Can people from privileged backgrounds, like most politicians, really make policy changes to support true equality? Do politicians have a conflict of interest in instituting progressive social policy?
This is, of course, a matter of opinion. Anyone can point to any policy that has ever been instituted and claim that it is not sufficiently progressive and that it would have been more progressive if the people who inaugurated and implemented it had not been privileged. However, I would argue that it is clearly possible for privileged people to make changes to support true equality. (Of course, different people can have different ideas as to what constitutes “true equality.”)
Part of what you are asking here is whether descriptive representation is necessary. In other words, in order to be properly represented, do I have to be represented by someone who is “like me” in some particular way? Do I have to be represented by someone who has the same skin color I do? Do I have to be represented by someone of the same sex, the same class, and/or the same religion? I would argue that I do not, but there are many people who think that descriptive representation is necessary. I would say that it is possible for anyone who has the proper motivation and imagination to truly care about other types of people and to push for policies that will help them.
As an example, I would point to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. President Roosevelt was clearly from a privileged background. He was from a very rich family and attended the best private schools. Even so, he was clearly able to act in compassionate ways during the Great Depression. He took actions that certainly seem to me to have been aimed at increasing equality in the country. Of course, it is possible to say that he should have instituted true socialism and that he would have done so if he had not been privileged. I, however, reject this argument. I think that what he did was much better for the cause of true equality than either the actions of Hoover before him or than the actions of someone like Huey Long would have been.
Thus, I do not agree that we must be descriptively represented. I think that people who care about others, like Franklin Roosevelt seems to have, can implement truly progressive policies.
There is certainly a case to be made that those from privileged backgrounds have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of inequality that has allowed them their privileged background. A conflict of interest almost certainly plays in to the decisions that are made regarding policies. This is one reason many policy changes aimed at equality do not actually achieve equality, but in effect, are more baby steps providing slightly more equality. These baby steps contain easily manipulated wording that are sold as compromises between those who believe an inequality is being performed and those who do not. This equality on paper can be seen in the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves but gave them no rights, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which provided for equal treatment but left that phrase open to interpretation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which again was aimed at equal treatment, but did not provide for enforcement. These examples are repeated in gaining equality for women, religions, and sexual orientation. If politicians in power actually experienced the inequality they are attempting to end, they would most likely be more effective at it. Instead, we get a spiraling effect of slightly more equality, with no ability to estimate when "true" equality may be achieved.