Mike Bloomberg and the oligarchy question

By Robert Wright, Feb 15 2020

This was the week that Mike Bloomberg finally got some respect. After which he got massive disrespect.

First the respect: 

Bloomberg had always been dismissed as a long-shot for the Democratic presidential nomination. He did, after all, have somewhat eccentric credentials for that honor—such as having delivered a speech at the 2004 Republican convention endorsing George W. Bush. But when “frontrunner” Joe Biden finished the Iowa caucuses at the rear of the pack, moderate Democrats started looking for a new Biden, and by the end of this week the betting was on Bloomberg.

I mean that literally. In the betting markets, Bloomberg’s chances of getting the nomination rose from 18 percent on the eve of Iowa to 35 percent by the end of this week. That put him way ahead of the nearest moderate—Buttigieg at 12 percent—and not far behind the market favorite, Bernie Sanders at 39.

And if you’re not the kind to put much faith in betting markets: Bloomberg’s national polling numbers have risen from 2 percent three months ago to 8 percent two weeks ago to 14 percent this week—all without his appearing in a single debate. Apparently spending $350 million on ads (9 times what Sanders has spent) can move the needle. 

And there’s more where that came from. If Bloomberg could somehow find a way to spend another $350 million every week between now and the end of the primaries in June—which is basically impossible, but just suppose—he’d be reduced to the status of man with only $54 billion to his name. If Tom Steyer, the other billionaire in the Democratic race, spent money at that rate, he’d be penniless by the end of March.

Bloomberg’s new prominence led me to formulate a portentous tweet. Noting that the betting markets predict that the November election will pit either a socialist against a billionaire or a billionaire against a billionaire, I wrote: “If the former, one candidate will warn we're heading toward oligarchy. If the latter, the warning will be substantiated.”

But I now see that characterizing Bloomberg and Trump as two billionaires, and implying that they have comparable oligarchic potential, is misleading. And not just because, for all we know, Trump is lying about being a billionaire. If you look at their formulas for getting to the White House, you realize that Bloomberg and Trump are different kinds of warning signs about the future of American democracy. Explaining what I mean will involve looking at the disrespect that was heaped on Bloomberg shortly after the respect crystallized. 

Nothing brings a more painful stroll down memory lane than becoming one of the frontrunners in a presidential race. By midweek, various episodes that Bloomberg might like to forget had been retrieved from the dustbin of history, most notably: (1) a particularly colorful defense of the stop-and-frisk policy he pursued as New York mayor and disavowed recently in preparation for pursuing a piece of the black vote; and (2) his long-ago suggestion that maybe the 2008 financial crash could have been avoided if bankers hadn’t been forced to end redlining, the famously discriminatory practice of excluding whole neighborhoods from consideration for loans.

But no theme from Bloomberg’s political past was raised as persistently by his detractors as the oligarchy theme: Bloomberg’s use of money to gain and hold power. 

This goes well beyond massive ad buys, a point made powerfully in a  twitter thread written by a journalist who has covered Bloomberg. The thread, which got tens of thousands of retweets, noted the large sums of money Bloomberg steered toward various New York people and organizations whose endorsements helped him become mayor. And some of these gifts keep on giving. Prominent African-American Minister Calvin Butts, who had endorsed Bloomberg for mayor after a project associated with his church got a million Bloomberg dollars, surfaced this week to accept Bloomberg’s apology for the stop-and-frisk remarks. 

I didn’t really grasp the magnitude of Bloomberg’s influence-buying machine until I listened to The Intercept’s Lee Fang talking about it to Matt Taibbi and Katie Halper on their Useful Idiots podcast. Fang said that a good-sized chunk of Bloomberg’s philanthropic disbursements—which have averaged more than $1 billion per year for the last five years—go to mayors, state legislators, national politicians, and other influential people and groups who can in various ways help a presidential candidate. 

It’s hard to say how much money we’re talking about, because a lot of it isn’t in the form of publicly disclosed campaign donations. But the visible money alone has potentially massive consequences. Bloomberg dropped $100 million on electoral politics during the 2018 midterms. And every Democratic senator, representative, and governor will be one of the superdelegates who, in the event of a deadlocked 2020 convention, could decide who the nominee is.

To give you a sense for the diversity of ways Bloomberg can call in an IOU: 

This week somebody leaked the news that an anti-Sanders ad still in development would imply that on women’s issues Sanders is as bad as Trump. It turned out the ad was being produced by Women Vote, an appendage of Emily’s List, which has long defined its mission as “getting pro-choice Democratic women elected to office.” Why would a group like that try to harm the emphatically pro-choice Sanders? As of 2018, Bloomberg had given some $6 million to Emily’s List. Nobody’s proven that the ad was being prepared at the behest of the Bloomberg campaign, but nobody seems to have come up with a plausible alternative explanation of this strange development.  

