Nicholas Carnes Ph.D. '11 Discusses Princeton and Beyond
Nicholas Carnes received his Ph.D. in politics and social policy from Princeton University in 2011. He was one of the first to graduate from the Joint Degree Program (JDP) at the Woodrow Wilson School. Nicholas also was a graduate student affiliate of the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics (CSDP). Currently, an assistant professor of public policy at Duke University, he is the author of the forthcoming book "White-collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy-making." His work has been featured in The New York Times, Washington Post, the Daily Kos, CNN Money, NPR's Marketplace and On Point, Wisconsin Public Radio, KPSI Palm Springs, CBS Philly, The Raleigh News and Observer, and Tulsa Public Radio.
Recently, Nicholas shared some thoughts and experiences during his time at Princeton and now at Duke with Michele Epstein, the assistant director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at the Woodrow Wilson School:
Where did you go to college, and why did you pick Princeton for grad school?
I went to college at the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s a small liberal arts college—about 2,000 students—and I got lots of one-on-one attention from my professors. They all knew my name and what I wanted to do with my life, and they all supported me when I decided to get a Ph.D. in political science.
Thanks to them, I was lucky enough to get into a few good graduate schools. I chose Princeton because it offered a perfect combination of mentoring from world-class faculty and training in state-of-the-art research methods.
You were a graduate student affiliate of the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics. What, if any, impact did this have on your graduate student experience? On your career path?
Being affiliated with CSDP affected just about everything I did as a graduate student. CSDP gave me office space in Robertson, which helped me build relationships with the faculty and graduate students in my field (and in others). CSDP put us in touch with world-class scholars at other universities through the CSDP fellowship program. I learned what engaging research presentations look like by attending CSDP’s Thursday lunch seminars. And I learned how important collegiality is in an academic setting—the informal, as well as formal, interactions among CSDP faculty, fellows, and grad students taught me how much of a difference CSDP’s center environment makes.
And, of course, I never would have finished graduate school if it hadn’t been for the CSDP espresso machine!
Who were your biggest influences among the faculty while you were in grad school?
It’s hard to do justice to how much Chris Achen, Larry Bartels (currently at Vanderbilt University), and Doug Arnold did for me while I was at Princeton. I took classes with all three of them. I went to all three of them for advice. I was a research assistant for all three of them. I asked all three of them to serve on my dissertation committee. They spoiled me rotten: they were fantastic professional role models, they were generous with their time, and I’ll always be grateful.
I started working with Doug Arnold right away when I got to Princeton. He was just starting a big research project, and we walked through every step of the process together. Doug taught me the entire research process from start to finish. And he gave me advice on virtually everything I did in graduate school—he helped me pick which courses to take, he commented on drafts of my dissertation chapters, he helped me with my job search. At the end of our meetings, I used to ask Doug five or six times whether I could ask “just one more question.” Recently, Doug and I published a paper in the American Journal of Political Science about New York City mayors: “Holding Mayors Accountable: New York's Executives from Koch to Bloomberg.”
Larry Bartels was one of the best professional role models I’ve ever known. His research is exemplary, but what really makes him stand out is how down-to-earth he is. He supports everyone around him—his students, his co-workers, his CSDP fellows. When I needed help with a methodological problem, Larry worked with me. When I needed advice, his door was open. When I wanted to hold a conference, Larry funded it; and when the people who attended trashed our conference room, Larry helped me clean it up!
Chris Achen was my dissertation chair. During my first few years in the program, he always seemed to know when I needed a little encouragement, always there with a joke or a kind word. Chris gave great advice, and he really helped me keep my work in perspective, helping me balance work and family needs. Chris wasn’t just a great mentor—he was also a tough-minded scholar. To this day, one of my proudest professional accomplishments is the time Chris wrote “I’m convinced!” at the top of a report I had written on my dissertation findings.
Describe the NSF grant you received while in grad school.
In 2009, I won a $12,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Dissertation Improvement Grant. With the grant, I was able to hire 30 undergraduate research assistants to help me collect the most detailed biographical data ever assembled on a large sample of members of Congress. Before, scholars knew surprisingly little about the personal histories of lawmakers—the information was scattered across a lot of different sources, and pulling it together was really time-consuming. The NSF grant (and a $3,500 grant from the Dirksen Congressional Center) allowed me to gather a wealth of information about the 783 men and women who served in Congress between 1999 and 2008. That information has been the basis of the research I’ve done since then on how the shortage of people from the working class in public office affects economic policy.
