[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Stanley Greenberg, Host:
Shortly after the 2008 election, I wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times in which I declared I was shifting my focus from studying the white middle class Macomb County, Michigan (which I had first examined in 1985) to the neighboring Oakland County, Michigan—the home of affluent Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills. As I noted then, from 1972 to 1988, Democratic presidential candidates lost the county by 20 points. Over the past two decades, the towns of Oakland County began to change from rust belt suburbs to affluent communities that are representative of the new knowledge economy—home to lawyers, high-tech professionals, and the educated elite.
These changes have produced a more tolerant and culturally liberal population in Oakland County—its affluent and well-educated residents are uncomfortable with today’s socially conservative Republican Party. More diverse, more cosmopolitan, and firmly engaged in the knowledge economy, they are socially progressive and trending Democratic. Oakland’s residents typify the major transformation in partisan demographics in recent years described in Fortunes of Change.
Fortunes of Change documents the recent phenomenon of the rising class of super-wealthy liberals—who overwhelmingly financed Democratic campaigns in 2006 and 2008, have donated generously to build infrastructure on the left and center-left (groups like CAP, Democracy Alliance, and Human Rights Campaign), and whose participation in political causes and organizations is shaping the progressive agenda.
These are the new rich, who predominantly live in coastal cities, who were educated at elite institutions, and who are the progenitors of the new knowledge economy. Framed in this way, their left-leaning politics seems obvious. Nonetheless, most were not driven to support politically progressive causes until the early years of the 21st century. While many were dedicated to philanthropic causes in the 1980s and 1990s, several forces conspired to drive them to politically active progressivism in the years since 2000—the emergence of the socially conservative, white working class GOP, the Bush administration’s foreign and economic policies, and the more rural worldview that came to dominate the Republican Party during the Bush years.
While many of us welcome a well-funded base of support for progressive causes and candidates, Callahan offers some caution. First, he seems to substantiate the reality of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party’s symbolic enemy—‘the liberal elite.’ Second, he offers caution that “rich ‘super-citizens’” might “drown out the voices of ordinary Americans.” Finally, he fears that “many rich liberals are not in the business of dismantling their class privileges” but are rather more focused on liberal social and environmental causes than mitigating structural economic inequality (“Some rich liberals are more apt to champion the plight of polar bears than of the janitors who clean their offices at night.”)
Fortunes of Change raises new and important questions. If, as Callahan suggests, and as I suspect, the wealthy and well-educated will be a driving force in liberal politics for years to come, we will need to know much more about their politics and priorities than we do at present. While the book is ethnographic in scope, the research is anecdotal by necessity. Callahan rightly points out that public opinion survey research cuts off at high income earners who make over $150,000 a year. As a result, we know little about their priorities except from their contributions to causes and campaigns. How will they shape American progressivism in the future? We do know that these new liberal elites are not the paternalistic, pandering progressives of the last Gilded Age. Their commitment is real. Liberalism is in their genuine economic self-interest as they rely on the new knowledge economy to supply their wealth.
The book also raises questions for our current environment. Over the last year, big donors have begun to pull back from financing progressive infrastructure and Democratic candidates. While some were angered by the Obama administration’s more forceful approach to regulating Wall Street, many have in fact pulled back because they are concerned that Obama has not gone far enough to push progressive policies. How will they respond to trade issues and the global economy when fissures emerge among Democrats and many progressives? How will they respond if enduring inequality becomes central to the progressive project in years ahead?
This is a good place to start facing these issues.