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Jacobin - December 2019

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. ...
Read full report at Jacobin