Bloomberg's hostile takeover of democracy
I win no prizes for civic engagement. I vote regularly, serve on juries when asked, and have donated to candidates that I believed in. But I have never engaged in the serious, deep activity that either the ancients or earlier generations of Americans would recognize as civic: serving on a school board, or a town council, or in the militia.
I write about politics, it's true. But when I do, the point is to interpret the world in various way rather than change it. The truth is, I have participated only in the most attenuated way in the great democratic dance of ruling and being ruled in turn.
So why am I so disturbed by the prospect of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg deploying his unfathomable wealth to win the Democratic nomination, and potentially the presidency?
It's not because of his political positions. As with most politicians, there are things he stands for that I agree with (such as his seriousness about climate change), and things he stands for that I disagree with. His overall political orientation is a version of the kind of elite centrism well-represented in the donor class of the Democratic Party, and abroad by the Macron government in France. That's not my preferred political flavor, but I've tasted far worse.
Rather, it's because of what his ascendancy would mean about the nature of our democracy. If Bloomberg is able to win the Democratic nomination, and especially if he is able to win the presidency thereafter, it will be difficult to continue to pay tribute even hypocritically to those democratic virtues that I manifest so poorly.
Explaining why takes a little bit of doing. Most of the money Bloomberg is spending is going to advertising. Unless I believe that people are simply incapable of critical evaluating the ads they view — and if I believe that, then I really have no business pining for democracy — then if he wins he'll have done so by earning most of the people's votes. What could be more democratic than that?
But someone has to plan the advertising strategy, figure out where the ads should be targeted, write and cut the ads, evaluate their effectiveness. Someone has to organize Bloomberg voters to get them to the polls. The vast array of activities involved in running a political campaign all have to be done, an enterprise involving thousands of people. And Bloomberg is paying all of them — and paying them quite well. The supply of talent for such efforts not being perfectly elastic, this has an inevitable market-distorting effect. It may be depriving down-ballot candidates of talent to manage and execute their campaigns; it may be driving up the price of talent for those who can find good people to hire.
That's not the really worrisome thing, though. The really worrisome thing is the precedent being set by having an entirely professional campaign, rather than one that runs on voluntarism.
And most campaigns do run on the energy of voluntarism, the enthusiasm for the enterprise. It's not just that most campaigns have legions of unpaid volunteers. The paid staffers know they are only getting paid if the campaign can generate enthusiastic giving. And they typically sign on to a campaign in part because they believe in it, because they are convinced that their candidate both could and should win.
That's not what Bloomberg's campaign is going to be like. It's going to be a professional organization — and a well-run one, like his company. So if it works, it's going to demonstrate that the way to win is run your campaign like a business, staffed by professionals.
Bloomberg is similarly changing the economy of political endorsements. Normally, these are part of a complex web of favor exchange that has always greased the wheels of politics. One politician endorses another in part to repay past favors and in part in expectation of future favors; it's never a purely idealistic matter, even among natural allies. But such exchanges deal in a common currency. That's not the case with Bloomberg. He's actively using his wealth to purchase political support, whether by helping finance campaigns or by making contributions to non-profits that benefit supporters. Rather than nurturing a web of reciprocal relationships, he's acquiring clients.
It's worth noting both the similarities and the differences between Bloomberg and Trump in this regard. Trump's wealth did enable him to kick-start his campaign without depending on outside donations, and to stand aloof from the Republican organization. But his most important currency was fame, and the asset he deployed most effectively was his own self and his own voice, at rallies around the country. Trump is a demagogue, a degenerate form of a charismatic politician, and as such he involved the citizenry very actively in his campaign.
In that sense, Sanders' campaign is much more like Trump's than Bloomberg's is. Sanders is sincere rather than opportunistic and cynical, but like Trump he has built a movement around himself with real citizen involvement, but independent of the mediating institutions that bind a typical member of a political party.
Bloomberg's campaign will be completely different. He's not planning on conquering the Democratic Party from the outside, as Sanders aims to do or as Trump did to the Republicans. He aims to be invited in, and to absorb it into himself with the willing connivance of those who will become his dependents. That process will begin with his campaign for president, but it won't end there, certainly not if he wins the presidency. As Trump has turned the Republican Party into a personality cult, Bloomberg will transform the Democratic Party from a messy amalgam of agitating interests into something more like a corporation. And the citizenry will be reduced to consumers and shareholders, a largely passive mass whose interests are comprehensively managed by a professional class.
That prospect looks much less-likely after Wednesday night's debate than it did before. If Bloomberg aimed to present a winning political face, he failed miserably. He was arrogant, entitled, and contemptuous of the petty politicians he had to share the stage with. Surely that won't play well with voters.
But I wonder. Bloomberg's brand isn't: "I'm a familiar centrist everyone gets along with." That's Biden's brand. Bloomberg's brand is: "I am Lee Kuan Yew. You will not like me, but you will respect my power and my capability. I will run a tight ship and steer us to general prosperity, if you do not make trouble. So you will not make trouble."
I don't think that's a great brand for winning a Democratic primary. I hope it isn't. What I feel surer about is that he didn't dent that brand Wednesday night. He may even have enhanced it. So if he manages to win anyway, we will all know what our future looks like.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.