Everywhere you look, American liberalism is awash with big money. From think tanks to congressional campaigns to the culture of big philanthropy, the outsize influence of plutocrats is so ubiquitous that many seem to regard it as a normal, even indispensable, part of political and cultural life — as quintessentially American as watching baseball or being forced to pay a monthly tithe to some bloodsucking corporate insurance conglomerate so you don’t die from a treatable illness.
Nonetheless, the Democratic presidential race is breaking new ground as a case study in just how deeply the money of people and institutions with the means has seeped into the fabric of democracy. From candidates openly courting billionaires at black-tie fundraisers to campaigns that boast intimate ties with private equity and high finance, the immense influence of wealth can be seen everywhere. All it took was a few polls favorable to Bernie Sanders and a handful of headlines containing the words “wealth tax” to get Howard Schultz musing about mounting a spoiler campaign. Not one but two billionaires have jumped into the race since the country’s most gilded caffeine baron got cold feet.
Though the extent to which these efforts will translate into actual votes remains to be seen, Michael Bloomberg’s campaign in particular has already become a powerful illustration of the way billionaires convert their wealth into power as a conscious strategy — and the threat it poses to democracy. To state the most obvious: Bloomberg has already poured in a whopping $58.4 million to carpet-bomb several states with TV and radio advertising — outspending anyone else in the race by exponential margins (fellow billionaire Tom Steyer isn’t all that far behind).
More subtle, though no less insidious, is the way Bloomberg’s past contributions to various campaigns and initiatives have enabled him to purchase political contacts and legitimacy the way a regular person buys groceries. In this respect, a recent investigation by the New York Times offers a fascinating and disturbing insight into the less direct ways billionaire wealth corrodes democracy and allows individuals like Bloomberg to behave like landed gentry in a system nominally constructed around the principle of one citizen, one vote.
Titled “‘Mayors for Mike’: How Bloomberg’s Money Built a 2020 Political Network,” the piece’s tone is mostly that of clinical reportage. Nevertheless, its implications are stark and should be hard for anyone to miss: through huge and carefully chosen contributions to various political campaigns, initiatives, and institutions, the former mayor of New York City has built himself a vast network of allies and clients — particularly municipal officials — that is now aiding him in his campaign for the presidency.
Bloomberg Philanthropies, which has assets totaling $9 billion, has supported 196 different cities with grants, technical assistance and education programs worth a combined $350 million. Now, leaders in some of those cities are forming the spine of Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign: He has been endorsed so far by eight mayors — from larger cities like San Jose, Calif., and Louisville, Ky., and smaller ones like Gary, Ind., representing a total of more than 2.6 million Americans.
Each and every one of Bloomberg’s mayoral endorsers has several things in common in addition to their roles as local elected officials: all have had him, at one time or another, as a benefactor, and all have attended his “prestigious boot camp at Harvard that gives the mayors access to ongoing strategic advice from Bloomberg-funded experts.” More than half have also received funding and grants courtesy of none other than Mike Incorporated.
Even among those the article quotes who are favorable to Bloomberg, the assumption seems to be that his activities and others like them are so normalized in American life that few even feel the need to justify or explain them away. “It’s given him a great, great deal of credibility with people who, but for his philanthropy or altruism, he never would have interfaced with,” Columbia, South Carolina, mayor (and Bloomberg campaign cochair) Steve Benjamin told the Times. The piece closes by quoting Tacoma mayor Victoria Woodards, who declares, apparently without reserve or irony: “When you start to engage with Mike, you are with Mike forever.”
Given the extent of Bloomberg’s charitable and campaign contributions, the Times report is probably just a small, though deeply revealing, snapshot. Since he left the New York mayor’s office in 2014, Bloomberg has poured billions into various political causes and the campaign coffers of politicians from both major parties — which is entirely unexceptional conduct for a figure of his wealth.
The problem isn’t that such behavior secures wealthy individuals like Bloomberg direct benefit in the form of quid pro quo relationships (though it certainly can). It doesn’t have to. When you’re so rich you have a couple billion dollars to throw around, you’re no longer an individual making voluntary private contributions: rather, you’re a stakeholder in the basic infrastructure of politics and society itself. In a nation full of economically deprived people, cash-starved cities, and crumbling infrastructure, there will always be a hunger for investment — and thus ample opportunity for chronically undertaxed people of means to exploit these needs and purchase influence in the process.
Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor of New York is itself a case in point. As Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at New York’s Baruch College, put it to Buzzfeed in 2013: Bloomberg’s wealth “was protection money. In many ways it inoculated him from potential criticism and stimulated people to do things that they might not have or shouldn’t have done.” As the report from Buzzfeed observed:
In Mike Bloomberg’s New York, the mayor bribed you, buying the silence or cooperation of individuals, cultural organizations, and social service groups with hundreds in millions of dollars spent on small personal favors — a legal payment here, a medical procedure there — and charitable contributions . . . Bloomberg’s close aides have always acknowledged that his wealth was, as much as his electoral mandate, a central source of power. But many observers confuse this civic grease for the straightforward millions he’s spent getting himself elected. The other money has been, for several reasons, hard at times to characterize, a secret lubricant of urban consensus.
As the emerging dynamic in the Democratic presidential race makes all too clear, you can have billionaires or you can have democracy — and, as long as you have the former, you can expect the latter to be perpetually compromised.