What did you precept/teach in grad school at Princeton?
I precepted (or, as I say outside Princeton, TA’ed) two courses: “The Politics of Racial Health Disparities” and “Introduction to American Politics.” They were both fantastic courses with stellar faculty—they were the perfect introduction to the kind of work I now do in the classroom myself.
You were in the first cohort admitted to the Joint Degree Program (JDP). What role did it play in your graduate student “career?”
I am proud to say that I was the first person to earn a Ph.D. in politics and social policy from Princeton.
T he JDP was perfect for me—it let me stay rooted in political science while also doing interdisciplinary, policy-focused work on the problem of inequality with a great group of faculty and graduate students from across the social sciences. I had wanted to find a way to connect with people in other fields who care about the problems I study—I couldn’t have dreamed up a better way to do that.
What was your dissertation research question? What are your key findings?
In a nutshell, my dissertation asked whether it matters that there are almost no working-class people in public office. Should we care that our political institutions are run mostly by millionaires, or that blue-collar workers make up more than half of the labor market but former workers make up less than two percent of Congress? To find out, I looked at data on how legislators from different classes think, vote, and advocate on economic issues, the issues that tend to divide people most sharply by class. Across every level of government, every timeframe, and ever dataset I could find—including one I created from scratch—I reached the same basic conclusion over and over again. If working-class Americans made up their fair share of our political institutions, economic policy would be more pro-worker and less pro-business. Like the rest of us, lawmakers from different classes tend to see economic problems differently. Because white-collar Americans are disproportionately the ones calling the shots, economic policy tends to tilt towards outcomes white-collar Americans prefer, policies that make life easier for white-collar Americans and harder for the working class.
Describe your faculty appointment at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. What are you teaching at Duke?
I’m a part of an interdisciplinary faculty of economists, sociologists, political scientists, historians, psychologists, philosophers, and practitioners. My colleagues and I are dedicated to putting knowledge in the service of society—using insights from our own fields to help lawmakers, citizens, and other stakeholders create better public policy.
Right now, I teach “The Politics of Public Policy” at the undergraduate and master’s levels. The goal of the course is to help students navigate the political process effectively. Most of the courses at the Sanford School focus on how to identify problems and design effective, efficient, and ethical policies to solve them. My courses focus on how to get those wonderful policies enacted.
I also teach a small graduate-level seminar on the political response to our country’s recent economic woes called “The Great Recession: Hard Times and American Politics.” The course focuses not on what politicians should do in response to a recession, but on what our lawmakers actually did—and why.
You had an op-ed in The New York Times last year, shortly after joining the faculty at Duke. What did you most want to communicate in that op-ed? What was the process like?
In the lead-up to the 2012 election, the country was having a serious conversation about class and economic opportunity. I thought it was important to say something about how class matters in our elections and political institutions. The fact that working-class people are so seldom on our ballots or in our political institutions has serious consequences for who wins and who loses in American politics and in American life. It seemed important to mention that on the eve of an election that centered on economic policy, so I wrote “Which Millionaire Are You Voting For?,” which summarized the research I’ve been doing the last few years.
Political scientists are mostly trained to write books and 30-page journal articles, not 750-word op-eds. Duke’s office of news and communications offers a great seminar on how to write op-eds, though, and I was lucky enough to get in during my first year in Durham. I wrote the op-ed in about a week, and then it took another two weeks or so to get through the Times’s extensive screening, editing, and fact-checking processes. It’s an amazing operation: every sentence is scrutinized, ever factual claim is checked and double-checked. It was a lot of work, but I shared my research with more people with those 750 words than I ever have before. Afterward, I heard from lots of them—some critics, some supporters, and even some working-class candidates themselves.
Finally, tell us about your forthcoming book.
My book is currently titled “White-collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policymaking” (although the title is up for active discussion right now). Whatever it’s ultimately called, my editor at the University of Chicago Press expects that it will be out in October.
The book shows how the shortage of people from the working class in public office affects economic policy. It outlines the most comprehensive evidence to date on the social class makeup of American political institutions. And it shows that—like the rest of us—legislators from different classes tend to have different views on economic questions. As a result, they tend to vote differently, to introduce different kinds of bills, and to enact different kinds of economic policies than they might if they were a cross-section of the nation as a whole. “White-collar Government” illustrates just how much government by the privileged affects who wins and who loses in our policymaking process.