Suppose you were a Republican operative looking to promote your party’s transparently fraudulent image as a vehicle for representing the interests of ordinary Americans against the dark forces of elite liberal paternalism. And suppose you somehow had the ability to boost a single candidate on the Democratic side who might best help you achieve this objective. Given the current state of America’s twenty-first-century political hellscape, there’s certainly no dearth of unfathomably wealthy liberals who might consider aiding your cause by launching a vanity run for president. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to imagine anyone who would be better suited for the role than Michael Bloomberg.
Particularly now, Bloomberg’s rumored run for the Democratic nomination is about as cartoonish an indictment of America’s two-party system as can possibly be imagined: a case study in the calamitous groupthink of well-heeled pundits and consultants who witnessed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 electoral train wreck and collectively murmured, “Hold my beer,” like a sacred mantra. In truth, a hypothetical matchup between Bloomberg and Donald Trump would almost certainly yield a victory for the latter so decisive that the contest would come to rank alongside the Charge of the Light Brigade and Muhammad Ali’s famous first-round drubbing of Sonny Liston in the annals of history’s most lopsided defeats. If the infamously Wall Street–friendly Clinton proved vulnerable to Trump’s faux-populist bromides, a man worth more than $50 billion and practically synonymous with the phrase “soda taxes” in the national psyche would doubtless prove even more so, whatever a handful of op-ed writers and cable news anchors say to convince us otherwise.
Mercifully, such a scenario is unlikely to occur, given that enthusiasm for a Bloomberg candidacy seems mostly limited to a handful of pundits and fellow billionaires — a recent Morning Consult poll found the fabled centrist maverick with a meager 4 percent among Democratic primary voters, barely ahead of such electoral dynamos as Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar.
But the circumstances surrounding Bloomberg’s expected candidacy — and now that of former foreclosure mogul Deval Patrick — nevertheless underscore a deep rot in the culture of American liberalism: one that, among other things, has now inspired no less than two billionaires and a multimillionaire to run for the Democratic nomination and the race’s apparent front-runner to obsequiously inform a room full of wealthy donors at a swanky Upper East Side fundraiser that “I need you very badly” without even a hint of irony.
As presently constituted, the party that occupies the nominal center left of US politics is a self-professed vehicle for the middle class and the underprivileged that in practice functions more like a giant corporate consultancy firm doing the odd bit of charity and community outreach for branding purposes: fronted by white-collar patricians, managerial in outlook, and utterly determined never to rock the boats of the extremely wealthy or cause them even a modicum of discomfort.
The official case for a Bloomberg nomination, such as it is, hinges on the ludicrous idea that the current Democratic field needs yet another business-friendly centrist touting some form of compromise between the ordinarily and extraordinarily wealthy. Those most enthusiastic about his candidacy relatedly believe Bloomberg’s status as a “real” billionaire would be some kind of kryptonite against his former golf buddy Donald Trump — a man who, as the insufferable expression runs, “just plays one on TV.” Among other things, this analysis is virtually identical to that of Clinton’s campaign in 2016 — which proudly touted her support among the supposedly more virtuous elements of the very rich (including, amusingly, Bloomberg himself) in the patently absurd belief that such an alliance would have genuine popular resonance.
The far more obvious and actual reason for Bloomberg’s run, of course, has less to do with this dubious view of electability than it does with stopping decidedly non-billionaire-friendly policies like wealth taxes, national rent control, and Medicare for All dead in their tracks. Bloomberg, alongside much of the rest of the field, is campaigning with the more or less explicit goal of soothing anxious donors and ensuring that no one named Bernie Sanders comes anywhere near the Democratic nomination. That he was reportedly asked to run by none other than the richest man in human history makes his candidacy a particularly vivid illustration of American liberalism’s contemptibly gilded character and ongoing refusal to meaningfully factor the needs of the majority into its political calculus.
Bloomberg’s forthcoming entry into the race aside, virtually the entire Democratic field exhibits in varying degrees the symptoms of a party that considers the tyranny of extreme wealth a perfectly natural and acceptable state of affairs. Most candidates are all too happy to accept donations and endorsements from the exorbitantly rich and, besides Sanders, none seems willing to adopt the kind of confrontational approach that might actually give anyone in the top 0.1 percent valid cause for alarm. Even Elizabeth Warren (who, to her credit, does actually want to raise rich people’s taxes) strikes a conciliatory posture toward people with extreme wealth, emphasizing the ultimately moderate spirit of her proposals and taking care to say that billionaires are still a perfectly legitimate outcome of the American economy.
The Republican Party is arguably the most extreme right-wing political formation anywhere in the developed world. Mixing together a noxious cocktail of plutocrats, religious fanatics, and white nationalists, the party and its leadership openly associate themselves with the most malevolent of America’s robber barons and, since 2016, have been proudly fronted by one. As the current state of play makes clear, what’s ultimately at stake in the Democratic presidential race is whether the force standing opposed to conservative plunder is going to represent its genuine antithesis or just the somewhat kinder wing of American plutocracy.