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Fortunes of Change: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America

Fortunes of Change: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America

by David Callahan

Packed with fascinating data that paints a provocative picture of the new rich

In Fortunes of Change, David Callahan contends that something big is happening among the rich in America: they’re drifting to the left. When Callahan set out to write a book on the new upper class, he expected to profile a greedy and reactionary elite—the


Packed with fascinating data that paints a provocative picture of the new rich

In Fortunes of Change, David Callahan contends that something big is happening among the rich in America: they’re drifting to the left. When Callahan set out to write a book on the new upper class, he expected to profile a greedy and reactionary elite—the robber barons of a second Gilded Age. Instead, he discovered something else. While many of the rich still back a GOP that stands against taxes and regulation, liberalism is spreading fast among the wealthy.

In Fortunes of Change, we meet an upper class increasingly filled with super-educated professionals and entrepreneurs who work in “knowledge” industries and live in the bluest parts of America. This cosmopolitan elite takes for granted such key liberal ideas as multiculturalism and active government, and have ever less in common with an extremist GOP based in small-town America and dominated by Tea Party activists and the likes of Sarah Palin. Fortunes of Change explores:

  • Why some of America’s wealthiest people backed Barack Obama’s presidential bid and are pouring record sums into the Democratic Party and liberal organizations, even though they stand to see their taxes go up.
  • How a few big donors have spent millions to create the modern gay rights movement and how environmental activists have tapped a river of new liberal cash.
  • Why Hollywood, rolling in new profits thanks to globalization, has more money than ever to back Democratic candidates and push politics to the left.
  • Why Silicon Valley is turning more liberal and how tech money—including Bill Gates’s vast fortune—is funding a growing array of liberal groups and politicians.
  • How the upper class is likely to get more liberal as young heirs are inculcated with liberal ideas in America’s most elite prep schools and universities.
  • David Callahan is a co-founder of the think tank Demos, where he is now a senior fellow. He is author of the Cheating Culture, among other books, and his articles have appeared in such places as USA Today, the New York Times, the Nation, and the Washington Monthly.

Packed with surprising facts and behind-the-scene stories, Fortunes of Change is a must-read book if want to understand how America's politics and culture are changing—and what the future may hold.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

In 2004, Callahan dissected "the pervasive greed and corruption found in the 'winning class' of the Enron era," in The Cheating Culture; now he takes another look at the super rich and finds paradoxically that in recent years "liberalism has spread in the upper class," and Billionaire Democrats played a significant role in Obama's victory. He disputes the claim that wealthy backers have pushed the party to the center in opposite to the their middle class constituency, and presents evidence to the contrary. While the "reformist tradition of patrician public service" dates back to Theodore Roosevelt, Callahan worries about a liberal plutocracy, even a benign one; prioritizing environmental causes over pollution in poor communities, ignoring the ongoing problem of home foreclosures, and opposing any meaningful financial reform will endanger our political democracy, he argues. And even were this not the case, "the outsized influence of rich people over electoral outcomes... undermines the ideal of one person, on vote," making Callahan's top priority "major reforms in the area of campaign finance and elections." What could have been a basic polemic is a nuanced, counterintuitive examination that deserves serious consideration from all sides of the political spectrum.

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Read an Excerpt

Fortunes of Change

By David Callahan

John Wiley & Sons

Copyright © 2010 David Callahan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-470-17711-2

Chapter One

Educated, Rich, and Liberal

After leaving the white house, George W. Bush moved into a sprawling, five-bedroom ranch house in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Dallas: Preston Hollow. Bush had lived in the area earlier, before he became governor of Texas. It is the kind of neighborhood where big money and conservative politics have long mixed, and a number of GOP stalwarts own mansions not far from Bush. His neighbors include T. Boone Pickens and Harold Simmons, both whom had spent millions financing the Swift Boat ads against John Kerry in 2004, which helped ensure Bush's reelection. Dallas's Republican mayor also lives in Preston Hollow, as does Roger Staubach, the former Dallas Cowboys star quarterback and big-time GOP donor. After a rough ride in the White House, noted the Dallas Morning News in December 2008, "Mr. Bush can take comfort in knowing his new precinct is overwhelmingly Republican."

Or was, anyway.

Things have changed in Preston Hollow since Bush lived there last. The houses have gotten bigger and more expensive. The richest residents have gotten much richer. And there are also more Democrats. Although Preston Hollow is still strongly Republican, the balance is shifting, and, in 2008, Barack Obama raised more money in Bush's new zip code than John McCain did.

