In the sociology of the capitalist class, no concept is more widely accepted as a framework for explaining political and ideological differences among owners of great wealth than the distinction between old money and new money. According to the conventional view, old money tends toward political liberalism (or, at least, toward a moderate and mildly reformist variant of conservatism), while new money is inclined to embrace more hard-line conservative views. [. . .] As with many tenets of the received wisdom in social science, the empirical evidence for this view turns out, upon close inspection, to be virtually non-existent. During the last half century, the widespread acceptance of the thesis has rested on little more than a handful of highly selective examples. Subjecting this thesis to empirical test, as I do in this paper, reveals no evidence of greater liberalism on the part of old money and no support for the claim that right-wing conservatism is more often embraced by the new rich than by inheritors of established wealth. If anything, the evidence is more consistent with the opposite view.
As already noted, evidence to support the thesis of old money liberalism, when any is given, typically takes the form of confirmation through the selective citing of individual cases. For example, Franklin Roosevelt is routinely cited as evidence of the liberal predisposition of old money. The fact that Roosevelt was almost universally loathed within aristocratic circles as a “traitor to his class” (Aldrich 1988:227, 238) and bitterly opposed by a phalanx of du Ponts, Mellons, Pews, Harknesses, Aldriches, Pratts, and even Roosevelts within the ranks of the arch-conservative American Liberty League (Wolfskill 1962) is for some reason not seen as a problem for theory. To demonstrate the right-wing proclivities of the nouveaux riches it usually suffices to mention a Texas oil millionaire or two who have bankrolled right-wing causes (Sale 1975:160) or to assemble a list of a dozen new rich supporters of Ronald Reagan (Davis 1981:39–40). Whether these cases are representative of new wealth in general or whether a comparable list of old rich supporters of right-wing causes and candidates might just as easily have been assembled are never seriously considered.
Michael Allen and Philip Broyles (1989) studied the presidential campaign contributions of 629 members of 100 wealthy capitalist families in 1972. Most of the persons included in their sample would qualify as “old rich,” with the majority being third or fourth generation heirs. Allen and Broyles found that most members of these wealthy capitalist families contributed overwhelmingly to the Republican Party, with Democratic Party supporters being common only among the small minority of Jewish and Southern families.
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In a series of studies, G. William Domhoff (1972, 1990) has examined the characteristics of wealthy contributors to the Democratic Party. Although he has not looked specifically at the question of partisan differences between new and old money, certain of his findings may have relevance for this topic. Like Allen and Broyles (1989), he has consistently found Jewish capitalists to be over-represented among big Democratic Party donors. 2 If one assumes, as seems plausible, that old wealth tends to be more uniformly WASP in composition, while new wealth includes a larger share of religious and ethnic minorities, then (other things being equal) the greater proportion of Democratic Party supporters among Jewish capitalists should mitigate any tendency toward right-wing Republicanism among the new rich.
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To test the thesis of old money liberalism, I chose as my sample all persons listed by Forbes magazine as among the 400 wealthiest Americans in 1995 through 1997. The Forbes list is well-suited for this purpose since it includes numerous representatives of old established families like the Rockefellers, du Ponts, Mellons, and Pews, as well as those among the latest generation of self-made millionaires who have been successful enough to match the former in net wealth. Drawing upon the research of Elwood, et al. (1997), I classified each of these persons into one of three categories: 1) New Rich were defined as those whose parents did not have substantial wealth or own a business worth more than $1 million. 2) Rising Rich were defined as those who inherited small businesses or wealth worth more than $1 million, but insufficient to place them on the Forbes list without a significant increase in their wealth during their lifetimes (usually a result of their success in building a small business into a large corporation). 3) Old Rich were defined as those who were born into wealth sufficient to place them on the Forbes 400 list.
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As shown in Figure 1, the new rich contributed an average of two dollars to Democratic candidates for every three dollars contributed to Republicans. The old rich contributed roughly one dollar to Democrats for every three dollars contributed to Republicans. The average for the rising rich lay between these two extremes. 6 This pattern is precisely the opposite of what the thesis of old money liberalism would predict.
Since averages can sometimes be deceiving, I also divided the sample into five discrete categories of political partisanship: 1) Strong Republicans were defined as those who contributed 90% or more to Republican candidates. 2) Republicans were defined as those who contributed between 70% and 90% to Republicans. 3) Bipartisans were defined as those who contributed between 30% and 70% to each party. 4) Democrats were defined as those who contributed between 70% and 90% to Democratic candidates. 5) Strong Democrats were defined as those who contributed 90% or more to Democrats. Figure 2 shows the breakdown of the new rich and old rich into these five categories of partisanship. As shown here, strong Republican partisans accounted for 59% of the old rich, but only 36% of the new rich. Conversely, strong Democratic partisans accounted for 20% of the new rich, but only 13% of the old rich. Almost half the new rich were in either the Democratic or bipartisan categories—a surprising finding, considering the reputation of the Republicans as the traditional party of wealth and the reputation of the new rich as the most conservative, anti-tax, anti-union, anti-welfare segment of the upper class. This, again, is precisely the opposite of what the thesis of old money liberalism would predict.
