Ever since he entered the Democratic primary, the media has roundly panned Michael Bloomberg for trying to “buy the election.” And he seems to be doing a pretty good job of it: the latest Marist poll shows him coming in second behind Bernie Sanders. Yet nobody seems inclined to ask who exactly put the election up for sale.
Of course, those journalists don’t mean that Mr. Bloomberg is paying people to vote for him. He’s not bribing election officials to slip him a couple extra ballots. No, they’re irritated that he’s foregoing the hallowed rites of retail politics. He’s not drinking coffee with Vietnam vets at the Hamburg Inn or kissing babies in the Charleston City Market. Mr. Bloomberg’s strategy is to carpet-bomb the nation with television ads. Even at his stump speeches, he remains aloof from his supporters: he comes in, reads a 10-minute speech off a teleprompter, and then leaves. Meeting and greeting is kept to a minimum, and there are no Q&As.
This doesn’t bother normal people one jot, which is why Mr. Bloomberg is surging in the polls (or at least he was before Wednesday’s debate). If we can’t attend a rally in person, we livestream it on Facebook. If a candidate’s stump speech doesn’t satisfy our questions, we can check the policy page on his website. We don’t need to feel like he’s personally invested in our lives before we vote for him. Few of us make our decisions based on who has the firmest handshake or the warmest smile.
Personally, I find the Bloomberg campaign refreshing. I don’t like politicians, and I don’t enjoy having them clutter up New Hampshire every four years. I don’t want to wait an hour for my biscuits and gravy because Elizabeth Warren decided to casually drop by the Marketplace Diner for an egg white omelet. I’d rather not have to beat my way through a mob of Buttigieg supporters en route the grocery store. I don’t appreciate our nice little commons being annexed by screeching college students in skin-tight Tulsi T-shirts. My attitude toward politicians is roughly same as my attitude toward politics in general: leave me alone.
But naturally that’s the last thing the mainstream media wants. They insist on politics intruding into every corner of our lives; it’s how they earn their daily bread. They’ve turned our election cycles into season finales of a tired, cringy sitcom that used to be known as history’s most successful experiment in self-government. If Mayor Bloomberg wants to buy the Democratic primary, then, he’ll have to outbid the cable news networks. If anyone “owns” our elections, surely it’s them.
Remember when that guy from Iowa confronted Elizabeth Warren about her student loan forgiveness scheme? Or Joe Biden’s bizarre (if shockingly true) story about a local mafioso named Frosty Flake or whatever? Those were two small events in their campaigns, but they came to define them for at least two weeks, which is decades during a national election season. The only reason candidates open themselves up to this kind of ritual humiliation is because it’s the only way they can guarantee televised coverage of their campaigns.
Mayor Bloomberg selfishly refuses to set himself up as one of Don Lemon’s punchlines. Other politicians have to chase the camera and hope it catches them at their best; Mike just buys his own.
Again, your average voter couldn’t care less. For most of us, the point of a presidential campaign is to choose our next president. For the media, it’s just another way to monetize our democracy.
Take the televised debates. The center ring of our presidential elections has become yet another staging ground for gladiatorial politics, all thanks to the sponsorship of our cable media companies.
We saw that on full display last Wednesday at the Nevada Democratic debate. Bogotá native and debate moderator Vanessa Hauc seemed personally offended that Amy Klobuchar had forgotten the name of Mexico’s president during a recent Telemundo interview. Worse, Ms. Hauc continued, “you defended yourself saying, quote, ‘This isn’t Jeopardy.’ But my question to you is, shouldn’t our next president know more about one of our largest trading partners, you ignorant bigot?” Well, she didn’t actually call Senator Klobuchar a bigot. But you could tell she really, really wanted to.
The senator’s response was outstanding: “I said that I made an error. I think that having a president that maybe is humble, and is able to admit that here and there, maybe wouldn’t be a bad thing.” The crowd erupted in applause, and that should’ve been the end of it. The senator admitted her mistake and promised to do better.
But that’s not how these debates work. They’re driven by conflict, not resolution. And so Ms. Hauc naturally gave the floor to Senator Klobuchar’s rival, Pete Buttigieg. This led to one of the longest sustained exchanges of the night, with Mayor Pete smugly piling on his moderate rival and Senator Klobuchar trembling with rage. “Are you trying to say that I’m dumb?” she asked. “Are you mocking me?” Well, yes: Ms. Hauc wouldn’t have called on him otherwise.
Then there’s Mayor Bloomberg. He really should have stuck to his guns and declined the invitation. There was no chance Wednesday was going to go well for him.
As expected, his opponents piled on him for his implementation of stop-and-frisk as mayor of New York City, for which he has since apologized (needlessly, in my view). Now it’s up to Democratic voters to decide whether his apology is sincere or not. Nevertheless the routine piling-on by his fellow candidates was nothing but righteous posturing. Maybe if any of them had been the chief executive of a town larger than South Bend, Indiana, they might have also implemented some policies they’re no longer proud of. But that kind of verbal castration is exactly what these debates are all about.
Believe it or not, I’m no Bloomberg supporter. In fact, I can’t stand the guy. I wouldn’t vote for him in a thousand years and I don’t suggest anyone else do so either. As I’ve said before, I’m a distributist: I have equal contempt for Big Business and Big Government. Mayor Bloomberg represents a perfect and equal union of the two.
But that our Fourth Estate would cast themselves as his antithesis is laughable. It has a certain Napoleonic whiff: the man who declares himself emperor in order to safeguard the republic.
They don’t care about democracy. If they did, they’d refuse to sell Mayor Bloomberg that ad space. No, journalism today is all about reaping profits by maximizing viewers, which is why they’ve turned our elections into a bloodsport. It’s like WWE for the middle class.
Their debates don’t (and can’t) tell us anything about a candidate’s intelligence or the relative value of his policy proposals. All they can measure is a politician’s skill at verbal riposte. The medium itself precludes any consensus or compromise. It encourages bickering, backbiting, and grandstanding—everything we claim to hate about politics.
Maybe that’s a lie. Worse, maybe it’s a lie we tell ourselves. We all say we want more bipartisanship in our politics, yet we can’t even abide partisanship in our politics. Our national pastime is watching members of the same caucus rhetorically maul one another. And you know what? That’s fine! As long as politicians are savaging each other, they can’t savage us.
Yet I want to believe that, deep down, the American people know this is no way to do government. I want to believe that we’ll wake up someday and decide we’ve had enough of the media’s stranglehold on our democracy. I don’t mind politicians pandering; it’s all they’re good at. But they should be pandering to us, their constituents—not CNN or NBC. Our elected officials dance for these hacks like marionettes. It’s high time we cut the strings.
Michael Warren Davis is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine. He is the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021).