The phase “limousine liberal” was ironically coined by a Democrat, New York City mayoral hopeful Mario Procaccino, during his 1969 campaign to unseat Republican John Lindsay. Procaccino was attacking Lindsay’s generous and well-healed backers who, as he put it, “live on Fifth Avenue and maintain some choice mansions outside the city [but] have no feeling for the small middle class shopkeeper, home owner, etc.”
In the forty-five years since, the expression has been taken up by conservatives as convenient shorthand for Wall Street Democrats and Left-leaning heirs of great wealth, connoting as it does a mixture of hypocrisy, insularity, and wishful thinking. But while it is only human nature for the Right to enjoy ridiculing rich Democrats whose policies so blatantly contradict their lifestyles, conservatives should never fail to appreciate the many hidden ways that limousine liberals actually undermine the Left’s own agenda.
Consider first that wealthy liberals tend to have a charmingly naive faith in what the Democrat Party claims to support: a decent education for poor and minority children, quality medical care for all Americans, and greater prosperity for all. These are not bad goals; indeed, they are the very same goals diligently pursued by the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, Cato, and many other free-market think tanks.
The limousine liberal’s faith in the supposed good intentions of public employee leaders and other Democrat interest group spokesmen is not easily shaken. But when it is – as is the case today in public education – many have demonstrated an admirable willingness to put their party’s supposed ideals above the convenience of its factions. The increasing popularity of charter schools, private school vouchers for learning-disabled children, online learning programs, and other academic innovations is due in large part to the efforts of donor-funded groups like Democrats for Education Reform.
Even when the priorities of limousine liberals remain misguided, their financial independence allows them to indulge a kind of adolescent arrogance which can severely cripple a party with constituencies as diverse as unionized labor, trial lawyers, gay rights supporters, and women’s right-to-choose advocates.
Take the example of hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer, whose declared willingness to make his support of Democrat candidates in the upcoming mid-terms contingent upon their opposition to the Keystone pipeline only ties his party’s political prospects to a single unpopular position. Accord to the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu and other Democrats running in states that would benefit from the project have made it clear that Steyer has not been helpful.
And nothing is more toxic to the Democrat agenda than the eagerness with which so many limousine liberals like to run for public office. More than half of all Congressmen are millionaires, according to data reported earlier this year by the Center for Responsive Politics, with the median Democrat actually being richer than the median Republican.
Affluent Democrat politicians may deliver a good red-meat speech to the base during campaign season but, but as Josh Bivens, director of research policy at the liberal Economic Policy Institute once confided to the New York Times, they are ill-equipped psychologically to anticipate supporters’ needs when crafting legislation. Just ask AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka how well he thinks his members’ health care plans were served by House and Senate Democrats hell-bent on realizing the limousine liberal dream of universal health care.
All this is not to say that wealthy Democrat politicians are a consistently constructive force, but self-interest does motivate them to brake the Left’s worst collectivist impulses. Limousine liberals may peg their sense of moral superiority on a willingness to tolerate a point or two increase in dividend taxes, but few if any want to outlaw generation-skipping trusts or tax-free municipal bonds.
Neither have they shown much interest in schemes to have upper income earners like themselves bail out the underfunded pensions of state and city public employees. Even when it comes to the environment, as California demographer Joel Kotkin has frequently observed, much of what wealthy liberals end up accomplishing is the gentrification of the coastal cities, university towns, and upscale suburbs where they conveniently happen to live.
The economic wisdom of limousine liberals may leave much to be desired, but their combination of naive idealism, a smug unwillingness to compromise, and the inability to distinguish self-interest from genuine sacrifice advances the conservative agenda far more often than they realize.