Michael Bloomberg, American oligarch
If the billionaire was running for president in Eastern Europe, we'd know what to call him
Billionaire businessman and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg will almost certainly not win the presidency — because he will almost certainly not win the Democratic nomination.
You can't just skip six months of debates, the Iowa caucuses, and the New Hampshire primary and hope to prevail by making seven-digit TV ad buys in major media markets around the country. Neither are you likely to come out on top in a party's presidential nominating contest when you're barely even a member of that party and nearly half of its voters are ideologically committed to an agenda sharply opposed to the one you're selling.
But that doesn't mean we should respond to Bloomberg's bid with complacency. Bloomberg himself obviously thinks he has a decent shot, and so do many of our country's journalistic gatekeepers. That means we need to take his campaign seriously, recognizing it for what it is — which is an expression of highly developed rot at the core of the American political system.
As we repeatedly heard in last week's impeachment hearings in Congress, members of America's centrist political establishment like to point to the baleful influence of "oligarchs" on public life in the post-communist political cultures of Russia and Eastern Europe, very much including Ukraine. The U.S. supposedly suffers from no such plague of corruption, or at least we didn't until Donald Trump won the presidency and single-handedly began a "dismal process of Ukrainianization" that is spreading sleaze throughout the system.
That's a quote from a powerful column by arch-establishment pundit Bret Stephens, who expresses disgust at the willingness of a thoroughly Trumpified Republican Party "to debase our political standards to the old Ukrainian level just when Ukrainians are trying to rise to our former level." Such disgust was expressed over and over again in those hearings last week — by the Democrats posing the questions to career civil servants testifying against the president no less than by those witnesses themselves. It was the consensus of everyone except the Trump-defending Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee that the president's tendency to act like an Eastern European oligarch poses (in Stephens' words) "a clear and present danger to our security, institutions, and moral hygiene."
It's hard to disagree with this diagnosis. Yet two weeks before this column ran, Stephens penned another — this one titled "Run, Mike, Run!", a warm bucketful of flattery for the centrist media mogul that all but begged him to jump into the race for president in order to save the country from both President Trump and his far more progressive Democratic primary opponents.
As far as Stephens was concerned, the fact that Bloomberg is a billionaire who would be running against a sizable segment of the Democratic Party was a bonus, since his moderate positions would prove popular in the general election and his financial edge would give him a unique advantage against a Republican Party that enjoys a significant fundraising advantage. Plus, voters would get to compare the two billionaires side-by-side and would be sure to choose the "maker" over the "faker."
Apparently oligarchs aren't so bad after all — as long as they oppose Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren.
Of course Stephens and other Bloomberg boosters would strenuously deny that the billionaire is an "oligarch" at all. He's a self-made, wildly successful businessman and entrepreneur, and a politician who served three terms as mayor of the largest city in the country. What could be better than that? He should be treated as a hero — an exemplification of the American dream.
But is it true? The term "oligarch" comes down to us primarily from Aristotle, who distinguished between rule by the virtuous "few" for the sake of the common good (aristocracy) and rule by the wealthy "few" for the sake of their own selfish advantage (oligarchy). When we use the term to describe rich, self-aggrandizing elites in Russia and Eastern Europe, we mean roughly what Aristotle did.
Is Bloomberg an oligarch in this sense? For that matter, what about Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Charles Koch, George Soros, Sheldon Adelson, Jamie Dimon, Howard Schultz, Tom Steyer, and the other super-rich men who play such an outsized and growing role in our politics? Are they acting in a genuinely public-spirited way when they donate vast sums to political causes and campaigns? Or are they self-dealing plutocrats out to advance their own interests instead?
The answer is rarely obvious. Even the most self-interested political actors will tend to portray their own agenda as motivated at least in part by noble ideals. They might even believe it themselves. That's why we must seek evidence in what they actually do or propose to do.
In Bloomberg's case, there's the mystery of his decision to jump into the race. Why would he do this when Joe Biden, currently leading in both the moderate lane and the primary race as a whole, should be an ideologically acceptable choice to win Bloomberg's support? Why would Bloomberg risk weakening his fellow centrist by directly challenging him for the nomination? It only makes sense if we assume that Bloomberg fears that Biden's high standing in the polls conceals an underlying vulnerability. But to whom? Bloomberg may fear that Biden would lose to Trump, though so far head-to-head polling belies such concerns. It's far more likely that Bloomberg fears that Biden could lose to Warren or Sanders in the primaries.
Now, it's possible that Bloomberg worries that, should they prevail over Biden, Warren or Sanders would both be too far left to defeat Trump in the general election. (He could be right about that.) But there's also substantial evidence that he fears Warren or Sanders winning next November for reasons very much rooted in his own substantial wealth and business interests.
Bloomberg has likewise had respectful and even laudatory things to say about the Chinese government, including the leadership of the Communist Party and Xi Jinping in particular, even in the context of its repression of Hong Kong and the mainland's Muslim Uyghur minority. Is this because he favors authoritarian policymaking on the merits? (There's some troubling evidence for this from his time as mayor of New York City.) Or do his sympathies for the Chinese government follow from Bloomberg LP's heavy investments in China — investments that have also allegedly shaped coverage of China in Bloomberg News?
My own political sympathies run to the center (though my understanding of what constitutes the true center of American politics differs quite a lot from the way it is typically defined). If you listed the policies of an imagined Bloomberg administration, I'd probably support several of them — and almost certainly far more than I would endorse on a list of Trump or Sanders policies.
Yet Bloomberg will never win my vote — because I want a president who will do what's best for the country as a whole, and I doubt very much that this matches up with what's best for the eighth richest person in the country (and sixteenth richest person in the world). It's an awful lot to expect a person to bracket such powerful financial interests — or even to recognize that such interests sometimes, and perhaps often, conflict with the common good.
Americans would be wise to stop looking for political saviors altogether. But they would be even wiser to resist looking for them among the oligarchs, a class to which Michael Bloomberg (along with Donald Trump) very much belongs.