Why don’t politicos look like the rest of us?
An interview with Daniel Laurison
Back in 2018, I was covering the congressional campaign of Kathleen Williams, who was vying to oust body slamming tech millionaire creationist dinosaur museum funder Greg Gianforte from his position as the sole representative of the entire state of Montana in the House. I’d followed her to various town hall forums in library basements, and that night, we’d found ourselves in Billings — the largest city in the state — for a dinner hosted by the local Democratic party. But first: we needed some pictures, with her dog, for the stories.
Local organizer, rancher, and photographer Alexis Bonogofsky was in charge, and suggested a nearby dog park, down near the river. As we walked along, two members of Williams’ campaign staff trailed behind. “Oh this is really pretty,” one of them said. “What’s this river?” Neither one knew.
It was the Yellowstone River — a central and essential feature of the state. Everyone knows the name of that damn river. But they didn’t because they weren’t from Montana, even though they were working for a Montana congressional campaign. They weren’t even from the West, or a rural state, or even a purple state. What they were was able and willing to work on a political campaign — with poor pay, short-term contracts, and extended time on the road, and had made their way there from volunteer or internship positions where they might not have been paid at all.
Williams lost that race. I don’t think it was because of those staffers, but I also don’t think their lack of familiarity with the state helped. And I also know that the ramifications of only a certain type of person having the privilege to participate in political campaigns goes far beyond a congressional race in Montana. Which is why, when I heard about Daniel Laurison’s book on the sociology of political campaigns, I immediately asked for an interview. You might think you already kind of know who works political campaigns, and why it matters. But I still think you’ll be surprised by Laurison’s findings — and what they mean for the future of American politics.
To start, a question I try to ask pretty much everyone: how’d you get interested in the things you’re interested in?
Well, my mom, when I was growing up, was a member of a small communist organization. As a good Marxist she believed that the working class would eventually realize that capitalism is bad for workers, and there would be a revolution. As a kid I of course believed what my mom believed, and couldn’t understand why everyone else wasn’t on board, too. Now I am not so sure (and she eventually wasn’t, either) that a revolution against capitalism is inevitable or even necessarily the right thing to be working towards. But fundamentally, what she was interested in, what Marx was interested in, and what I’m interested in (along with many many other people) is the question of how we build a society and a world that is more fair, more just, more equitable. For me that means things like racial and economic justice, reproductive freedom, queer and trans rights, a complete transformation of our criminal “justice” system, and so on.
All of those goals can be achieved through the democratic process; progress (and regression) has happened on many of them already. Our democracy in the US has deep flaws, of course. I say in the conclusion of the book that there is a real “question of whether American democracy can ever be truly representative, given what we know about the history and presence of White supremacy and capitalism in this country.” Here’s a bit more:
The country was founded on the labor of enslaved Africans and the displacement and genocide of Native Americans. Until well into our history, participating in democracy required that you be White, a man, and own property. Removing each of these requirements took struggle. It was only in 1965 that the voting rights of African Americans were secured, and they are under attack again in 2021 (and 2022).
There are many who argue, with reasonable evidence, that politicians are simply in the service of wealthy White elites, whatever their public stances and speeches might be, whatever their party affiliation. It is probably true that elites will tend to wield an outsize influence as long as they control outsize proportions of the economy and its rewards—to use Marxist terminology, as long as they control the means of production. A number of studies demonstrate that the better-off are the most likely to express their political voices through voting, contacting elected officials, and involvement in campaigns, along with making donations. Politicians are more likely to pass laws that have the support of richer people. This is true across the board, but the amount of inequality, in wealth as well as in political voice, varies substantially over time and across countries, as the French economist Thomas Piketty has shown. The fundamental inequality inherent in capitalism and the intractability of White supremacy are problems beyond the scope of this book. But democratic processes and choices can affect the levels of inequality, the degree of suffering, and the extent of White dominance, and those all have real consequences for the quality of people’s lives.
But none of that is possible if regular people - poor and working class people, people of color, people without friends who work in politics – are not engaged in voting and other kinds of political action - and they’re mostly not, or at least they’re far less likely to be politically engaged and to vote than people who are well-off and white. And so the question that got me started on the research for this book, and the question that really drives most of my research agenda, and that echoes the questions I had as a kid: why aren’t regular people using politics to make their lives better? And so for this book specifically, I looked to where our politics, or at least our campaigns, come from.
As part of situating why it’s important to even write an entire book about how political campaigns are produced, you quote sociologist C. Wright Mills: “It is the task of the social scientist…continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals.” Doing this work is part of the “sociological imagination” — what you summarize as “genuinely helping people to understand their lives.”
