.

What was more surprising is that once these candidates were elected, their legislation wasn't in line with voters' expectations. There was no difference in the ideological positions of legislators who were raised by factory workers versus those raised by lawyers. As the researchers conclude: "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 warns that voters need to be careful when candidates talk about their harsh childhood. "Some politicians from privileged families care a lot about the less fortunate, like FDR or Ted Kennedy," he says. "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."

"Even smart people," Carnes says, "can be taken in by myths about mill workers' sons." In a follow-up analysis, the researchers found that people who scored highest on a political-knowledge test were more likely to make assumptions based on how a candidate was brought up. "It appears to be a misleading shortcut," Carnes says, "a cue that leads voters to make faulty inferences about candidates' political priorities."

Pacific Standard grapples with the nation's biggest issues by illuminating why we do what we do. For more on the science of society, sign up for its weekly email update or subscribe to its bimonthly print magazine.

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