On the unrepresentativeness of representatives stretching back through time

Who Becomes a Member of Congress? Evidence From De-Anonymized Census Data
Daniel M. Thompson, James J. Feigenbaum, Andrew B. Hall, and Jesse Yoder #26156

We link future members of Congress to the de-anonymized 1940 census to offer a uniquely detailed analysis of how economically unrepresentative American politicians were in the 20th century, and why. Future members under the age of 18 in 1940 grew up in households with parents who earned more than twice as much as the population average and who were more than 6 times as likely as the general population to hold college degrees. However, compared to siblings who did not become politicians, future members of Congress between the ages of 18 and 40 in 1940 were higher-earners and more educated, indicating that socioeconomic background alone does not explain the differences between politicians and non-politicians. Examining a smaller sample of candidates that includes non-winners, we find that the candidate pool is much higher-earning and more educated than the general population. At the same time, among the candidate pool, elections advantage candidates with higher earnings ability and education. We conclude that barriers to entry likely deter a more economically representative candidate pool, but that electoral advantages for more-educated individuals with more private-sector success also play an important role.

9 Responses

  1. The quality of being representative has nothing to do with sharing the attributes of those represented, but with making the decisions those represented would make if they engaged in the same deliberations as those who nominally represent them.
    From my observation of how the US Congress operates, I find that in general the people are represented well, perhaps too well. Many important issues are neglected because there is no constituent pressure to address them.


  2. electoral advantages for more-educated individuals with more private-sector success also play an important role.

    Shouldn’t we applaud a system that encourages educated and successful people to stand for public office, when they could earn more (and suffer less intrusion to their personal and family life) in the private sector?

    Jon:>The quality of being representative has nothing to do with sharing the attributes of those represented

    Exactly. Only classical Marxists insist that the behaviour of individuals is determined by their personal and class interests. Many commentators on this forum fail to observe Pitkin’s distinction between descriptive representation (as potentially implemented by sortition) and the active representation of interests (as potentially implemented by election). The “potential” in the former case is the need for large, quasi-mandatory juries with a constrained mandate, and in the second by the dysfunctions that you highlight.


  3. Keith and Jon,

    I wasn’t suggesting some mechanical relation of the kind “all people of a class vote according to their own interests”. I’d be a bit of a dill if I thought that wouldn’t I?


  4. OK, but that’s implicit in the title of the piece — the implication being that rich, highly-educated and successful people will not represent the interests of poor, badly-educated and unsuccessful people. Otherwise what’s the point of posting it? The headline underlines the conflation of two entirely different forms of representation, as there’s no reason in principle why a billionaire property developer (or an Old Etonian Bullingdon Club member) should not represent the interests of the denizens of the basket of deplorables.


  5. “People vote according to their own interests” is a truism. It is certainly part of standard democratic theory, and it is certainly part of the standard modern “economic” view of the world.

    The notion that some sort of “a natural aristocracy” can best serve the people and should therefore be in charge could have been self-servingly asserted by the Founding Fathers in the 18th century, but it is universally and rightfully rejected by modern society.


  6. Yoram

    The economic theory of democracy claims that people vote in their own interests and that politicians propose policies that voters deem to be in their own interests (in order to win elections). The idea that politicians simply act in their own/class interests is an aberration from the perspective of democratic theory. And none of this rules out politicians making policy proposals that they deem to be in the national interest (albeit constrained by the need to secure votes). And there is no reason to believe that high education and commercial success should be an impediment towards gaining election on account of the (descriptive) unrepresentativity of the candidate. In every other field of endeavour we privilege excellence, so it seems perverse to condemn it in politics.


  7. Thinking that people with high income and high education reflect “excellence” in terms of an ability to well REPRESENT a poorer majority is a mistake. While being wealthy does not prevent a person from well-representing the general population, it DOES distort their perspective and what “they deem to be in the national interest.”

    I served two decades as an elected representative and I can attest to this tendency, and have countless stories (merely anecdotal but powerful) that indicate a lack of descriptive representation causes a lack of good representation. If a person owns multiple rental properties, they may have had experiences with irresponsible tenants, helping form a deep feeling about what is just in landlord tenant relationships law. They interpret witness testimony through this filter, believing some witnesses and dismissing testimony of others. But if a person has been a renter their whole life and experienced irresponsible landlords, what “they deem to be in the national interest” is very different. Nobody has a neutral perception of the world or what is “in the national interest.” Having representatives that have descriptive representativeness can markedly improve representation.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Keith

    The world is a complicated place. The conflation you see in my heading and the article is also there in the world.

    There’s not much point in having a discussion about it in language that can’t comprehend that.


  9. Nick:> The world is a complicated place.

    I agree, and the role of political theory (in the Aristotelian, rather than ideal, tradition) is to introduce a little clarity into the blooming, buzzing confusion. This is primarily by making conceptual distinctions — between standing for and acting for; descriptive and active representation; judgment and advocacy etc. Your post follows the tradition of this forum of conflating the two principal forms of representation (I do think Pitkin’s book should be required reading for anyone trying to understand the political potential of sortition).

    This is becoming increasingly urgent now that attempts are being made to put sortition into practice.


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