I’ve always loved this understanding of the work that sociology does, and it’s definitely why I’ve been drawn to interviewing so many sociologists over the course of this newsletter, and why I’ve always been drawn to the more sociological components of cultural studies in general, e.g., thinking about how people use popular culture to make meaning out of their lives. But here, I think you’re helping readers to understand something that can feel really bewildering: why, exactly, are political figures, and organized (United States) politics in general, so bad at not only reflecting the electorate in terms of identity, but just in terms of what people actually want. (And I’m not even just talking about what they ideologically want, but what they want in their everyday lives, like, “housing costs to go down,” or “consistent school buses,” or “less fear of working until I die.”) Can you talk a little more about how mismatch animates the book?
Fundamentally, I see campaigns as a place where people could and should get connected to politics. They’re certainly the time when the most energy and resources are put into communication between the political world and those that it sees as potential voters. (From the book) - “Campaigns and the people who work in them are at least as important because of how their actions define our democracy. During federal election contests, it’s hard to miss hearing the campaigns’ attempts to win votes. By late summer 2016, nearly half of registered voters had been contacted directly by a campaign; in 2020, federal, state, and local campaigns combined bought 9.3 million television advertisements.” But that communication is almost entirely one-way: a performance by campaigns and candidates, not a conversation with potential voters.
Of course campaigns do try to get a sense of their target voters, through polls and databases.
Contemporary polling, modeling, and targeting techniques can give politicos guidance about messaging, ad placement, and other aspects of campaign strategy, but no amount of technology can actually tell them what strategy will most reliably influence any particular person’s or group’s behavior on Election Day. Moreover, each of these is only as good as the questions they ask, the answers people give, and the representativeness of their sampling. If any of those things are off, and they almost always will be to some extent, campaign decision-making is still largely guesswork and intuition at best, and misguided at worst. Matt, a White Republican who’s been the political director on a number of national races, told me, “This business is figuring out who is truly available, who is not already for you or against you. That is the science. And the art is what exactly do you say to them, to motivate them to your cause.” Polling and data analysis are the science, but this kind of science is never perfect.
At the end of the day, it is really hard to figure out what people intend to do, and harder still to make them do what you want. But you have to have some theory of how to do that if your job is trying to win elections. Because campaign professionals cannot and do not know which strategies or tactics will be the most effective, and because they therefore cannot be evaluated by others in their field on that criterion, they end up using a number of shortcuts or proxies for quality.
And those shortcuts, or the “art” of politics as Matt put it, come from who they are, what they’ve learned from other politicos, and the social milieu they’re in. And all of those are out of sync with regular people in a variety of ways - from the fact that politicos are usually people who’ve been excited about politics since they were kids to their race, gender, and class backgrounds.
From your research, can you tell me just how white, male, middle-class, and educated campaigns were and are — and the major factors that keep them that way?
I collected (with the help of a lot of undergraduate research assistants, from both UC Berkeley and Swarthmore) a database containing 4000 campaign professionals, people who’d worked in some capacity on at least one high-level (Presidential or contested Senate) race between 2004 and 2020. I was able to find race, college attended, and at least two positions they’d held for about 2000 of those people. Here’s some figures straight from the book:
Taken as a whole, 83 percent of politicos who have worked on major national races in the twenty-first century are White, 65 percent are men, and 80 percent attended college. These are stark differences from the adult US population, which is about 60 percent White, 49 percent men, and 32 (more recent estimates say 36) percent college-educated.
Race, gender, and education are all areas where the two parties’ constituencies and policies are quite different from each other. Republican voters and campaign staff are both far more White than the country as a whole. While 60 percent of adults in the US and 69 percent of registered voters are non-Hispanic White, about 81 percent of Republican-identifying voters are White. Despite fielding a candidate in 2016 and 2020 who was much more willing than his recent predecessors to be explicitly and openly racist, Republicans have diversified their campaigns somewhat since the beginning of the twenty-first century. In 2004 and 2008 only 5 percent of Republicans working on national-level campaigns were people of color; by 2020 that number was 11 percent, still substantially less than the 19 percent portion of Republican voters. People of color are deeply underrepresented among Republican politicos when compared with the electorate as a whole, and even when compared with their representation among Republican voters.
There has been some improvement in the racial representativeness of Democratic campaign politics over the last two decades. In 2004 and 2008, 78 percent of Democratic operatives in national-level campaigns were White and only 12 percent were Black (about 65 percent of registered Democratic voters were White in 2004). In 2012, a picture of the nearly all-White staff at Barack Obama’s Chicago headquarters caused controversy, and Obama’s campaign subsequently worked to diversify his campaign staff.
