The Real Liberal Elite

The wealthy have long occupied an awkward place in liberal politics. Since the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a movement that purports to speak for the common person has occasionally relied on fabulously rich candidates and backers. Yet something new has happened in recent years: The wealthy have become more than episodic allies of the left; they are now central players in progressivism.

Back in 1990, rich liberals were still something of a novelty. A small and predictable cast of donors gave money to progressive causes and candidates, and they included people like Stewart Mott, an heir to the General Motors fortune; Max Palevsky, who made his money in computers; and the television producer Norman Lear. These donors were outliers. The Forbes 400 was dominated by industries that leaned solidly right, and affluent voters were still largely Republican. California's prosperity in the 1970s famously helped fuel the rise of the new right and Ronald Reagan's career. In 1988, George H.W. Bush -- a Northeastern Republican from old money -- won a majority of America's wealthiest counties.

That was then. A sizeable slice of the upper class has since swung into the liberal camp, changing the balance of power in American politics. The Forbes 400 is now heavily populated by a new breed of billionaire: high-tech entrepreneurs, financial whizzes, and communications moguls. Today's super rich are also far more educated, a trait that correlates with liberal values like tolerance. In 1982, roughly 50 members of the Forbes 400 had college degrees. By 2006, 244 of those on the list had finished college, and at least 132 -- or nearly a third of U.S. billionaires -- had graduate degrees.

Some of the biggest fortunes in America now tilt left, and that can be seen in the vast sums of cash pouring into Democratic coffers and progressive organizations. Billionaires like George Soros and Peter Lewis have given tens of millions of dollars each to liberal 527s and have also helped to bankroll a greatly enlarged progressive infrastructure that includes groups like the Center for American Progress and Media Matters. David Gelbaum, a successful investor, has given remarkable sums to two flagship liberal organizations -- $94 million to the American Civil Liberties Union and more than $200 million to the Sierra Club. The Democracy Alliance, a funding umbrella formed in 2005, now has approximately 100 partners who collectively give millions of dollars a year to progressive groups. Nearly half of the groups it funds did not exist a decade ago.

Affluent voters have tacked left, too. Barack Obama won eight out of 10 of the wealthiest U.S. counties in 2008, and this was no onetime fluke. John Kerry won most of those same counties in 2004. Meanwhile, many of the wealthiest congressional districts routinely re-elect strong liberals, such as Henry Waxman of Los Angeles and Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Traditional class alignments have not disappeared by any means. Obama won his largest margins among the poorest voters, and organizers from labor, community groups, and other broad-based organizations still provide much of the day-to-day muscle for progressive politics. That has been especially clear over the past year, in the battles over health care and financial reform.

But if people power remains a key driver of progressive advances, the overall trend of the past 20 years is that the wealthy have become steadily more pivotal to liberal politics while the left's social movements have stalled. For instance, just 7.2 percent of private industry workers now belong to unions, down from 11.9 percent in 1990.

This divergent trend line is troubling and stands as yet more evidence of an unequal democracy dominated by money. At the same time, progressivism is clearly more powerful and arguably more principled today than it was in 1990. The influence of the rich has been positive in some areas, negative in others. Affluent donors and voters have often led the charge to push the Democratic Party to the left on social issues, like abortion and gender equality, as well as on the environment. Especially notable in recent years has been the role of wealthy gay donors in demanding that Democrats stand up in favor of gay rights. At times, rich liberals have also pushed Democrats left on national security. One reason candidate Obama raked in big early money was that he had opposed the invasion of Iraq.

The picture looks quite different on economic issues. Many among the putatively liberal rich don't care much for unions or regulation and believe fervently in free trade. Worst of all, a Democratic Party neutered by Wall Street money supported the deregulation that led to the 2008 meltdown. Obama's close ties to the financial sector, which contributed heavily to his presidential bid, help to explain why Obama picked a centrist economic team and has taken a tepid approach to reform. Most of the energy for reining in Wall Street has come not from the White House but from the Democratic base.

Still, the standard narrative -- that the wealthy have moved liberalism right on economic issues -- is not entirely accurate. Just five years ago, inequality was rising and a newly re-elected conservative president sought to privatize Social Security. By 2007, nearly every Democratic primary candidate vowed to raise taxes on the rich and to enact universal health insurance. These calls were echoed by the many new think tanks and organizations bankrolled by rich liberals. Today, a Democratic administration is implementing a historic health-care law -- which will funnel tens of billions of dollars annually from high-income to low-income households -- and taxes on the rich are headed upward. Various players in the progressive movement, including wealthy liberals, helped bring about this overdue shift toward a more economically fair society.

Liberal commentators have long debated the proper role of the upper class within the progressive coalition. This debate is timelier than ever, but it is also increasingly academic. Class politics has already remade itself. A sizeable chunk of affluent America has moved left, and that shift will endure despite the recent backlash in certain wealthy quarters against Obama and the Democrats. The challenge going forward is to successfully adapt the progressive project to this new reality.

The trickiest task will be to ensure that a progressive movement entwined with wealthy allies is able to ramp up the fight for economic justice. This seems doable. A range of progressive ideas to create more broadly shared prosperity commands support among upper-class liberals, such as much bigger investments in education and job training; efforts to build wealth in low-income communities; a new push to create "green collar" jobs; better supports for working families, like paid family leave and subsidized child care; and further steps to redistribute national wealth through the tax system.

Even the very toughest job, taming Wall Street so that it serves Main Street, should be compatible with keeping together much -- albeit not all -- of the cross-class coalition that elected Obama. The Democratic Party can afford to alienate donors on Wall Street, given its increasingly diversified funder base that includes newly rich tech people at companies like Google and a much vaster pool of small donors.

Twenty years ago, there was plenty of talk of one day forging a new progressive majority. That majority now holds power, only it looks very different -- in class terms -- than anyone could have imagined.

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