How could it be that a liberal African American from Chicago could outraise a Sun Belt Republican war hero in an area like Preston Hollow? At least one explanation is clear: lawyers. The neighborhood is crawling with them-affluent partners in downtown Dallas law firms. These people are loaded, and most of them are Democrats. Fred Baron, who had made a fortune litigating asbestos cases and had given a big chunk of it to the Democrats, most notably to John Edwards, was a longtime resident of Preston Hollow before his death in October 2008. Not far from Bush lives Les Weisbrod, who advertises himself as the "pitbull" of Texas's medical malpractice bar and is among the larger Democratic donors in Texas. Other major Democratic donors in Preston Hollow include Charles Siegal, a partner at Waters & Kraus; Terrell Oxford, with the liberal firm of Susman Godfrey; and Steven Baron (no relation to Fred), with Baron & Budd.

A few hundred miles away, in the richer and more famous Texas neighborhood of River Oaks, Houston, the picture is much the same. Although the Enron executives who once lived in River Oaks are long gone, either dead or in prison, prosperous Republican oil men such as Robert Mosbacher still live here. But so do well-heeled lawyers, and they give generously to the Democratic Party-so much so that Obama raised nearly as much money in River Oaks as McCain did, a stunning feat in a historically conservative neighborhood once known for its deed covenants restricting home sales from blacks and Jews.

Among Obama's big donors from River Oaks was Stephen Susman, who founded the boutique litigation firm of Susman Godfrey. Susman is Texas born but Yankee educated; he got his BA at Yale University. He has long seen himself as a friend of liberal causes, and his latest specialty-once pure heresy in a place like Houston-is global warming litigation. Susman and his partner, Lee Godfrey (another Yale man), hire lawyers who share their politics and often their Ivy League backgrounds. Though small, Susman Godfrey was ranked among the top twenty law firms in its 2008 political contributions, with 97 percent of those funds going to Democrats. The firm is rolling in money from a number of big settlements, and partners often pull in several million dollars a year, which goes a long way in Texas.

Lawyering is the prototypical knowledge-economy profession, albeit one that is less new and trendy. As a lawyer, you don't make anything and never will. You earn a living with your brain alone. First you need a Juris Doctor (JD) degree, which requires that you spend three years mastering all sorts of arcana. If you go to one of the top ten law schools, you will spend that time in a heavily Democratic city such as Boston, Chicago, New York, or Berkeley, and on a campus where liberal values are dominant-for example, Yale, Harvard, Columbia, or Stanford. Your professors will be Democrats by a big margin. If you join a top firm, you will be staying on in blue America, because most of these firms are located in liberal cities. The big firms aren't bastions of left-wing politics by any means, and some are quite conservative. Corporate lawyers in particular make their living defending powerful private interests. Still, this world is way more liberal than one might suppose, and many of your new colleagues will be people who once wanted to make the world a better place before realizing they had six-figure student loans to repay and, later, jumbo mortgages. During the 2008 election cycle, lawyers made up the single largest industry backing the Democratic Party, giving $235 million. Three-quarters of all political contributions by lawyers went to Democrats, a ratio that hasn't changed much in twenty years. If you want to rise at a major firm, it might be a good idea to start giving to Democrats yourself. But mainly your success will hinge on analyzing information and manipulating specialized knowledge. Cognitive muscularity is a definite asset for those hoping to become partners.

Lawyers don't make the really big money in the knowledge economy, but the pay is still good and has soared in the last fifteen years, dramatically expanding the ranks of rich lawyers. In 2008, seventy-five law firms had profits per equity partner of more than $1 million, and such profits were greater than $3 million at the top five firms. This is way up from a decade ago, when only seventeen firms had profits per equity partner of more than $ 1 million.

Most lawyers who make a few million dollars a year are in firms that mainly do corporate work. If you want to get seriously rich, you need to be on the other side of the fence, suing corporations and insurance companies. Top plaintiff lawyers can make tens of millions of dollars a year. The richest tort lawyer in the United States is Joe Jamail, with a net worth of $1.5 billion in 2010. Jamail lives in Houston and has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Party.

Texas now has seventy thousand lawyers. In addition to the local firms such as Susman Godfrey, more big national firms have opened offices in Houston or Dallas. And as more lawyers in these cities have shared in the swelling riches generated by their firms, they are buying into neighborhoods such as Preston Hollow and River Oaks and changing the political makeup of the moneyed Texas elite.

