Giving to Duke

Nick Carnes has no intention of running away from his working-class roots. Carnes, the Creed C. Black Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, grew up in Kansas and held a series of blue-collar jobs as a young man. Walmart, Cinnabon, Papa John’s — Carnes worked wherever he could to support himself and pay for his education. That’s no different from the 50 million other Americans who also work blue-collar jobs.

The difference is that Carnes now has a public forum from which to discuss the value of the working-class in the United States, and a current national conversation about American workers that is primed for his input. As a political scientist, Nick CarnesCarnes studies why so few members of the working class become politicians, and how this affects public policy. Rather than putting his roots behind, Carnes’ background fuels his passion for the underrepresented majority of manual labor, service industry and clerical employees who make up the bulk of his research. He aims to inform the broader conversation about the working class by revealing who they really are, how they think, and why their participation in politics can improve policy.

Carnes’ 2013 book, “White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making,” discussed how the lack of working-class voices in politics ultimately skews policy toward the interests of the upper class. His new book, “The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run for Office — and What We Can Do About It,” published in September 2018, contains a list of action items to remove barriers that keep qualified working-class citizens from holding elected office. Carnes makes the case that these burdens, which often make it too difficult to launch campaigns, are surmountable with programs that identify, recruit, train and support candidates.

Entering his seventh year at Duke, Carnes has also proven to be an innovator in quickly performing and publicizing data research. In a feat of political myth busting, he and a co-author published an analysis in The Washington Post in June 2017 refuting the popular belief that working-class voters made the difference in the 2016 presidential election. Digging into national surveys, Carnes showed that Donald Trump voters were drawn from the top half of the income distribution. The piece exploded the false claim that disgruntled working-class people delivered Trump the win.

Carnes is the working man’s thinking man, an advocate for the power and value of the labor class. He sees the big picture from the bottom looking up, using data and his gut to reimagine the questions we ask about education, income and class in politics. Carnes sat down with The Duke Difference recently to discuss his work.

The Duke Difference: In your new book “The Cash Ceiling,” what solutions do you propose for the population representation problems that you write about?

Carnes: A lot of the ideas that we hear in politics right now won’t work. Reformers say that if we publicly financed elections, more regular people would run. Or if we paid higher salaries to politicians, more working-class people would be able to afford to hold office. The book shows that those arguments don’t hold water. The places that have those institutional features don’t have more working-class people in office.

What seems to work is the reforms that have been used to increase the representation of women. Things like programs that target high-potential individuals, encourage them to run, and offer to support them and help them overcome the barriers they’re faced with. The best example of this is Emily’s List (which recruits Democratic women to run). When people have applied that model to working-class candidates, it has a lot more potential than anything else out there right now.

DD: So it requires a targeted rather than a broad approach?

Carnes: That’s exactly the idea I use in the book — targeted and responsive. If you only make running for office easier or less burdensome for everybody, you’ve really just taken an unlevel playing field and kept it unlevel. You have to acknowledge that there are barriers that keep certain groups out. So we need to specifically target them and help them overcome those barriers.

DD: “The Cash Ceiling” builds on the research in your first book, “White Collar Government.” What’s next?

Carnes: There are two directions I’m going to go: One is more local, one is more global.  I’m starting a new book project on why so few working-class people go on to become politicians in any electoral democracy globally. I was talking to a journalist about this and he asked, “Is it like this in other countries? You’re saying in our democracy it’s really hard for working-class people to run? What are other places that do it differently?”

A local interest is understanding better the origins of affective partisanship, or partisan hate. Not just thinking the other side is incorrect, but thinking they’re bad. Really getting down to the details of understanding how people both in and out of politics intentionally manipulate that characteristic of our political selves. How they try to sometimes drive a wedge between people. "Every class of people is important and deserves to have their needs taken seriously by government"And then also —this piece will really involve getting to know people better — understanding what we can do to walk it back. So that people didn’t necessarily agree with the other side but they could at least trust that the other side was doing their best, wasn’t malicious, wasn’t out to get them. What can we do to make people feel that way again? Partisanship without the hate.

I want to do a human part of my research: qualitative interviews, ethnography, and use that to inform what questions to ask. I’m not sure yet in this research what question to even ask on a survey. But I can learn that by talking to people, by developing hypotheses, by building theories. By starting with respectfully engaging with people politically right where they are, and then build from that. Once I know what I’m looking for, then I can write an informed survey question.

DD: Your piece in The Washington Post last June about voters in the presidential election got a lot of attention. You dug into the data because you said the narrative didn’t feel accurate. Why was that important to do?

Carnes: This is what drew me to political science in the first place — wanting to get systematic data on the political world. Anyone can cherry-pick anecdotes that fit their side’s narrative. What I like about political science is that it’s about making correct generalizations about politics. Not just one or two cases, but what’s right at the national level or what’s the general trend?

I was really disturbed at how quickly political commentators rallied around this narrative that said Trump’s support is all concentrated within the working class. The thing that really tipped me off wasn’t so much my intuition about the working class. I saw that journalists were reporting “most Trump voters are working class” without any actual evidence. There were no survey data. We started seeing news coverage that had some pretty elitist undertones to it. The idea was, “I don’t like Trump. The only people who could possibly like him are stupid and poor.”

So in March 2016 I got ahold of some NBC survey data. I did a short article for MSNBC’s website where my co-author and I looked at data on who was supporting Trump during the primaries. And if you break down Republicans by income and education — every category, every combination of income and education within the Republican Party — Trump was the leading candidate. I said this narrative about working-class people didn’t make sense because Trump was also the favorite candidate of affluent Republicans with postgraduate degrees.

DD: What did you notice after the election took place?