In 2020, the Democratic presidential primary campaigns included the most racially diverse group of viable candidates in history, and they reported collectively that 42 percent of their top staff were people of color. Maya Rupert, a Black woman, served as campaign manager for Julián Castro and then held a key role on Elizabeth Warren’s campaign; she was only the third Black woman in history to manage a presidential campaign. The Pew Research Center estimates that, as of 2019, 59 percent of Democratic registered voters were (non-Hispanic) White, at the top levels of these campaigns were broadly representative of the racial composition of their party’s voters. When I count the broader set of Democratic campaign staff in my database working in key roles in any national-level campaign in 2020, however, the campaign teams are still disproportionately White—about 68 percent—but closer to the racial composition of their voters than they had been.
National-level Democratic campaigns are even less racially representative when I look at the roles people worked in. White people filled 69 percent of campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, and state director roles in 2020, similar to Democratic campaigns as a whole in that year. But Democratic communications departments in 2020 were 81 percent White, and campaign staff in field departments and in roles outside management, communications, and political departments were about 74 percent White. People of color were concentrated in political departments, where only 40 percent of staff were White. They often had titles like “director of African American outreach.”
Campaign professionals are also far more likely to have attended highly exclusive colleges and universities than most Americans. These are places like Yale and Swarthmore (where I teach), Stanford and Georgetown – schools that are mostly attended by the children of wealthy parents. While only 4% of people who’ve been to college attended a school designated “Ivy League” or “elite,” about 25% of Republican politicos, and close to 40% of Democratic ones, went to these types of schools. So I don’t have a way to get directly at people’s class background, but odds are that most people who went to these kinds of schools come from upper-middle-class or richer families.
Here’s the gender stats:
The gender gap in campaign involvement is at least as stark as the racial one. Women make up only about 26 percent of the Republicans who have worked on general presidential elections, and only about 42 percent of the Democrats. Both parties have become somewhat less dominated by men over time, while neither party is yet representative of their voters. There were many high-profile women campaign managers in 2020 races, and just over half of Democrats working in national-level campaigns were women. This is still not quite representative of registered Democrats, about 57 percent of whom are women. Still, it’s much better than the gender ratios in 2004, when women made up only 38 percent of people working in Democratic campaigns. Democratic campaign staff are far more representative of their constituents along gender lines than Republicans. Republican campaign staff in any kind of national race were about 27 percent women in 2004, and about 33 percent by 2020, whereas Republican voters were about 48 percent women.
Why don’t politicos look like the rest of us? Part of this is the same as it is in any high-powered, highly-compensated and/or highly-respected field - there are barriers that keep out lower-income people, people of color, and women, from who has access to attending the most-prestigious colleges and universities to who can afford to move to where the jobs are. Some are specific to politics: first of all, you can generally only make a career in campaigns if you start working on them right out of college, if not earlier; so only people who already find politics exciting at 18 or 22 have a good shot–and that is very disproportionately going to mean white men from middle- to upper-middle-class families. Next, almost all jobs are dependent on networking, even entry-level jobs. And finally, those entry-level jobs require working extreme hours for little or no pay, with no guarantee of work when the campaign ends.
I’d heard a bit about how the low pay and precarity of lower level jobs in political campaigns excludes whole swaths of people from getting into the work in the first place, but I hadn’t thought as much about the intersection between these campaigns and the work that anthropologists like Karen Ho and historians like Louis Hyman have done on the reproduction of “excellence” in high pressure business environments like consulting and finance banking.
To very broadly summarize, they both argue that these fields came to understanding of what “excellence” looked like that was highly contingent upon the ability to 1) work all the time without flagging and 2) remain unflustered and uncomplaining throughout that process. The people that they promoted — and who excelled within the field — weren’t necessarily the ones with the most “merit,” per se, but the ones who could most closely match leaders’ approach to work, which was, of course, an approach to work largely achievable by men without caregiving responsibilities, or men who felt very very comfortable in the office environment.
How does this work in political campaigns, where there’s very little standard understanding of what “being good at your job” means, other than being fine with working all the time, “being a natural,” (whatever that means), and being comfortable in what one politico very memorably referred to as “a cauldron of assholes”? (I’m reminded here of “charisma,” for example, being a highly desired trait in a political candidate — even though it just so happens that “charisma,” at least as it’s currently defined, is also strongly affiliated with a speaking style associated with the timbre and tone of the stereotypically male voice).
