Nicholas Carnes: The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run for Office—and What We Can Do about It


Monday, September 10, 2018, 12:00pm to 1:30pm


Allison Dining Room

Nicholas Carnes, Creed C. Black Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science, Duke University

JNicholas Carnesoin us for a discussion with Nicholas Carnes on his new book, The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run for Office—and What We Can Do about It (Princeton University Press, September 2018).
View Chapter 1 [pdf]

Why are politicians in the United States so much better off than the people they represent? What exactly keeps lower-income and working-class Americans out of public office?

This presentation focuses on the micro-level forces that discourage politically qualified working-class Americans from running for public office. In contrast to research on gender gaps in political ambition, qualified workers appear just as likely as professionals to express serious interest in campaigning and governing.

The Cash Ceiling, by Nicholas CarnesFor workers, the more serious barriers are resources and recruitment: qualified workers seldom run because they can seldom shoulder the practical burdens associated with campaigning, and because they are seldom encouraged by party leaders and other elite actors. That is, workers seldom hold office not because they don't want to, but because they can't and no one asks them. 

About the speaker

Nicholas Carnes is a political scientist in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University

Most of his research focuses on why so few working-class citizens (people employed in manual labor, service industry, and clerical jobs) go on to become politicians and how their virtual absence from our political institutions affects public policy. 

His first book, White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making (University of Chicago Press, 2013), uses data on Congress, state legislatures, and city councils to measure the effects of this phenomenon. It argues that, like ordinary citizens, politicians from different social classes have different views about economic issues, and that leaders from the working class bring a more pro-worker perspective to public office. These differences, coupled with the virtual absence of politicians from the working-class, ultimately skew the policymaking process towards outcomes that are more in line with the upper class's economic interests. As the old saying goes, if you're not at the table, you're on the menu. 

Why, then, aren't working-class Americans at the table? His second book, The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run for Office--and What We Can Do About It (Princeton University Press, September 2018), asks about the causes of white-collar government, that is, what exactly prevents qualified working-class Americans from holding elected politcal office. It argues that workers themselves and voters are not to blame--there are lots of qualified workers out there, and when they run they tend to do fine--but rather that workers seldom hold office because the practical burdens associated with running (time, lost income, etc.) make it all but impossible for them to launch campaigns, and the political and civic leaders who could help them usually pass over qualified workers in favor of more familiar white-collar candiates. These obstacles aren't insurmountable, however, and The Cash Ceiling discusses some of the reforms that might help, like targeted programs that identify recruit, train, and support working-class candidates. 

With co-author Noam Lupu, Carnes has also published several cross-national studies on the causes and effects of government by the privileged around the world. The two are currently working on a book-length project that asks why the rich so consistently govern in virtually every electoral democracy on the planet. 

More broadly, Carnes is interested in American democracy, political accountability, partisanship, and the rural/urban divide in American politcs. He co-founded and chairs the American Political Science Association Organized Section on Economic and Social Class Inequality, and serves as co-director for the North Carolina chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network

Learn more about Nicholas Carnes's work


See also: Fall 2018