Carnes: When the American National Election Studies released their 2016 survey, I immediately dove into the data. Sure enough, exact same pattern. The big story is really that 2016 looked very similar to 2012. If you look at who voted for Trump, it was very similar to who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. The income makeup of Trump’s supporters was very similar to Romney supporters at the state level. The share of a state that went for Trump was almost identical to the share that went for Romney. In a lot of states, the really interesting thing that I found was that turnout was actually down. If you look at how people voted, this looks like a pretty run-of-the-mill presidential election. It was close. The Democrat won the popular vote. The Republican narrowly won the Electoral College. So we did all that analysis and we wrote The Washington Post piece.

DD: What reactions did you get when that piece came out?

Carnes: I didn’t expect that article to take off the way it did. This was almost a passion project for me. I had access to the data. I had the expertise to do the analysis. My co-author and I did the analysis, wrote it up, I presented it at a conference, and we had it on The Washington Post web page a week later. It was number one on the Post’s page for a while, and that was a real surprise.

There were several kinds of correspondence: One was people who really liked the working-class label and resented that I was saying Trump voters weren’t that. So I had some e-mails from Trump voters saying, “What do you mean I’m not working class? I’ve worked hard my entire life.” For them, the narrative that Trump voters are working class was a positive. They were saying, “We interpret this to mean Trump voters are hardworking, down-to-earth people, and we don’t like this article.”

Then I had some pushback from social scientists who said, “We don’t like that you’re using income and education to measure class.” It’s a point I totally agree with. The best way to measure somebody’s class is to find out what they do for a living. Education and income don’t tell you the whole story about a person, like if you’re out of work, if you’re in between jobs, your income is really low, but you might be between two high-paying jobs. Education is misleading because a lot of people in the top third of the income distribution don’t have college degrees, but do really well and are really smart and work in fields where they were able to break in without a degree. But most people wouldn’t categorize them as working class or economically vulnerable.

I’m sympathetic to this critique, and my response is that none of the big survey firms ask people what they do for a living anymore. That’s a problem. Income and education are easy. If I ask you what you do for a living, you might give me your full job title, which makes you uniquely identifiable. And surveys can’t publish identifiable data. Or you might give me something ambiguous like, “I work in education.” So survey firms don’t have that one thing we really want to know. That’s an interesting and lively debate within the social sciences.

Finally, I got some pushback from people who really dislike the president, who were committed to the “working-class people are the only ones who voted for him” narrative. For them it was an idea that had really stuck — that there were economically marginalized people who had fallen on hard times, and they viscerally lashed out at the world and adopted far-right ideology. I’ve had people to this day tell me, “I just can’t believe it works any other way.”

DD: Is that a way to internalize and understand the election results?

Carnes: It makes a certain kind of sense. There are, I’m sure, some number of people who fit that narrative. People would say, “I have this cousin who is exactly the way you describe.” All I can tell you is the survey data don’t suggest it was a nationwide phenomenon that somehow distinguished 2016 from 2012 or 2008. There was nothing terribly unusual about the social class makeup of the two parties’ voters in the 2016 election. It just wasn’t the sea change people are imagining.

On some level personally I think I’m reluctant to discourage people who look at the 2016 election — "I would bet you even money there's a future member of Congress in my classroom every time we meet. That's exciting."Republican or Democrat — from interpreting it as a sign that the working class is important. Every class of people is important and deserves to have their needs taken seriously by government. The other side is my responsibility as a political scientist to make generalizations about the election that are honest and accurate and true to the data, that aren’t loaded by an ideology or a preference.

I have gotten positive response from political scientists who’ve said, “I never really thought that narrative was right. I always thought it was more complicated than that, but I didn’t have the evidence to back it up.” I’ve been fortunate to have people who have responded positively.

DD: What is it about your background that keeps you passionate about the working class?

Carnes: Growing up in Kansas and doing all those jobs left me with a very strong impression that working-class people are smart, capable, good people. A lot of the depictions of working-class people can skew negative. There was a delivery driver at Papa John’s in Kansas City where I worked one summer who I still think would make a great politician. Smart, compassionate, great guy. I met a lot of people who I thought, “There’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a seat at the table in government.”

DD: How can you drive this conversation forward in the classroom?

Carnes: I’m a big believer that change starts at home. So I want to start using my courses to teach civility and civic engagement. Our students are going to be leaders in industry, in the nonprofit sector, in government. I think we need to do everything we can as a university to make sure that they’re leaving here ready to be good citizens. Whether that’s here, whether that’s abroad — they’re ready to promote responsible civic engagement. This is one of the many reasons why I love teaching — we have this really unusual opportunity that when somebody walks into my classroom for my “Intro to U.S. Politics” class, there’s a chance he or she is going to be a senator. There’s a chance he or she’s going to be a CEO — a nontrivial chance. I’ve got 99 students this semester. I would bet you even money there’s a future member of Congress in my classroom every time we meet. Think about that. That’s exciting. If we do a good job while they’re here, that’s just going to magnify the impact of the work we do. I think about that every time I go into the classroom — somebody sitting in here is going to be on C-SPAN someday talking about their bill. I love it.

All of our students are going to do important things, even if they’re not running the country. They’re going to be making some big difference in the world. I think about it a lot. It’s a big responsibility. And we only have four years with them to make a positive difference.


Nick Carnes and the Sanford School of Public Policy are performing data-based research on U.S. politics and preparing students to be engaged citizens. Supporting efforts at Sanford to promote civic skill and civil discourse helps create a new class of savvy participants in democracy — candidates, voters and volunteers. Give to Sanford to sustain the faculty and programs that aim to improve American politics and public policy.


We’re more than a campus in Durham; we are each of you. Only through your support can we continue to save lives, discover treatments and cures, reinvent education, and anchor communities around the world. Our fiscal year ends on June 30 – please make your gift today.