That elite is also being reshaped by the new wealth created in finance and high tech. Technology is now the top industry in Dallas, and that city has one of the biggest concentrations of techies in the United States. Most of them work in the Telecomm Corridor north of the city, where companies such as Nortel, Ericsson, and Alcatel are based. Finance is booming in Dallas, too, or at least it was before the crash. Among the biggest Democratic donors in Bush's neighborhood is Laurence Lebowitz, who is the chairman and managing director of HBK Capital Management, one of the largest hedge funds in Texas. In River Oaks, Obama drew support from John Arnold, a thirtysomething hedge fund whiz who has built a $4 billion fortune through energy trading. Arnold got his start at Enron, where he had earned an $8 million bonus in 2001 for Internet-based trading, just before the company collapsed. Raised in Dallas by a lawyer dad and an accountant mom-typical parents for a new-economy billionaire-Arnold and his wife, Laura, gave more than $ 120,000 to the Democratic Party in 2008. (Laura is not the kind of wife you would have met in River Oaks in earlier times; she holds degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Cambridge and left a high-powered law career to focus her philanthropic energies on poor kids.)

Houston is still the capital of the U.S. energy industry, but finance and services now account for a larger share of the city's economy, and this is where much of the Democratic money is coming from-not to mention many of the votes. Harris County (where Houston is) went for Obama in 2008, as did Dallas County. In 2009, Houston elected a lesbian Democrat as mayor. Even the oil rich in Houston aren't as Republican as they used to be. The city's recent mayor, Bill White, made a fortune prospecting for gas and oil in the Caspian Sea and is a prominent Democrat. He has been chair of the Texas Democratic Party and has worked in the Clinton administration. He's not your typical good old boy. Of course, these politics aren't so surprising when you consider White's background: he went to Harvard University before returning to Texas to get a law degree and become a plaintiff lawyer at Susman Godfrey. Only later did he enter the energy business.

Farther to the west, Austin has long been an island of blue in a sea of red. There was a time when the city's liberalism was primarily due to its high concentration of government workers, college professors, and pot-smoking twenty-somethings who hung around town for the music scene. More recently, the city has emerged as a center of the new economy and a popular destination for go-getters with fancy degrees. Besides computer-related industries, Austin has scores of biotech firms. The number of patents coming out of Austin jumped from seventy-five in 1975 to two thousand in 2001. The "People's Republic of Austin" used to be a middle-income city. Now it is seriously affluent.

Texas is still a conservative place, and the state's richer residents, overall, remain strongly Republican. In 2004, exit polls showed that Bush won an extraordinary 92 percent of Texans who earned more than $200,000 a year. McCain also won this group, as well as beating Obama among the state's most educated voters. The day may soon come when Texas is flipped into the Democratic column by an alliance of educated metro liberals and ever more numerous Latinos-Obama lost the state by only 9 points-but it's not here yet.

The story is much the same in other Southern states. Although the number of Democrats in the South's most well-to-do neighborhoods is rising, liberals are a long way from taking control of the country club.

Things are different in the North. Here, the movement of ultra-affluent voters into the Democratic Party is well along and says much about the new politics of class.

A few decades ago, the prosperous precincts of Connecticut, Long Island, and Westchester County were strongly Republican. These were the bedroom communities for CEOs, Wall Streeters, and white-shoe lawyers, and come election time, vote tallies reflected their class interests. The same crew still lives in these places-in places such as Greenwich, Connecticut, and Bedford, Scarsdale, Rye, and Oyster Bay Cove in New York-only they are far richer than they used to be. And far more liberal.

Campaign contribution data offer one indication of the Democratic leanings of the rich in these areas. In Greenwich, the wealthiest town in the United States with a population greater than fifty thousand, Democrats outraised Republicans in the 2008 campaign cycle by 59 percent to 41 percent. McCain did well in Greenwich, pulling in $ 2.5 million-but Obama raised more, netting $2.7 million from Greenwich residents.

Democrats did even better in the super-rich towns of Westchester County. In Bedford, home to some of the county's wealthiest residents, Democrats received 84 percent of all political contributions in the 2008 election cycle. In Scarsdale, Democrats got 73 percent, with Obama hauling in nearly half a million dollars. Out on Long Island, in wealthy East Setauket, Democrats took in 86 percent of all political contributions in the 2008 cycle. These places have been trending Democratic for years, but Obama ignited particular passions, and that is not surprising: he is more like affluent East Coast professionals than any presidential contender in memory, with his meritocratic background, Ivy League credentials and calm, accentless rationality.