What I found is indeed really similar to the work you’re describing. Here’s how I put it in the book:
People tend to socialize with, like, and trust people who are similar to themselves in various ways—sociologists call this homophily, and it means our social networks tend to be fairly homogeneous unless we make a conscious effort to diversify them. When hiring to fill positions hinges on social networks in a field that is already disproportionately men and White people, White men tend to get hired. It’s the classic old boys’ network effect. Diana, the Latina field staffer, explained that a lot of campaign culture is about “Do I feel comfortable with you? You know, are we going to become buddies? Are we going to laugh at the same things? And so, yeah, to some extent, how you grow up is going to influence some of that.” Which is why Democratic operatives, to get past that, have “had to be very vocal and very intentional about their efforts to hire non-White people.”
And when they do, those few Black operatives still stand out. Symone Sanders, who was a senior advisor to Biden during his 2020 campaign and then became chief spokesperson for Vice President Kamala Harris, said on a podcast interview, “When I show up, curvy with a low cut, a bold lip . . . and a chilling analysis, people don’t know how to take it, because I’m not supposed to be able to give you solid political commentary with a bedazzled nail.”
Another woman Democrat who worked in a consulting firm explained that while the campaigns make some effort to be racially diverse, consulting does a worse job. In her firm, as in many elite workplaces, the only Black person was the administrative assistant. She told me, “I don’t think we did an adequate job at all in trying to recruit people that were not White. . . . The principals are both Jewish and I think there’s this like built-in comfort with—a cultural comfort—I’m Jewish, there’s always a lot of Jewish people on staff. And, yeah, I just felt like we were totally inadequate in reaching out like outside of those worlds.”
Your book is incredibly readable and engaging — and I can see it working so well in so many types of classrooms. We all have some vague sense of how power reproduces itself, but the book really makes the gears visible in a way that I think will feel very validating to so many readers: people who’ve tried and been turned away from being part of politics, people who find themselves continually frustrated with the political enterprise in general. It’s validating. But I also think it’s provocative, too — particularly the so-what of what happens if we don’t grapple with this reality. What’s at stake here if we don’t dramatically rethink the production of politics — and are you seeing any hope that some campaigns are trying to make headway in doing so?
To put it bluntly, I increasingly think the very nature of US democracy is at stake. There is a very scary surge (or resurgence) of what you might call right-wing extremism, or you might call White Christian Nationalism, or you might just call fascism. And the people involved in it are connected to each other, and to politics, through all kinds of tight social ties and media platforms, through their churches and gun clubs, through Tucker Carlson and YouTube videos. I know there are Republican politicos who are opposed to most or all of the moves that these folks are making, from January 6th to banning the discussion of racism in classrooms to threatening drag queens while they’re reading to kids in a library, but I don’t think they know how to fight it, or they’re afraid to speak out against it for fear of losing their livelihoods in Republican politics.
And I don’t think most Democratic campaign professionals really know how to fight it either. Many of them appear to be worried that if they oppose this overt racism and transphobia (or speak out too strongly in favor of reproductive rights, or against guns, etc) they’ll lose those “centrist” voters that they’ve learned to think of as the lynchpin to electoral victory. Moreover, they’re still too focused on messaging, on the broadcast, “air wars” part of politics. What we need is to bring as many people together to oppose this attack on our democracy. And all the evidence I’ve seen says that by far the most effective way to bring more people into a movement, into a party, even just into voting, is direct human contact. There’s plenty of money in politics but it all goes to ads; if more of it were spent on paying people to be organizers, to talk to–and listen to–their neighbors and communities, we might be able to put together a large enough coalition to reverse the really harmful laws and Supreme Court decisions and governors’ executive orders.
There is some movement to do a bit of what I think needs to happen: some take-up of “deep canvassing” for example, which basically just means training campaign staff and volunteers to have real meaningful conversations with potential voters, rather than simply reading them a script that boils down to “please vote the right way.” There are efforts to involve more people of color in political work, especially among the Democrats. The Republicans recently made news for starting community centers in neighborhoods that are predominantly people of color.
But I don’t think it’s nearly enough. I’d like to see the Democratic party make a $1 billion investment in hiring and training organizers to work in their own communities - that’s just 1/8th or so of what they spent on the 2020 election only at the federal level, so I know the money is there. I don’t feel as optimistic as I’d like to, though, about the chance that they’ll do it.
Who’s work is making you really excited right now? (Can be academic, sociological, artistic, you name it)
I’m really really enjoying Maximillian Alvarez’s book The Work of Living, which is a collection of interviews with working people about their lives and their experiences during the pandemic. And I’m excited for my friend Victor Ray’s forthcoming book on Critical Race Theory. Finally, I think we need more and better thinking about right-wing extremism, and I just started Cynthia Miller-Idriss’ book on that - that’s making me more depressed than excited, but it’s essential.