Posted: June 27, 2011
avid Callahan wants you to buckle up for some startling news. It turns out that many rich, highly educated, coastal urbanites are liberal. What's next? Baja isn't really in California? Liberace was gay? "[I]t's often imagined that the ranks of the rich include only Horatio Alger types who hate government," avers Callahan before attempting to set us straight about "the strange new politics of class."
I am not sure what kind of cocoon you have to be living in to think the rich all dress like the little man from the Monopoly game. In the late 1960s Kevin Phillips detected pervasive liberalism among high-income Northeasterners repelled by the Republican Party's shift to Barry Goldwater and Sunbelt conservatism. The term "limousine liberal" was coined to describe just such voters at the time. Heirs to stodgy fortunes helped fund 1960s' and 1970s' radicalism. Upper-income entertainers and culture mavens declared for George McGovern in 1972, and for virtually every Democrat since. Almost a decade ago, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira argued that "the emerging Democratic majority" was being populated in no small part by upper-middle class professionals from well-heeled centers of research and technology. George Soros, Peter Lewis, and other leftist billionaires were already familiar faces three years ago when Matt Bai wrote The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics.
But Callahan insists that high-income liberalism is a much more extensive phenomenon than ever before. His book is heavily populated by faculty members, Hollywood actors, leaders of the "knowledge" economy, and scattered scions of patrician families. He focuses his story on the richest 1% of the population and lavishes particular attention on dozens of phenomenally successful entrepreneurs who tilt left.
Though a progressive himself—Callahan is co-founder of the liberal think tank Demos, in New York City—he has mixed feelings about the growing ranks and influence of the liberal rich. On the one hand, their campaign contributions and political donations empower liberal groups to do everything from employ full-time activists to sustain candidates like Barack Obama, who ran the best-funded campaign in U.S. history. But the wealthy rich push a combination of liberalism on social issues and centrism on economics that can alienate blue-collar voters. Callahan is also concerned that wealthy liberals will do to Obama what they did to Bill Clinton: pressure him to abandon any serious efforts at social and economic leveling.
Callahan devotes most of his pages to describing individual rich liberals, just how much money they have, and the causes in which they get involved. But more interesting are his arguments and assumptions about the causes of liberalism among the rich. He invokes the work of University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart to argue that the richer we are, the more liberal we become. By liberal, Callahan does not mean free-thinking or even secular but pro-choice, pro-gay rights, green, redistributionist, and probably opposed to merit pay for public school teachers.
Of all the theories that provide psychic comfort to progressive intellectuals, claims about "post-materialism" rank high. Inglehart argues that people raised in economic and physical insecurity—which means almost everyone born before the great peace and prosperity of the West in the post-World War II boom, and a great many born since—understandably focus on "materialist" concerns such as income, crime, and national defense. Materialist union members and materialist employers alike fight over who gets which share of the profit pie, but both are focused on money. In contrast, people born into economic and physical security are motivated by "post-materialist" concerns such as justice, aesthetics, self-expression, and self-actualization.
The great weakness of Callahan's book, and of many discussions of post-materialism, is that ideological bias creeps into deciding how materialism and non-materialism differ. His most common device is to suggest that conservatives are fundamentally materialists, whereas progressives are motivated by the post-materialism that will gradually characterize more and more people. He recurrently describes rich progressives motivated by the development of a "social conscience" and concerned with things beyond simple material gain. It follows that rich liberals care about the poor and beleaguered, defend gays and lesbians, support prudent government interventions like public education, buy carbon-offsets and recycle, and vote to raise their own taxes. In supporting these causes, they devote wealth to "public purposes."
* * *
There are several problems with this. First, it invites the inference, which the author does not exactly struggle to dispel, that modern liberalism is fundamentally based on concern for others. Hidden from view, in this depiction, are tort lawyers, public sector unions devoted to government employment as an end in itself, private sector unions that use regulations to featherbed, teachers unions that resist all serious school reforms, a life insurance industry that fights to maintain the estate tax, and many others. These, combined, make up no small share of the modern liberal political coalition. It's easy to imagine higher-income liberals as post-material when you downplay the role of the brazen materialists in their ranks.
Second, Callahan's depiction implies that conservatives lack a social conscience and spend their money in pursuit of "private" purposes, trying to amass as many toys as possible before they die. He repeatedly emphasizes the self-interested reasons for their involvement in politics. For example, conservative fat cats hire lobbyists to twist public policy to their pecuniary advantage, traditional industries like oil and gas fund climate change deniers and oppose the EPA, "old economy" tycoons pay for conservative think tanks that propose to deregulate their businesses and cut their taxes, and "families that, in some cases, stood to owe billions of dollars" finance campaigns against the estate tax. Judis and Teixeira suggested something similar when they wrote in 2002 that old-economy "corporate and financial executives, accountants, and property managers...tend to gauge their own success in profit-and-loss terms," whereas such liberal-leaning "new" professionals as software programmers, architects, teachers, and doctors "identify their success with the quality of the service they offer," such as patient health or student learning.
