No Democrat should consider Michael Bloomberg as a candidate.
The idea of Michael Bloomberg becoming the Democratic presidential nominee should be too absurd to even consider seriously. For one thing, he is a conservative who openly believes that the poor should be ruled over by the super-rich and is trying to buy the nomination outright. He has a history of saying monstrously offensive things about women and transgender people, and oversaw an infamous racist police regime that terrorized Black and Hispanic New Yorkers. If he did somehow manage to spend his way to the nomination, bypassing the democratic process, it would be such an outrage—and so demoralizing to the Democratic base—that it would guarantee Trump’s reelection. If the choice were between two sexist billionaires who hate the poor, how many young people would drag themselves to the polls to support “our side’s” billionaire? It would permanently disillusion an entire generation and vindicate every cynical theory of politics as a domain where money rules absolutely.
But, troublingly, Michael Bloomberg’s candidacy has not entirely been laughed out of the room. A number of prominent Democratic officials, liberal intellectuals, and celebrities have endorsed him, including San Francisco mayor London Breed, Illinois congressman Bobby Rush, Stockton mayor Michael Tubbs, Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo, TV’s Judge Judy, and singer John Mellencamp. Henry Louis Gates promoted Michael Bloomberg, and Evicted author Matthew Desmond effusively praised Bloomberg’s housing plan (without officially endorsing him). Some of this seems a little strange—why is a sociologist known for studying evictions boosting the guy responsible for the New York homelessness crisis? Why are dozens of liberal elected officials suddenly stumping for a Republican billionaire?
In the case of some elected officials, the answer seems to be simple bribery. Bloomberg “has supported 196 different cities with grants, technical assistance and education programs worth a combined $350 million” and “now, leaders in some of those cities are forming the spine of Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign.” The mayors have all “attended his prestigious boot camp at Harvard that gives the mayors access to ongoing strategic advice from Bloomberg-funded experts” and “more than half have received funding… worth a total of nearly $10 million.” Bloomberg has been good to them and promises to keep being good to them in the future; endorsing him will probably guarantee the cash keeps flowing. Bloomberg hands out bags of money, they come on board.
But, beyond people he outright bribes, Bloomberg has another potential source of support: Democratic elites who desperately want to stop Bernie Sanders from being the party’s nominee. With Joe Biden having collapsed in Iowa, Pete Buttigieg incapable of winning the votes of young people and African Americans, and Elizabeth Warren currently trailing Sanders, there are plenty looking for a last-minute candidate to stop the Sanders surge. As a Bloomberg adviser put it, “Mike may end up as the only thing standing between Bernie and the nomination.”
Bloomberg plans to “exploit the chaotic outcome of the Iowa caucuses” by doubling his spending on advertising, and his advisers have been making overtures to high-ranking Democrats. There are still many in the Democratic Party who insist you need to be a centrist to win, and Bloomberg portrays himself as the candidate who “would be acceptable to the moderate Republicans you have to have.” They may be prepared to use any means necessary to keep Sanders from being nominated, even using the superdelegate system to override the popular will. If they do so, the excuse they give will be is that stopping Trump is “too important” to be interfered with by mere democracy.
But the biggest boost to Bloomberg is his giant pile of money, which he has vowed to use to obtain the nomination for himself. He hasn’t ruled out spending $1 billion on the presidential race. In the first five weeks, he spent $200 million on advertising. He’s opening nearly 20 offices in Texas alone, and is even paying people money to say nice things about him online (so if you see someone praising Bloomberg, remember: There’s a good chance they were paid to do it). He has donated significant sums to the DNC, and has surrogates on the rules committee. The DNC recently changed the requirements to qualify for the debates in a way that now allows Bloomberg and his money pile to participate. (It used to be that you had to get a certain number of donors. Bloomberg, having no donors but himself, was ineligible. The donor requirement has now been scrapped.) It is unclear precisely what Bloomberg’s strategy is. But he would not be spending a billion dollars if he didn’t think it could somehow buy him the nomination.
The Definition of a Plutocrat
Bloomberg does not see anything wrong with trying to purchase the presidency for a billion dollars. When asked about whether this is fair, he has become annoyed, as if it is a stupid question. He says that his rivals “had a chance to go out and make a lot of money,” but simply chose not to, and says there is no difference between himself and the other candidates: “I’m doing exactly the same thing they’re doing, except that I am using my own money.” The others are “using somebody else’s money and those other people expect something from them,” because “nobody gives you money if they don’t expect something.” He says he doesn’t see the problem.
The problem, of course, is that this is plutocracy, rule by the rich. If I have little money, and have to work tirelessly to build a grassroots movement of supporters to buy a few ads, while you have a billion dollars and can simply buy 10 times as many ads without lifting a finger, I have no real chance to compete. (This is precisely how Bloomberg gets his way. He simply uses his money as a “bulldozer” to “drown out the opposition.”) When I followed Abdul El-Sayed’s campaign in Michigan, one thing that saddened me was that, just to keep his campaign afloat, he had to spend 40 hours a week just on making donor calls to ask for fairly small sums. That was all time he couldn’t spend out meeting people, which put him at a considerable disadvantage. Vast wealth inequality makes democracy impossible, because it just means the rich can bury the less rich, not with better ideas or more grassroots support, but just by having more money to blast their message out.
In fact, Bloomberg has long practiced a politics of bribery. As mayor, when he “wanted to win over cocky state legislative leaders, he packed them aboard his private jet, headed for his Bermuda mansion and a friendly round of golf.” When he decided that he wanted to seek a third term in office, despite the law’s two-term limit, he donated $60 million to nonprofits, then his aides asked recipient organizations to push for changing the law. “It’s pretty hard to say no,” one leader said. After successfully getting the law changed, Bloomberg still spent another $109 million to secure his third term, which gave him the honor of having spent “more of his own money than any other individual in United States history in the pursuit of public office.” Bloomberg is frank in his belief that rules are for little people.
It’s especially remarkable that Bloomberg has chosen to seek the Democratic nomination, because he wasn’t actually a Democrat until right before starting this campaign, and ran for New York City mayor as a Republican. He supported war criminal George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. He set a record for donations to the New York Republican Party, and heaped “piles of cash at the feet of city and state Republican leaders.” In 2016, he spent $11.7 million helping Republican Pat Toomey keep his Senate seat, an election that Toomey won by less than two points and that helped Mitch McConnell maintain control of the Senate. He endorsed Scott Brown in his reelection campaign against Elizabeth Warren. Bloomberg “not only backed Republicans in competitive and pivotal races” but “has also sunk money into Republican primaries on behalf of McConnell allies” like Lindsey Graham and Thad Cochran. While Bloomberg’s donations have more recently leaned Democratic—an attempt to purchase political influence on his personal issues like gun control—his support for New York Republicans helped maintain the state senate’s decades-long Republican majority, with all of the reactionary policy that entailed, like delaying marriage equality. This is what plutocratic governance looks like: billionaires deciding which party will be in charge, in accordance with their whims and policy preferences.