A recent exchange on MSNBC turned viral after Nina Turner, a national campaign co-chair for Bernie Sanders, described billionaire Michael Bloomberg as an “oligarch.” That drew a heated response from MSNBC contributor and political science professor Jason Johnson, who insisted that Turner’s word choice was unfair and inaccurate.
That’s absurd. By any common definition, Bloomberg’s an oligarch. He wants to buy your vote. Based on his record, he’s also coming for your Social Security.
"Money doesn't just talk, it votes. That's oligarchy."
After this exchange, Sen. Turner tweeted, “I may not have a PhD (yet!) but I DO have the good sense of knowing what makes for Oligarchy.”
Hey, I’m not a clockmaker, but I know what time it is.
My social media feed is filled with Democrats celebrating Bloomberg’s return to the Democratic Party, his candidacy, and his pledge to up to a billion dollars to defeat Trump. (Few, if any, of these Democrats are repeating a line of attack often used against Sanders—that he’s not really a Democrat—despite the fact that Bloomberg is a former Republican who only rejoined the Democratic Party two years ago.)
A brief recap of the “oligarch” argument: Turner, Johnson, and Chris Matthews were discussing the Democratic National Committee’s last-minute rules change, which allowed Bloomberg into the next debate after he wrote it a large check.
“We should be ashamed of that as Americans, people who believe in democracy,” said Sen. Turner, “that the oligarchs, if you have more money you can buy your way.”
When asked if she thought Bloomberg was an oligarch, Turner didn’t hesitate. “He is,” she said, “buying his way into the race.”
Johnson insisted this was “name-calling,” and that a label like “oligarch” has “implications in this country that I think are unfair and unreasonable.”
But is it true? Some landmark political science studies—and most dictionaries—say that it is.
Is This Country an Oligarchy?
Merriam-Webster defines an “oli·gar·chy” as follows:
1 : government by the few
2 : a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes; also : a group exercising such control
3 : an organization under oligarchic control
Does that describe our government? Political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page found that, “Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
Gilens and Page didn’t use the word “oligarchy,” but those elites and groups represent only a small percentage of the population, so a number of the journalists who covered their work did.
In a related finding, political scientist Thomas Ferguson and his colleagues found “the relations between money and major party votes in all elections for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives from 1980 to 2014 are well approximated by straight lines.”
Money doesn’t just talk, it votes. That’s oligarchy.
But is Michael Bloomberg an Oligarch?
An “oligarch,” according to the Cambridge American Dictionary, is “one of a small group of powerful people who control a country or an industry.”
Is Michael Bloomberg such a person? Maybe he’s just really rich and doesn’t control that much. But let's have some background.
With an estimated net worth of more than $60 billion, Bloomberg is the twelfth-richest person on the planet and the ninth-richest person in the United States. That’s a pretty small group of people. But do they control the country? Ferguson et al. found that campaign cash drives election outcomes. That means campaign donors largely control the process.
Gilens and Page found that wealthy people and interests usually get what they want. The rest of us usually don’t, unless what we want is also what they want. The fact that progressives like some of Bloomberg’s positions doesn’t undermine these findings. In fact, it reinforces them.
"Bloomberg hasn't just given money to a number of campaigns. He also controls a media empire. In true oligarchical fashion, he decreed years ago that his news outlets would not cover his political career."
Bloomberg hasn’t just given money to a number of campaigns. He also controls a media empire. In true oligarchical fashion, he decreed years ago that his news outlets would not cover his political career. He said recently that it would not cover his rivals’ campaigns, either — a move that drew criticism from journalists and an ethics professor. Less than a month later, however, Bloomberg News violated that edict by running a hit piece against Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
That’s oligarchical behavior.
Bloomberg’s own political history is an exercise in the use of oligarchical wealth to change electoral outcomes. He was unpopular when he first ran for mayor of New York—a situation he rectified by dramatically outspending his rivals. Even so, Bloomberg only eked out a two-point victory against Democrat Mark Green in his first mayoral race, after outspending him five to one.
The argument between Turner and Johnson involved another compelling example of Bloomberg-as-oligarch. The DNC’s rules said each candidate had to have a minimum number of donors to quality for the debate stage. That rule wasn’t overruled for Cory Booker or Julian Castro, despite calls for greater diversity in the race. But it was overturned for Bloomberg, who had donated more than $1 million to the DNC and a related organization a few short weeks before.
Will Michael Bloomberg Cut Your Social Security?
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If you thought there were problems with Joe Biden’s Social Security record, wait until you see Bloomberg’s. His record of espousing austerity economics has including a special enthusiasm for cutting Medicare and Social Security.
As he told Face the Nation in 2013:
No program to reduce the deficit makes any sense whatsoever unless you address the issue of entitlements, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, interest payment on the debt, which you can't touch, and defense spending. Everything else is tiny compared to that.
"If you thought there were problems with Joe Biden's Social Security record, wait until you see Bloomberg's. His record of espousing austerity economics has including a special enthusiasm for cutting Medicare and Social Security."
These are bad ideas. They make for even worse politics. Voters love Social Security. A Pew study released in March 2019 found that “74 percent of Americans say Social Security benefits should not be reduced in any way.”
And voters don’t like entitlement cuts, or the Bloomberg-endorsed thinking behind them. That can be seen in a GBAO/Center for American Progress survey conducted in October 2019. Less than half of Republicans, one-third of Democrats, and roughly one-third of independents agreed with the Bloomberg-like statement that “our national debt is way too high, and we need to cut government spending on the biggest programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.”
