08/17/2010 04:57 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Investigating the Liberal Rich

Three years ago, amid a housing boom and surging stock market, I signed a contract to write a book about America's upper class. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to say, but I did know this: The wealthy were growing in numbers and influence, and the trend wasn't good. In two previous books, The Cheating Culture (2004) and The Moral Center (2006), I had already sounded the alarm about rising inequality and the nation's drift toward plutocratic rule. My new book on the wealthy, as I first imagined it, would hit some of these same points.

That's not how things turned out. Instead, my investigation veered off into unexpected terrain as I became fascinated by the many rich people who seemed to be embracing liberal values. Two events in the same week of January 2008 helped catalyze this new focus: First, Bill Gates gave a major speech at Davos in which he faulted capitalism for failing to meet the needs of the world's poorest people; and second, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott announced sweeping plans to make the company more environmentally responsible. While I didn't think for a minute that either of these men had suddenly become left-wingers, I was struck by both speeches - which underscored other signs I saw that more business leaders were moving away from right-wing ideology.

Well before those speeches, I had begun paying attention to all the new money flowing into progressive politics. Democrats had been raising unprecedented amounts of campaign cash, including tens of millions of dollars in the 2004 and 2006 elections from billionaires such as George Soros and Peter Lewis. Millions more in funds were going to groups like the Center for America Progress, the major new liberal think tank in Washington. The Democracy Alliance, a funding organization made up of the super wealthy, had been founded after the 2004 election and, by 2008, was in full swing, bankrolling numerous progressive groups.

The politics of the upper class clearly seemed to be in flux, with a notable leftward shift, and I set out to figure out why. After months of interviews, research, and analysis, I came up with four explanations of this shift:

First and most important, there is a big change underway in who is getting rich in America, with the upper class increasingly made up of highly educated knowledge workers in fields such as technology, finance, law, and medicine.

Second and related, there is a shift in where people are getting rich. Wealth creation is increasingly concentrated in the bluest parts of America - from New York City to the San Francisco Bay area to Seattle - places where liberal values tend to be dominant in the culture.

Third, more money is starting to pass down to heirs, who tend to be more liberal than parents or grandparents who make the original fortunes. Heirs like the billionaire Jon Stryker, one of the largest funders of gay rights, and John Hunting, a pivotal environmental funder, play leading roles in today's progressive movement.

A fourth reason for the ideological shift in the upper class is the growing extremism of the Republican Party. Billionaires like Soros and Lewis started to give heavily to liberal causes and candidates in large part because they were alarmed by the Bush presidency, while plenty of more ordinary affluent professionals find themselves turned off by the religiosity, xenophobia, and anti-intellectualism of the Republican Party.

My book explores these explanations in detail, with portraits of key wealthy liberals. As I wrote the book, more evidence kept rolling in to support my argument. Barack Obama won voters earning more than $200,000 by eight points and raised more money than John McCain in eight out of ten of the wealthiest zip codes in America.

Unfortunately, the Obama presidency has provided evidence for a key caveat in my argument, which is that many wealthy Democrats - while liberal on social and environmental issues - are not keen on policies that actually redistribute wealth and power in this country. Obama and the Democrats have been compromised by Wall Street money, and indeed Obama openly acknowledged the corrupting effects of wealthy donors in his memoir, The Audacity of Hope.

At the same time, though, it must be noted that the main opponents in Congress to big progressive ideas - like a larger stimulus package, a public option on healthcare, tougher rules for Wall Street, and action on climate change - have been legislators who speak for more downscale parts of America. Certainly that has been true in the Democratic caucus, with Blue Dog Democrats from poorer parts of the country often voting with the Republicans. In contrast, some of the biggest champions for bold liberal action - such as Henry Waxman of Los Angeles and Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco - represent highly affluent districts.

Writing about the liberal rich has been fascinating, but also perplexing at times. In my conclusion, I argue that, yes, it's good that more wealthy people are liberal, but this shift also poses a real risk that progressive politics could compromise some of its key principles. And, of course, the influence of money over our democracy is always disturbing - even when you agree with how that money is being spent.