Battle of the oligarchs: Michael Bloomberg steps up war on guns

The US is no longer a democracy – it's an oligarchy, says an academic study. And Bloomberg proves it

Charles Laurence

IT TAKES an oligarch to challenge the new American oligarchy.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, billionaire entrepreneur of Bloomberg News, has added a revealing if unintentional footnote to the news that America, once the world’s beacon of democracy, has been diagnosed as an oligarchy by Ivy League academics.

Bloomberg stood before a press conference in Manhattan last week to announce that he will donate $50 million this year to start a new organisation devoted to changing the national gun culture.

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It was his first appearance in the political arena since handing over the mayoralty to Bill de Blasio in January, and at first sight it seemed unremarkable. It barely made the news.

One reason for that is that his efforts to bring controls to America’s lethal gun culture are already well established, infamous to a large swathe of Republican, Red State and red-necked manhood.

As mayor he pursued illegal gun ownership, noting the correspondence between the availability of guns and the murder rate. As a billionaire, he has been funding his own gun control pressure group for years, buying televising advertising time and supporting both Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

Now he is rolling these two groups into the new Everytown for Gun Safety. The plan is to switch the focus of the campaign from demand for new regulations from Washington - of the sort that are tearfully but uselessly promoted after every schoolyard massacre or particularly spectacular outrage - to local community level.

Everytown for Gun Safety is to be headed by Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, because women are less keen on guns than men and represent 51 per cent of the vote. Its board includes fellow billionaire Warren Buffet and Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor and Homeland Security secretary under President George W. Bush.

It’s a big gun. But what is significant is not the calibre and accumulated wealth of its supporters, but the direction in which Bloomberg is aiming it.

He is going for the National Rifle Association: the gun lobby. They have brilliantly, ruthlessly, targeted any elected representative who dares to vote for gun controls, on any level of government, and have a formidable record of ensuring such people are not elected.

Bloomberg says it's time to learn from the NRA and do exactly the same thing in reverse: use his money to punish politicians who fail to back the EGS's demands for gun controls.

“We’ve got to make them afraid of us,” he said.

There was no mention at his press conference of the report from Princeton and Northwestern Universities which announced that, by established academic standards, the United States is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy.

Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens concludes that America has become an oligarchy because the government no longer represents the interests of the “average citizen”, but of the rich and powerful.

It is based on the empirical analysis of 1,800 items of US policy enacted between 1981 and 2002, measuring them against the expressed interests of average Americans, rich Americans and large special interest groups just like the NRA.

"When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organised interests,” the report concludes, “they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it."

The researchers say it is the theory of “biased pluralism” that fits today’s America, and it means that government policy “tends to tilt towards the wishes of corporations and business and professional organisations”.

Bloomberg is not the only one to have noticed. This year’s midterm elections, with voting for senators and congressmen in November, are being fought beyond the ballot boxes.

The Democrat establishment, fearful of the powers of the Republican machine at state and local level, has dropped the pretence of the sanctity of one-man-one-vote, and is bent on exposing these same oligarchs who fund the whole machine in their own interests.

The name at the top of the hit list is Koch, pronounced 'Coke'.

A report in the New York Times this month began: “After months of wincing in the face of negative ads funded by the industrialists David and Charles Koch, Democrats believe they have finally found a way to fight back: attacking the brothers’ sprawling business conglomerate as callous and indifferent to the lives of ordinary people while pursuing profit and power.

"By drawing public attention to layoffs by subsidiaries of Koch Industries across the country — a chemical plant in North Carolina, an oil refinery in Alaska, a lumber operation in Arkansas — Democrats are seeking to make villains of the reclusive billionaires, whose political organisations have spent more than $30 million on ads so far to help Republicans win control of the Senate.”

President Obama himself has referred in speeches to the undue influence of hidden powers, which might be “a foreign corporate power” or “a big oil company”.

Senator Harry Reid, who leads the Democratic majority, denounced them for funding the repeated and often dishonest attacks on Obamacare, saying on the Senate floor: “It's time that the American people spoke out against this terrible dishonesty of these two brothers, who are about as un-American as anyone that I can imagine.”

Senator Bernie Saunders from Vermont has been sounding the alarm ever since the Supreme Court ruling four years ago in the Citizens United case which changed the election rules to allow unlimited funding from corporations. This ruling, by judges appointed by President George 'Dubya' Bush, is seen as the moment that America was finally handed to the oligarchs.

Last week, Saunders wrote this: “The truth is that the agenda of the Koch brothers is to move this country from a democratic society with a strong middle class to an oligarchic form of society in which the economic and political life of the nation are controlled by a handful of billionaire families. Our great nation must not be hijacked by right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers. For the sake of our children and our grandchildren, we must fight back.”

Until the emergence of the Tea Party, very few had any idea of what the Koch brothers, both of whom are in the Forbes Top Ten Rich List, were up to.

They were already spending millions to fund a network of right-wing organisations from George Mason University in Washington to the Heritage Foundation think tank and the Americans for Prosperity, the ‘PAC’ which launched the Tea Party. They have been the force behind climate-change denial and a host of deregulation lobbies, all of it clearly in the interests of their core oil and coal businesses.

They kept their own names out of the public arena until the Tea Party became the golem of the Republicans, the monster created for their own use which then went out of control. In 2010 the New Yorker blew their cover with a long and detailed analysis of their network of political funding and manipulation.

The novelty of this election year is that the old game of Smith versus Jones at the ballot box has been relegated to the local television news. It does not seem relevant.

Bloomberg’s charge at the NRA represents the new politics. It is worth noting that his promise of $50 million equals the estimated combined spending of the Kochs and NRA last year: $30 million and $20 million respectively.

It is going to be tough on all those bought-and-paid-for politicians. Whose dollar do you take if both sides are promising your destruction for disobedience to the cause?

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Charles Laurence is a US correspondent for The He is a former New York bureau chief for The Daily Telegraph. He divides his time between Manhattan and Woodstock, upstate New York.