Trump has given Democrats an opening on Social Security. His administration is currently engaged in a de factor program to cut Social Security disability benefits, by forcing millions of disabled people to endure the punishing process of eligibility screening as often as every six months. Newsweek reports that the Social Security Administration concluded that this would lead to $2.6 billion in benefit cuts and an additional 2.6 million case reviews between 2020 and 2029. It’s a brutal assault on the health and security of a vulnerable population.
Trump also said he intends to pursue additional cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid after the upcoming election, when he no longer has to worry about public opinion. Worse, he did so at the annual gathering of billionaires in Davos. That reinforces the perception that he’s imposing hardship on the majority to help a privileged few.
Most leading Democrats understand that there is wide support for protecting and expanding Social Security. Most leading candidates—including Joe Biden—have offered some form of Social Security expansion. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has embraced the idea in principle. There’s an opportunity here—if Bloomberg doesn’t stop them from taking it.
What about inequality?
Bloomberg has sometimes embraced tax increases, but he has long opposed tax hikes that reduce inequality by targeting the wealthy.
In fact, he called the idea “class warfare” in a 2012 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. The op-ed was called “Federal Budgets and Class Warfare,” and it trotted out some hoary clichés about “class war”—which is more like asymmetrical warfare on behalf of the rich—along with other stale and debunked right-wing talking points. Bloomberg wrote, for example, that “the top 5% already pay 59% of all federal income taxes, while 42% of filers have no federal income tax bill at all.”
That statistic omits state, local, and sales taxes, so it doesn’t prove Bloomberg’s point. What it does demonstrate is the extent of today’s income inequality.
Now that he’s running, Bloomberg’s had a seeming change of heart. He has a plan to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations—the same idea he bitterly condemned in 2012. It’s a modest plan, compared to Sanders and Warren, but it’s not bad. The question is, does he mean it?
Bloomberg has close ties with organizations that have long campaigned for deficit reduction and against Social Security and Medicare. His only recorded complaint against past bipartisan budget-cutting proposals, in fact, was that they didn’t go far enough—a statement that won him praise from the anti-entitlement “Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.” The Fiscal Times quoted Bloomberg as saying Democrats “have to face the reality that we need more spending cuts, including reasonable entitlement reform.”
The text of his “this deal doesn’t cut spending enough” speech has also been removed from the CRFB website—(apparently there’s a lot of that going around.)
There are other reasons to worry about Candidate Bloomberg.
Given his virtually unlimited resources, Bloomberg could theoretically win both the nomination and the presidency. By my calculation, Bloomberg could pay the same “unit price” he paid to make himself mayor of New York—$88 per voter—and make himself president for $12 billion. He’d even have $50 billion set aside for a rainy day.
"By my calculation, Bloomberg could pay the same 'unit price' he paid to make himself mayor of New York—$88 per voter—and make himself president for $12 billion. He'd even have $50 billion set aside for a rainy day."
The nomination would presumably cost less than the presidency, so he has a better shot at that. But it would be a bad look for the Democrats to become the first party in modern history whose candidate openly bought the nomination. But then, Bloomberg’s used to getting the rules changed just for him. When he wanted to run for a third term as mayor, Bloomberg used all the tools at his disposal (one of which led to an ethics complaint) to change the city’s rules. Once he got what he wanted, Bloomberg then pushed to change the rules back. It seems that some privileges should be labeled, “for oligarchs only.”
Democrats should also be troubled by Bloomberg’s authoritarian streak. As mayor, Bloomberg had a history of suppressing peaceful demonstrations, sometimes with brute force. His police spied on Muslim gatherings and engaged in racially-biased “stop and frisk” tactics that expanded sevenfold under his leadership. He took advantaged of privatized public spaces, including Zuccotti Park, to suspend basic liberties within them, while renting out his police force to the banks the movement was protesting. His unconstitutional suppression of Occupy even included the needless destruction of the movement’s library.
As Conor Friedensdorf writes in The Atlantic, comparing Bloomberg to Trump:
Had Trump spent years sending armed agents of the state to frisk people of color, 90 percent of them innocent, would you forgive him? How about if Trump sent undercover cops to spy on Muslims with no basis for the targeting other than the mere fact of their religious identity? What if he thwarted the ability of anti-war protesters to march in New York City?
But it’s okay to take his money, right?
If he doesn’t win the nomination, Bloomberg will once again play the role of billionaire donor. After lamely arguing that Bernie Sanders is a “rich guy”—as if a million or two means anything to billionaire—Prof. Johnson objected to calling Bloomberg an “oligarch” because it might make him decide to close his checkbook. Johnson said:
It’s the kind of thing that blows up in your face if you become the nominee and you have to work with Bloomberg three or four months from now. That’s the issue that Sanders’s people never seem to want to remember.
Johnson didn’t seem to realize that his argument—“Politicians shouldn’t make the billionaire mad or he won’t give them his money”—is a textbook example of oligarchy in action.
Maybe Sanders’ people do remember. Maybe they just don’t care.
Bloomberg says he’ll unconditionally offer financial support to any Democratic nominee, including Sanders and Warren. That sounds good. But “unconditional” isn’t Bloomberg’s usual M.O. As the New York Times reported in 2018, when he donated heavily to Democrats running for Congress (and one or two Republicans):
Bloomberg] has indicated to aides that he only wants to support candidates who share his relatively moderate political orientation, avoiding nominees hailing from the populist left.
If that means embracing Bloomberg’s views on Social Security and “class war,” Democrats could be trading electability for cash. Beware of billionaires bearing gifts—especially when one of those gifts is the billionaire himself.