When Plutocrats Take Off the Mask and Run for Office
In this era of billionaire politics, Mike Bloomberg could shake things up—or bring the Democratic dream crashing down.
Left-wing radicals used to say, “We must tear the mask off the system.” That is, leftists believed that the politicians and politics of the age were just a mask, concealing the real power, which was Capital. Thus the mission of protesters and revolutionaries was to pull off that mask, revealing the machinations of the plutocrats as they pulled the strings and falsified the people’s consciousness.
That’s an interesting argument, going back to Karl Marx, yet now it’s being challenged in a strange way: because the plutocrats themselves are tearing off the mask. That is, the wealthy are climbing down from the remoteness of their gilded Mount Olympus to engage in political battle directly, fighting in person for their beliefs on the windy plains of Iowa, New Hampshire, and across the whole prole country.
Yes, a new breed of fat cat is cutting out the middleman. They are no longer seeking to elect their henchmen and lackeys to positions of authority—they are seeking to elect themselves.
Obviously the most prominent figure of this sort is Donald Trump. He’s a billionaire, and in his first bid for elective office, he aimed high—and won. Yet Trump is so unique, for better or for worse, that it’s impossible to put him in the class of most fat cats—for openers, he’s a Republican.
So let’s get back to the way almost all politically conscious plutocrats see the world these days—through Democratic eyes. Among the well-heeled Democrats running for the 2020 presidential nomination, we can start with John Delaney, who served briefly as a congressman from Maryland before he decided it was his duty to run for the White House. Delaney, a mere centi-millionaire, has been trying hard out on the campaign trail for two years, and spending a lot—but not nearly enough, it seems. He’s at a mere .5 percent in the national Democratic polls.
Then there’s Tom Steyer, a certified billionaire; over the last few years, he’s spent hundreds of millions on various causes, including saving the planet and impeaching Trump. And now, he’s found an even more important cause—electing himself. He’s been dwarfing all the other candidates in ad spending, yet even so, he’s still only at .9 percent in the polls. That must be frustrating to a man who’s used to having everything. And maybe that’s why Steyer’s campaign has allegedly been getting even more aggressive in applying the wiles of wealth. As the Associated Press scooped, the Steyerites stand accused of trying to buy endorsements for their man.
And now, here comes Michael Bloomberg, who truly puts the “pluto” in plutocrat—that is, wealth to the nth degree. He ranks eighth on the Forbes 400 list, with $53.4 billion to his name.
On his road to the White House, Bloomberg has thought in the past about running as an independent, yet now he swears he’ll run only as a good Democrat. And so it must have been cheering to him that a November 10 poll of 2020 Democrats showed him in sixth place, at 4 percent. That’s hardly a blitzkrieg number, yet it’s not bad for not even having so much as announced—and he’s ahead of a dozen or so pre-existing hopefuls.
So can Bloomberg climb higher? He obviously thinks so, and so do his campaign advisers, who must be salivating at the prospect of helming a campaign that will spend, as one of them said, “whatever it takes to defeat Donald Trump.” So what does that mean exactly? How many millions—or billions? As an aside, we can speculate that Bloomberg’s campaign could get the benefit of more than his own money; it could be helped by Super PAC expenditures from fellow billionaires, at least one of whom has already expressed his support. So a little bicoastal solidarity could carry Bloomberg to near-incalculable heights of spending.
Bernie Sanders, one of those soak-the-rich Democrats whom Bloomberg wants to keep from the nomination, had his snappy comeback to this attempted leveraged buyout of the party. Decrying what he called the “arrogance of billionaires,” Sanders jibed, “You see, when you’re worth $50 billion, I guess you don’t have to have town meetings, you don’t have to talk to ordinary people. What you do is you take out, I guess a couple of billion dollars, and you buy the state of California.”
We can pause over that last line, “Buy the state of California.” That’s straight out of the muckraking novel The Octopus, or the neo-noir movie Chinatown. In other words, maybe we’re about to see naked face of Capital, full frontal, as it takes to the hustings, eating hotdogs and working rope lines, or at least staging photo-ops and buying Facebook ads.
For her part, the other lefty in the race, Elizabeth Warren, tweeted right back at Bloomberg and his billions: “The wealthy and well-connected are scared that, under a Warren presidency, they would no longer have a government that caters to their every need. So they’re doing everything they can to try to stop our grassroots movement from winning.” Warren added, of course, “Chip in now to fight back.”
So there’s no need to worry: Warren, like Sanders, won’t be penniless. They are not self-funders, and they have mostly refused to have anything to do with big donors, yet they can raise money. They both have, in fact, substantially out-raised the notional frontrunner, the fat cat-friendly Joe Biden.
Poor Biden. He is typically described as the big loser in the wake of Bloomberg’s looming entry. That is, if rich Democrats aren’t confident that Biden can go the distance, then Middle Class Joe might have to be replaced by One Percent Mike.
Thus we come to the paradox of the Bloomberg campaign: if in fact the New York mogul has been enticed into the race because he fears and loathes Sanders and Warren and their wealth tax, he might be making a big mistake—a 2008 bubble-level blooper. That is, Bloomberg could well sink Biden, and submerge the other candidates in the gentle-on-the-rich “moderate lane,” such as Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. And it’s these middle (relative term) candidates who would presumably have the best chance of beating the Dreaded Trump.
Okay, so what if Bloomberg himself actually won the nomination? That is, after torpedoing Biden, what if he also gets past Sanders & Warren?
To this observer, Bloomberg is an obvious city slicker; around the country, he is perhaps best known as the scourge of cigarettes, guns, soft drinks, and coal. In other words, he’s been pushing a long list of limousine-liberal causes. And who should doubt that as the Bloomberg campaign staffs up, it will find itself waking up to “woke” causes even further to the cultural left, such as transgender rights?
Admittedly, Bloomberg was the three-term mayor of New York City, and that counts for something—but not too much. Other Big Apple mayors, including John Lindsay, Rudy Giuliani, and Bill DeBlasio, never did well west of the Hudson River; in fact, they never even won their own party’s nomination.
And as the Democratic nominee, Mayor Mike would be particularly weak in the Electoral College, which is full of square-shaped states that resent rich Manhattan swells—especially swells telling them how to live.
Still, there’s Bloomberg’s money; as they say, quantity has a quality all its own. Never say never to someone who can buy and sell you—and if not you, then many of your neighbors. So even if Bloomberg pokes along in mere single digits in the coming months, it’s not as if he’ll have to drop out of the race for the reason most low-raters drop out, because they run out of money. So come the Democratic convention in Milwaukee next July, who knows what could happen. And that’s what Bloomberg is counting on: Money talks, and delegates listen.
For perspective on the power of Unleashed Capital, we might recall the 1980 gubernatorial election in West Virginia, in which a young Democratic carpetbagger by the name of John D. Rockefeller IV—but you could call him “Jay”—found himself running for re-election against a popular former governor, Republican Arch Moore.
Needless to say, Rockefeller was well-financed; to be precise about it, he outspent Moore by 20:1. Indeed, the disparity was so grotesque that Moore supporters printed a bumper-strip reading, “Make Him Spend It All, Arch.”It was a funny line, but Rockefeller won the race.
So we must recognize an eternal truth: When it really puts its mind to it, more often than not, Capital wins.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.