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Lending him our support sends a message that the presidency is for sale.
Fascism always snuffs itself out in the ashes of its own nihilism, for it festers in its own bubble, which the rough edges of reality sooner or later pop. But oligarchy can get along just fine for generations, for while it may be unequal and hierarchical, it has to function efficiently to serve the interests of elites.
So, if Michael Bloomberg succeeds in buying the presidency, it may present a body blow to American democracy every bit as devastating as the fascism of Trump.
Bloomberg has promised to give a billion dollars to democratic candidates whether he wins or loses, but what might sound like a gift from heaven comes with a heavy price upon consideration of the fact that he has already spent $300 million on his own brief campaign.
Never before has an oligarch sought to exert the kind of control over American democratic institutions as Bloomberg. He has bought the support of mayors through donations to their cities, the support of party leaders through donations to candidates, the silence of opponents through promising to fund their campaigns, while leaving them guessing to what extent, and the eyes and ears of voters through dominating the airwaves. There is no way he could win without his millions, and no way his money does not greatly bolster his chances of winning.
The Democratic Party would simply not consider nominating him without the money.
Not only does the flood of cash subvert the will of the people, but it legitimizes other oligarchs doing the same; it sends them a message that they had better spend big if they want to get their way. Hence, one of the likely effects of Bloomberg’s spending will be more audacious attempts of other oligarchs to sway elections. And if he wins, we can count on even more oligarchs putting themselves forward for races in the Senate and the House. Meanwhile, flooding the system with cash will help to drown out all of those small donations of progressives like Senators Sanders and Warren.
It is simply not possible to attempt to buy an election in this way and truly believe in democracy.
So, it should not surprise us that, even as he has been almost completely silent on foreign affairs, Bloomberg has praised dictators like Xi Xinping and Putin. He has praised the leadership of Xi and insisted he is not a dictator; and he has justified Putin’s theft of the Crimea and his aggressive stands against Europe, which have involved at least eight attempts to interfere in elections in much the same way Putin did in the United States in 2016.
Applying the lessons of cutthroat business to international affairs in this way is a recipe for conflict. And it will greatly complicate global cooperation on threats like climate change. For when might is seen to be right, everyone is on the defensive, and this will mean the election of more right-wing nationalists.
Bloomberg presents many of the same challenges to a world of declining democracies as Trump, and he may be all the more dangerous for the competence he brings to the job. For like the rise of China, Bloomberg will send a message to the world that autocracy need not be as messy as the democratic institutions that led to the election of Trump, and it might even be benevolent. But autocratic governments are almost always accompanied by misery, inequality, cruelty, and incompetence.
And if we lend him our support, we will send a message that the presidency is for sale, setting a precedent for other struggling democracies.
And we will demonstrate that the Democratic Party has been bought and sold. For once it is in his grip, every elected official who is a beneficiary will be beholden to his billions, and party officials will make way for him to do as he pleases. But the last best hope for American democracy was always the Democratic Party, with all of its raging inadequacies. For it was only the Democrats who elected judges who upheld campaign finance reform laws—and it was only Democrats who were trying to get big money out of politics. Their moral demise would mean only more cynicism, more mistrust, more partisanship, more populism, and more disaffected voters.
And since the dangers will start to become apparent only as Bloomberg begins to consolidate control, we should not even bank on his big bucks winning the election. For when voters begin to think through the dangers, all too many will balk. Progressives will savage him in the run-up to the general election, for he is like the Clintons on steroids. The lazy will stay home on Election Day. And perhaps most worrisome, for those of us who recognize that, even with all of his baggage Trump is worse, Black men may have the hardest time, as they come to realize that his stop and frisk policies involved flooding minority communities with cops.
Trump may mobilize racial hatred, but Bloomberg set up a racist state in New York City, which saw many young, dark-skinned men frisked every time they left their homes, while homelessness exploded.
Bloomberg often appears simply a more mature version of Trump, as if he continued developing past the fifth grade, and even developed a conscience. But the blunt racism of his stop and frisk policies, and his long history of making openly sexist statements to the press, may only become apparent after he has sealed up the nomination, at which point Black voters may stay home as the left rebels. Meanwhile, as we come to rely on a single individual to buy us back the country, all of our righteousness in the face of Trump’s attacks on our democratic institutions will simply evaporate. For if we do win, it will not be because we are right, but because we were willing to sell the presidency to the highest bidder, who promised us what we wanted to hear, in order to relieve our distress.
Maybe Bloomberg wants to make the country better; maybe he is out for himself. The problem is that his record is inconsistent and his critics have been largely silenced with cash. But whatever his motives, it is his money that should concern us most. For like a monkey reaching for sweets in a trap, we might all too easily find ourselves caught, when all we need do is let go, but just can’t do it for the rewards held tightly in our grasp are too sweet.
Let us get behind whichever Democrat wins on their own merits; let us celebrate the public service of whoever convinces us they are right and good. Let moderates recognize the extraordinary integrity of Sanders, and progressives the brilliance of Buttigieg. Let centrists recognize the ability of Warren to bring the party together, and Biden to guide us through experience. Let us even see the goodness in Bloomberg’s efforts, but let us also be discerning and wise, and remember what we are fighting for, and what we might lose. Bloomberg would certainly end the chaos of Trump, and there is little reason to believe he would use the state as his own personal cash machine. He would take on climate change and probably make real progress on gun control.
But his election would also be the likely death knell to our already weakened democratic institutions. And those of us who wished to be free from domination would find ourselves ever more tightly in the grip of financial elites with nowhere left to turn. Meanwhile, there is little reason to believe that, upon attaining office, this former Republican would not revert to form, as have all too many leaders the world over once they bought their way into office.
Perhaps a little historical perspective will highlight the dangers. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson point out in their epic study of democracy, The Narrow Corridor, how many democracies, like the republican city-states of Renaissance Italy, died when they invited in oligarchs to settle their differences. It is a common fate of many poor democracies, riven by tribal rivalries, in the world today as well, only they invite in the military to settle their differences. Russia did something similar with Putin, giving in to an autocrat after the chaotic 90s under Boris Yeltsin.
The point is that if Democrats are looking for the easy way out under Bloomberg, it is a trap, and we may not realize it until we have fallen into it.
Theo Horesh, author of The Holocausts We All Deny.