As an alternative measure of old money status, I identified those members of the Forbes 400 who were listed in the Social Register. The Social Register is widely used as an indicator of the inclusion of individuals within the exclusive social circles of the upper class—circles that are typically closed to first- or second-generation wealth (Domhoff 1967:13–16). Although far from a perfect indicator, it provides an independent measure that defines old money from a sociological, rather than a purely economic standpoint. There were 51 persons in the sample who were listed in the Social Register or whose immediate family members were listed. On average, these persons gave 82% of their campaign contributions to Republican candidates— even higher than the average for the old rich defined in economic terms. Strong Republican partisans accounted for 75% of this group—also higher than the old rich defined in economic terms. Only 10% of those listed in the Social Register qualified as strong Democrats.
Finally, since much of the literature on old and new money is concerned with understanding the backgrounds and motivations of that small minority of the wealthy who are highly active in politics, I gave special attention to those within the sample who exhibited the highest levels of political involvement. First, I looked at those among the strong Republicans and strong Democrats who contributed in excess of $100,000 to their chosen party. Among the old rich, Republican large donors outnumbered Democratic large donors by 12 to 2. Among the new rich, Democratic large donors outnumbered Republican large donors by 18 to 17. Thus, the more one moves toward the extremes of political partisanship, the more implausible the thesis of old money liberalism becomes.
Next, I examined in greater depth those individuals in the sample for whom I found substantial evidence of liberal or right-wing activism that went beyond making contributions to political candidates. Four persons stood out as the strongest liberals within the Forbes 400. These were George Soros, David Geffen, Warren Buffett, and Susan Buffett. All four are new rich.
Note that both of the "strongest liberals" besides the Buffetts are Jews.
The most right-wing members of the Forbes 400 are Richard Mellon Scaife, Roger Milliken, David Koch, Charles Koch, and Richard DeVos. Scaife, Milliken, and the Kochs are old rich, while DeVos is new rich.
While none of the "most right-wing" five are Jews.
In summary, contrary to the thesis of old money liberalism, none of the liberal activists among the Forbes 400 are old rich, while all but one of the right-wing activists are inheritors of great wealth. Hence, whether one looks at the overall pattern of political partisanship revealed by campaign contributions, the breakdown of the very biggest political donors, or the characteristics of persons who occupy the left and right political extremes within the upper class, the evidence consistently shows that old money is more—not less—conservative than new money.That's one way of putting it.
Does this conclusion also apply to earlier decades? An analysis of similar samples of wealthy individuals from 1956, 1972, and 1980 suggests that it does. [. . .]
Lacking detailed information on family origins, I used the Social Register as an indicator of old money background. The Social Register is admittedly a fairly restrictive standard that tends to undercount persons of hereditary old wealth. In the 1995–1997 sample, roughly one-third of the old rich were listed in the Social Register. On the other hand, the Social Register rarely errs in the opposite direction by listing persons of new wealth, no matter how great their fortunes. Only 3% of those identified as new rich in 1995–1997 were listed in the Social Register. This guarantees that persons listed in the Social Register will be much more homogeneously old rich than a general sample of wealthy persons. Comparing wealthy persons listed in the Social Register with those who are not listed, will, therefore, tend to underestimate the absolute difference in political behavior between old rich and new rich, but it will, nevertheless, accurately reflect the direction of that difference.
As with the Forbes 400 sample, I used the percentage of political contributions to Republicans versus Democrats as the basic measure of political behavior and ideology. 9 Figure 3 shows the difference in political partisanship between wealthy persons listed in the Social Register and those not listed for each of four years. In 1956, the election year that coincided with the publication of The New American Right , the old rich (those listed in the Social Register ) are shown to be more conservative than the rich in general. In 1972, the election year preceding Kirkpatrick Sale’s (1975) popularization of the Yankee-Cowboy version of the old money liberalism thesis, the old rich are again shown to be more conservative than the rich in general. In 1980, the year in which Ronald Reagan’s election was heralded as a victory for the reputedly reactionary nouveaux riches, the old rich are again shown to be more conservative than the rich in general. These differences in political partisanship are similar in magnitude to those found in the more recent 1995–1997 sample of the Forbes 400 richest Americans.10 The consistency of these findings suggests that the relative conservatism of old money has been a stable feature of American political life for at least the last forty years.
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The relative exclusion of the new rich from the social and cultural networks of the old rich has even more pronounced consequences in certain cases. Compared with the old rich, a larger percentage of the new rich are racial, ethnic, or religious minorities. A particularly high number of the new rich come from Jewish backgrounds.12 Black wealth, although it rarely reaches the threshold for the Forbes 400 list, also tends to be new wealth. The slowness with which these minority nouveaux riches are integrated into the predominantly WASP social circles of the upper class makes it more likely that they will retain identification with the traditional party and politics of their group of origin. In the case of Jews and Blacks, this means retaining their identification with the Democratic Party (Isaacs 1974; Zweigenhaft and Domhoff 1982). In an earlier period, the same was probably true for the Catholic nouveaux riches. The ostracism that minority nouveaux riches experience within upper-class circles also inclines them to prioritize issues of racial justice, civil liberties, and religious tolerance over pure economic self-interest.
Roughly 29% of the new rich contributors on the Forbes list were Jewish, compared with 18% of the old rich.I strongly suspect the "old rich" sample minus Jews would be even more Republican.