Now that we’ve covered how voting rights were originally tied to wealth, let’s discuss another great myth: Anyone can be elected to political office. We all heard that one day we could grow up to be president. That’s bupkiss.
How it Works
Before even considering the Executive office, let’s talk about something more down to earth. Only three individuals since Washington have become president without holding previous office, and they were all US Army (Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower if you were curious). To become the president you have to put in some time first. We’ll start with Congress. Made up of the Senate and House of Representatives, each has their own rules regarding who can run. US Senators have to be 30 years old, must have been US citizens for at least 9 years, and reside in the state they represent. Members of the House need to be at least 25 years of age, have been citizens for at least 7 years, and also live in the state they’re representing. Senators hold office for 6-year terms and Representatives run for office every 2.
There were Reasons that this system was designed. The Senate was the Big Picture body, while the House was meant to run for reelection often and have a higher turnover so that it would remain more responsive to and in touch with its constituency. Senators and Representatives in the House were to be voted in from the populace. So long as you met the minimum requirements above, you were eligible to serve.
Unfortunately, the system inherently favors the wealthy. Being elected to anything requires campaigning. Essentially, when you get down to it this means advertising and marketing which require both money and time. Given the right set of circumstances, one might be able to argue it could be possible to overcome a shortage of one of those with enough of the other, but for practical purposes we should accept that someone running for Congress requires enough capital to have signs printed and enough time to get out and kiss babies. This ensures that the poor are not going to be able to mount a convincing campaign. It’s also highly unlikely that a destitute individual would be able to finance their campaign through contributions from a wealthy benefactor.
The Man of the People
We’ll assume that someone who wants to run for the House of Representatives would need to be at least a median-income individual. Let’s say they make $55,000 annually as a retail manager. For the sake of our example we’ll say that they’re 30 years old, male, and married. Because we want to live in an ideal world we’ll assume our candidate’s wife is paid the same amount of money, so they pull in $110,000 a year. Our candidate is an idealist, and doesn’t take a lot of money from contributors, and his wife is supportive. They drain their savings to finance the campaign. And our idealistic candidate wins. He becomes a member of the US Congress!
Our middle-income junior-congressman gets a starting salary of $165,200 per year. Our average-Joe tripled his salary. Wow! But, he’s not there for the money, remember. He wants to Do Good. And he sets out to do so. In his first year of service he helps to write a bill for Legalization of Good Stuff and Stopping Bad Stuff and wants to introduce it. But, now’s not the time, because he’s up for reelection. Time to campaign again. Someone in his own party wants his spot and then he needs to beat the candidate for the Other Guys. Lucky us, he succeeds, but he had to fight to get there and didn’t make much progress in his quest to Do Good.
The theoretical Congressman now pushes hard and manages to get his bill before the House before he needs to start campaigning again. It receives positive response and passes to the Senate. Wow! His work is done! He can spend the rest of his term Doing Good and then go back to the life of a citizen, secure in the knowledge that he’s served his constituency and the nation.
No. No, he can’t. Putting aside the fact that human beings are greedy creatures, even an ideal individual would have a rough time going back to their previous profession. Our retail manager would now need to find another job. It’s hard to imagine that his previous employer didn’t fill his position. And have you ever tried to jump back into work after a major injury keeps you sidelined for a few months? Imagine if it were 4 years. Especially today, the pace of industry is so rapid that it’s likely your knowledge is no longer applicable.
Where it Breaks Down
Even under the best possible circumstances, our legislative system is designed to create career politicians. Considering congressional income, not to mention benefits, there is no way that they can remain in touch with the average American. No matter how simply they live, there’s a difference between them and their constituents. Even if they grew up poor, they don’t know what it means to be poor today. The only people who can afford to lose office are those who were already wealthy.
I’ve heard people say that Congress should make minimum wage, or receive room and board but no pay, but how would that help? Then the only people who could afford to live while in office and put something away for the future would be those who were already wealthy. And the argument that raising the minimum wage would resolve that doesn’t address the issue that we want our best and brightest representing us. It would take a remarkably altruistic individual to sacrifice even a middling income for a subsistence wage at a job that (should be to someone with a conscience) is incredibly stressful.
Senators are up for election every 6 years, instead of 2. This means that they are generally able to be more productive, since they don’t have to campaign so often, but also that they’re even more susceptible to becoming a career politician, trapped in Congress, or at least in politics. The same situation occurs at every level of government above a city council, and possibly mayor in smaller municipalities.
Every few years the idea of congressional term limits is put forward and just as quickly shoved aside. While I’m not against the idea, I don’t think it addresses the root issue. It’s a cure that treats the symptom, not the cause, and still leaves us with only the wealthy being able to afford to take office.
The idea that an average individual can be elected to public office is unlikely. The idea that a public official can remain an average individual is impossible.
*I’ve only listed the congressional requirements at the federal level. Different states are allowed to have additional requirements. It should also be clear that the above scenario is incredibly simplified, but I feel that the point stands in reality. If anything it becomes worse (so very much worse) when you consider real world corruption and greed.
*Fun fact: Congress was originally given $6/day in session. Adjusted for inflation, the first Congressional salary (1855) of $3,000/year works out to about $85,000 in today’s money. That’s a nice salary, but not exorbitant.