And then there’s the money Bloomberg is using to buy vast quantities of the finest in campaign workers, and to ensure big, happy crowds at his rallies. (They’re catered—and that includes free wine!) Plus this innovation in presidential politics: Bloomberg is paying Instagram influencers to say nice things about him. 

All told, if Bloomberg becomes president, he will have shown that, in the modern age, an incredibly rich and reasonably capable politician can basically buy the presidency. It’s not easy, and it takes years of work, but it’s doable.

This grim lesson is different from the grim lesson taught by Donald Trump in 2016. Trump used some of his own money, but not tons, and his campaign expenditures didn’t dwarf those of his rivals. What was ominous about Trump’s victory was its illustration of what can happen in an age of balkanized media, precision-targeted social media ads, and increasingly impotent party elites. 

Namely: a sufficiently brazen and clever candidate with no real political experience, and little relevant experience of any kind, can crash the party and wind up in the White House. And in a country as polarized as ours, this candidate’s winning formula can include saying ugly things and doing outrageous things. Our technological and political environments have combined to not just permit but encourage the empowerment of dangerous demagogues.

On that score, at least, Bloomberg looks good compared to Trump. As president he wouldn’t be the dishonest rabble rouser, or the flagrant norm buster, that Trump is. 

On other scores, Bloomberg doesn’t look better than Trump so much as different. Consider the distinctive dimensions of oligarchy that the two men represent. 

Bloomberg has now spent many years putting money in the hands of influential people who can not only help him gain power but, should he be elected, help him hold onto it. These payments are legal, and I doubt there are explicit quid pro quos, and both of those facts stand in welcome contrast to the situation in various oligarchies abroad. Still, the basic dynamic of giving lots of money to influential people to get power and hold it is characteristic of various countries I’d rather America didn’t resemble. 

If Bloomberg’s basic model is influence buying, Trump’s is influence peddling. His administration is populated by numerous people who donated big money to his campaign. And, as for the big donors who didn’t want or didn’t get jobs: well, his doors are always open to them, and some of his appointees seem to meet with their specific approval.

Obviously, this isn’t a whole new model. Mediocre but rich ambassadors who double as campaign donors are by now a political cliché, even if Trump has had more of them, in more important positions, than American tradition demands. In various other ways, too, money has long influenced the executive branch. 

But Trump, in addition to opening all the traditional avenues for money, and in some cases broadening them, has opened a new one via his private businesses. There was a time when, if you were a Saudi prince who had people killed and dismembered via bonesaw, you couldn’t hope that the American president would mute his criticism of you just because you had channeled a lot of money to one of his hotels.  

Bloomberg’s model, like Trump’s, isn’t entirely new. No doubt the Clinton Foundation did some tactical disbursement in anticipation of Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House. But this couldn’t have had nearly the scale of Bloomberg’s operation.  

Strictly speaking, “oligarchy” doesn’t mean rule by the rich; that’s plutocracy. Oligarchy means rule by a relatively small number of powerful people, rich or not. The concern in America is that we’re moving toward a fusion of oligarchy and plutocracy—a supposed democracy that places massive influence in the hands of a relatively small number of rich people. Bloomberg and Trump, with their top-down and bottom-up cash flow models, illustrate two of the ways a small number of rich people can be empowered. 

Some Democrats say that, though they’re not big fans of Bloomberg, they support him because he’s got what it takes to beat Trump. I partly sympathize. I’m far from sure that Bloomberg is the most electable Democrat. (For one thing, his likely path to the nomination involves a bitter, brokered convention that will alienate some Democratic voters, especially if their candidate enters the convention with a plurality of delegates.) But if the choice we’re left with is Bloomberg versus Trump, Bloomberg’s got my vote.

Still, it’s worth pondering the deeper emanations of the fact that this is the choice we may face. Saying Bloomberg is better than Trump is saying that one threat to democracy—top-down oligarchy—is less alarming than another threat: bottom-up oligarchy that, in this case, is infused with the dangers posed by a norm-breaking, thuggish president who feeds on and fosters xenophobia, bigotry, and polarization. In a Bloomberg versus Trump election, we’re picking our poison and hoping that the one we pick isn’t fatal.

What’s especially worrisome is that the threats represented by both Bloomberg and Trump are structural. They are the product of things ranging from the ongoing accumulation of immense wealth by a small number of Americans, to the pernicious Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, to the aforementioned trends in media, technology, and party power—the trends that make it easier for a demagogue wholly unqualified for the presidency to grab a presidential nomination.  

And the fact that the trends driving these threats aren’t new, that we’ve been moving in this direction for some time, isn’t very consoling, given that the movement seems to be accelerating. I’m not an expert on how democracies die, but I’d guess the basic dynamic is like the one described by the character in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises who was asked how he went bankrupt. He said, “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” We may be getting close to suddenly territory.

Illustration by Nikita Petrov.

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