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Rich politicians emphasize humble beginnings

Mitt Romney's wealth became an issue for him in his 2012 campaign for president.

The economic disparity between the common man and the politician is as old as democracy itself. In 64 BC when Cicero was running for consul of the Roman Republic, his brother is believed to have written what could be called the first electioneering handbook.

“One question I think people should be asking is does it matter that politicians are so much better off than the people they are supposed to represent,” says Nicholas Carnes, the author of "White Collar Government: The Hidden Roles of Class in Economic Policy Making." “And what I find is that yeah, it really does matter. Politicians, who don’t have experience doing working class jobs really do think differently, vote differently, and introduce different kinds of legislation than the few politicians who do know what it’s like to be a blue collar worker.”

Carnes says that the average member of Congress spent 1.5 percent of his pre-Congress career working in manual labor or service industry jobs, a percentage that has changed little over the last 100 years.  

But talking about that divide can be a political landmine as evidenced by Hillary Clinton’s recent claim that she and her husband were “dead broke” when they left the White House.

 

Alex  Gourevitch teaches political Science at Brown. He says the politicians who are best at pretending to be equal are the ones who avoid talking about their own wealth at all, or emphasize their humble beginnings, like John Edwards for example, who campaigned not as a wealthy attorney, but as the son of a mill worker.

 

Another strategy is to be upfront about wealth as Romney did during his bid for the presidency.

 

Here's Bill Clinton discussing his life before he was an attorney in 2008.

 

And here's Jimmy Cater in a campaign commercial from 1976:

 

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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