Review of “The Cash Ceiling”

In an era of rising income inequality, the long-forgotten concept of ‘social class’ has staged a comeback in public and political science discussions. Neither individualization nor post-materialism have eroded class differences completely. Examples of the renewed interest in social class include autobiographical reflections of one’s working class origins (Eribon 2013; Vance 2016), historical accounts of class politics (Isenberg 2016; Todd 2015), or the rise of the new service-sector working class (Draut 2016). Given the new interest in class, Mansbridge (2015) ponders whether “workers should represent workers”? Nicholas Carnes’ recent work strongly suggests that they should.

In White-collar Government, Carnes (2013) showed that legislators from working-class families favor and sponsor different policies than other politicians but seldom succeed in changing policies—because they are so few in numbers. If Congress represented different social classes more evenly, one can infer, it might be less biased in favor of the rich (Gilens 2012). In his new book, The Cash Ceiling, Carnes (2018) takes a step back and asks why the working class is vastly underrepresented in politics in the first place. What keeps members of the working class from running for office? Some argue that they lack motivation or skills but Carnes systematically shows that what they are short of is resources and networks. Since elections are expensive and risky, candidate selection is heavily biased in favor of those who have time, money, and connections. When in doubt, recruiters opt for candidates who resemble themselves—university graduates with above-average incomes. In contrast, potential working-class candidates can often not afford to run and are hardly ever encouraged to do so.

 The working class is defined as those who are employed in a manual labor job, a service industry job, a clerical job or a job within a labor union (note 1, page 285). Defined in this way, about 52 percent of the U.S. labor force belong to the working class but only 10 percent of city council members, 3% of state legislators, and 2% of Members of Congress had working-class jobs before they were elected (Figure 1.1, page 6). This political underrepresentation of the working class is significant because legislators from different class backgrounds prefer different policies.

In the second chapter, Carnes debunks the myth that workers are not motivated to run for office or that they simply lack the necessary competences. To do so, he first assesses what qualities the public and party leaders expect candidates to have. An ideal politician is “honest, intelligent, confident, hardworking, and personable” (p. 43). Workers hold these qualities to almost the same degree as professionals. Existing differences cannot explain the large differences in political representation. In addition, workers are slightly less likely to participate in politics but, again, on a scale that cannot explain the large gap in office holding. Similarly, when workers govern cities, these do not do less well economically than those governed predominantly by professionals. Finally, when workers do run in elections, they tend to do well and voters do not consider them less qualified than white-collar candidates. Hence, workers are not underrepresented in office because they lack motivation or skills. The true reason is that they run less often in the first place.

The third and the fourth chapter seek to explain the central question why workers do not run for office. In sum, workers do not run because they lack the needed resources and because they are not recruited. Resources matter twice. First, workers are worried about the loss of income that comes with running for office. Given the uncertainty of succeeding, they shy away from running because they cannot afford not to earn money. Second, candidates lack the resources to fund their own campaigns (p. 74). Both professionals and workers are worried about the fund-raising but the latter have less to contribute on their own. This is the title-giving “cash ceiling” in U.S. politics.

Yet, another crucial factor keeps workers from running for office: They are seldom encouraged to do so. Recruiters do not consider qualified workers as suitable since they do not think they want to run or, if they did, could raise enough funds or were good at campaigning. As a result, candidate recruiters search within their own personal networks, look for candidates similar to themselves or to successful past candidates (p. 142-144). Workers “aren’t asked, because the people doing the asking usually don’t know many workers” (p. 154).

In the final chapter, Carnes discusses strategies to improve working-class representation. Given his research results, he does not consider pay raises for politicians or public funding of campaigns as promising reform options. Instead, Carnes favors changes in the recruitment process, seed money programs and, possibly, political scholarships. Any idea with potential needs to remedy those factors that impede workers from running for office.

Although Carnes’ book deals with the United States, a look at European democracies reinforces its findings. Most European countries fund a higher share election campaign spending publicly than the US does and in these countries social democratic parties exist that (used to) represent the working class. Therefore, one would expect a higher share of working-class parliamentarians but workers are vastly underrepresented in European parliaments, too (Best 2007). The reasons for this bias are probably very similar to those in the United States: Running for office requires being able to give up personal income during the campaign and it requires spending some of your own money on the campaign. Perhaps more importantly, recruitment usually takes place among active party members and recruiters might approach workers less often. As a result, we have witnessed the rise of “Diploma Democracy” (Bovens and Wille 2017), in which parliamentarians are usually university graduates, who have worked in liberal professions, as civil servants, or for political organizations.

The Cash Ceiling is a thoroughly researched book that runs against the grain of the conventional wisdom on unequal representation. Carnes does a marvelous job at assembling all the available evidence and anticipates many potential counterarguments. It convincingly shows why it is so hard for working-class citizens to run for office. For anyone who is interested in political inequality, The Cash Ceiling is a must-read. Unequal descriptive representation could be one of the reasons why we observe unequal responsiveness not only in the US but also in European democracies.


Best, Heinrich. 2007. “New Challenges, New Elites?: Changes in the Recruitment and Career Patterns of European Representative Elites.” Comparative Sociology 6: 85–113.

Bovens, Mark A.P., and Anchrit Wille. 2017. Diploma Democracy: The Rise of Political Meritocracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carnes, Nicholas. 2013. White-Collar Government. The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

———. 2018. Cash Ceiling.: Why only the rich run for office-and what we can do about it. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Draut, Tamara. 2016. Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America. New York / London: Doubleday.

Eribon, Didier. 2013. Returning to Reims. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Gilens, Martin. 2012. Affluence and Influence. Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Isenberg, Nancy G. 2016. White Trash: The 400-year untold history of class in America. New York: Viking.

Mansbridge, Jane. 2015. “Should Workers Represent Workers?” Swiss Political Science Review 21 (2): 261–70.

Todd, Selina. 2015. The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class. London: John Murray.

Vance, James D. 2016. Hillbilly elegy: A memoir of a family and culture in crisis. London: William Collins.

January 7, 2019