It is a striking claim, that doctors, architects, and teachers are largely uninterested in income (where are those pesky tort lawyers?) whereas executives and accountants take little pride in a job well done. This is indicative of Callahan's bias in differentiating conservative self-interest from progressive post-materialism. His narrative cannot account for the daily conduct of many professionals in both the old economy (who do take pride in their work) and the new (who seem to bill as if they care about the size of their house). It does not square well with Arthur Brooks's finding that charitable giving disproportionately originates with conservatives, in no small part because of their greater religiosity—the most profound form of "pre-materialism," concerning which Inglehart has little to say.
And it does not square well with a great deal of what wealthy conservatives do with their money. I am not talking just about the vast sums of money that rich conservatives, like rich people generally, give to hospitals and schools. I mean their support for many explicitly conservative political causes. Callahan's suggestion that such support is self-interested may be congenial to progressives, but it does not hold up under scrutiny. Simply put, rich donors give funds to limited-government and free-market think tanks, scholarly projects, and activist groups, money they cannot plausibly hope to recoup through specific policy changes. Their donations are far better understood as publicly-spirited acts motivated by the general belief that more constitutional constraint, and less taxation and regulation, create more opportunities for all.
I could cite less controversial examples, but why not sail right into harm's way? Charles and David Koch famously fund think tanks, student groups, and other right-of-center causes (alongside Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Opera, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, and dozens of other non-political charities). Both brothers also devote substantial amounts of another precious resource—their time—to a number of the political and ideological organizations they fund. Are we really to understand this behavior as the pursuit of private and not public purposes? What about funding from Bruce Kovner and others for innovative charter schools? Or when John Templeton funded activities in the sciences, religion, education, and markets? Or, for that matter, when conservatives open their checkbooks for the Claremont Institute, which publishes the pages you are reading?
Callahan seems to acknowledge the public-spiritedness of some of this activity when he says conservatives tend "to see wealth creation mainly as the product of individual effort" rather than sharing liberals' more "communal view of wealth creation." But he doesn't realize what a can of worms this admission opens. If many conservatives and libertarians genuinely believe that limited government and middle-class values enhance opportunities for achievement and betterment, then the idea that history is moving in the direction of modern liberalism is up for debate. Callahan and others who lean on the crutch of post-materialism believe that modern liberalism is the default position for truly modern people. But whether progressive policies and practices actually work better is an empirical question, over which durable disagreement seems very likely. Public-spiritedness seems likely to motivate both the liberal and the conservative agenda well into the future.
That said, no one should be surprised that liberal prescriptions are currently championed by a slew of wealthy activists. As Callahan acknowledges, many upper-middle and upper-class Americans have been exposed to "an unbroken gospel" of left-of-center doctrine throughout their high school and university years, a gospel echoed by the mainstream media and other culturally prestigious voices. These leftward pressures are not to be taken lightly. With control of the commanding heights of our culture comes the power to make certain views fashionable. It is wielded even by poseurs, which explains why some Lear-Jet liberals are ostentatious in their purchase of cheap carbon offsets, and why John Kerry calls for tax hikes on the rich but registered his yacht in no-tax Rhode Island until somebody noticed. The power to shape the thoughts of our cognitive elite also makes possible avoidance of another sort, the kind that produces precious few articles about how much carbon is released every time a "new economy" professional turns on her iPhone or does a Google search. And dominance over teaching and journalism makes it easy to forget the serious policy failures liberalism suffered in the 1970s. If college courses do not teach those failures and media sources do not dredge them up from time to time, it is easy for many youngsters to conclude liberalism has an unblemished record.
* * *
But the wheel can and does turn. The 1970s happened once and can happen again, in the sense that overreaching government can generate new failures that will teach new lessons. Callahan presumably favored Obama's main legislative priorities. But it is now evident to most observers that the stimulus bill was stuffed with squalid pork-barrel spending, and we are only beginning to see the buried features and unintended consequences of the health care law. Public sector unions, especially teacher unions, have become a main cause of disgust with liberal governing practices. California, Illinois, and New York—blue states all—teeter on the edge of bankruptcy.
In fact, durable skepticism about the efficacy of government may explain why so many rich liberals do not act quite the way Callahan suggests. He entitles one of his chapters "Please Raise My Taxes." But every dollar that rich liberals give away philanthropically or put into charitable foundations is, they must believe, a dollar that stands a better chance of doing good by being spent according to their own judgment than by government officials after they collect it as income or estate taxes. This very much includes Warren Buffett, who supports the "death tax" while reducing his estate's exposure to it by transferring tens of billions of dollars to the Gates Foundation.
The belief that growing post-materialism is inexorably leading to modern liberalism is symptomatic of a persistent intellectual project: finding some sociological basis for the inevitable coalescence of a permanent political majority favoring one's own ideology. Conservatives are sometimes susceptible to imagining a permanent political majority of their own. But the tendency is especially pervasive among progressives. It is flawed no matter who pursues it. Political majorities are constructed through political processes and are therefore eternally contested rather than finally resolved. This is true of ideological disputes as well as partisan ones.
The bad news, for everybody, is that there are no permanent victories, including the victory Democrats won in 2008, and the one Republicans won last fall. The good news, for everybody, is that there are also no permanent defeats. History does not belong to anyone, no matter how hard we cross our fingers and wish it were otherwise.