Republican fund-raisers do better in the ritzy parts of New Jersey, which historically have been GOP strongholds. But even here, things are changing. Democrats are now outraising Republicans in some of the state's wealthiest towns, such as Short Hills, and are holding their own in Saddle River. This wealthy town was once so Republican that Richard Nixon felt comfortable enough to buy a home there. "He'll be most welcome in Saddle River," the town's mayor had said when it was announced that Nixon was moving in. "We've never had a Democrat serve as Mayor or Councilman since the beginning of time." The town's politics have changed since then, and in 2008 political contributions from Republicans just barely edged out those from Democrats. Saddle River also isn't as white as it used to be: Russell Simmons, the hip-hop mogul-and liberal activist-owns a lavish mansion there.

Money is flowing heavily to Democrats from affluent communities outside the Northeast, too. The wealthiest zip codes in California-towns such as Mountain Village, Rancho Santa Fe, and Hillsborough-give overwhelmingly to Democrats. The same is true for Aspen, Colorado, the second-wealthiest town in the United States, where 75 percent of all campaign donations in the 2008 election cycle went to Democrats

Only in the South and in Florida, in places like Jupiter Island, are the wealthiest towns giving more to Republicans than to Democrats. As it happens, though, most of the rich live in the Northeast and the West.

* * *

Voting patterns also show a shift toward Democrats in upper-class America. Obama won eight of ten of the richest counties in the United States, whether measured by median income or by number of millionaire households. In Virginia, a key battleground state, it wasn't only urban neighborhoods in Richmond and the suburbs of Fairfax that put Obama over the top. It was also Loudoun County, a lushly beautiful place with the highest median income in the entire nation. Loudoun had long reliably voted Republican-before all of the lawyers and the tech executives moved in.

In California, Obama came close to winning Orange County and did win San Diego County, which has more millionaires than Manhattan and has long been a GOP stronghold. Less surprisingly, Obama won narrow victories in Nassau and Suffolk counties, the two wealthiest counties in New York. Historically Republican, these areas had been drifting left for some time. Meanwhile, Obama scored blowout wins in some other prosperous counties, taking Santa Clara County-which covers much of Silicon Valley-by 70 percent and also winning big in places like Seattle.

Obama even won Greenwich, Connecticut, and easily carried the rest of the state overall-among the wealthiest in the nation. Obama's large margin in Connecticut was predictable, given political trends in the state during the last decade. The percentage of registered Republicans has been falling for years in Connecticut and, by 2008, was at its lowest point in a half-century. The steep falloff for the GOP paralleled an explosion of new wealth in Connecticut, fueled by the rise of the state's financial services and insurance industries. The richer Connecticut has become, the less Republican it has voted.

Obama got clobbered among wealthy voters in Douglas County, Colorado, the sixth-richest county in the United States, and also lost badly in extremely wealthy Sun Belt enclaves such as Sea Island, Georgia. In many parts of the country, the link between class and partisanship remains strong. In poorer states, such as in the South and the Midwest, income correlates very closely with partisanship, with richer voters far more likely to vote Republican. But the pattern is much weaker in rich states, where voters as a whole have gone increasingly to the Democrats and where income has less correlation with voting. Yes, rich people in longtime blue states are more likely to vote Republican than poor people are, but only by a modest margin. For example, in Maryland-now the richest state in America-Obama won 69 percent of the votes of people who earn less than $50,000 per year and 55 percent of the votes of those who earn more than $100,000. In Alabama, Obama won 48 percent of the votes of people who earn less than $50,000 per year and only 24 percent of the votes of those who earn more than $100,000. A study by two political scientists concluded, "In poor states, rich people are very different from poor people in their political preferences. But in rich states, they are not." That's not exactly right, but it is true, as the study also suggested, that the link between income and partisanship in rich states had been growing steadily weaker over the last twenty years.


Excerpted from Fortunes of Change by David Callahan Copyright © 2010 by David Callahan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

DAVID CALLAHAN is a cofounder of the think tank Demos, where he is now a senior fellow. He is the author of several books, including The Cheating Culture. His articles have been published in such places as USA Today, the New York Times, the Nation, and the Washington Monthly.

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