Photograph: David J Phillip/AP
During his tenure as mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg oversaw one of the most discriminatory surveillance programs in our nation’s history. His police department’s “Demographics Unit” mapped out Muslim American communities and infiltrated and spied on everything from kebab shops to Muslim student whitewater rafting trips.
Not only was the program offensive to American values – even the then New Jersey Republican governor, Chris Christie, an ally of President Trump’s, was outraged upon learning of it – it did nothing to keep New Yorkers safe. The Demographics Unit’s work did not generate a single terror lead.
But Bloomberg himself has always been unapologetic, insisting the program was justified.
During the 2016 Democratic national convention, Bloomberg was given a primetime speaking role. Working with a colleague, I interviewed many key Democrats – from members of Congress to representatives of the Clinton campaign – and asked them if Bloomberg should at least apologize for overseeing this program. Almost no Democrat I talked to would call on Bloomberg to apologize – foreshadowing his growing power over the party.
Bloomberg has come under fire from activists for his role in implementing the stop and frisk program, where police were directed to stop, question and pat down hundreds of thousands of innocent people, mostly African American and Latino, as part of the mayor’s signature gun control program.
There’s plenty of other reasons for Democrats to be skeptical of Bloomberg. For one, he is only a part-time member of their party, having served as a Republican mayor of New York City. He endorsed George W Bush and the Iraq war, and gave money to Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign. He tried to keep Elizabeth Warren out of the Senate by supporting the Republican senator Scott Brown. He spent millions of dollars re-electing Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, who oversaw the state’s failed response to the Flint water crisis. As recently as 2018, he was funding some GOP congressional campaigns.
And yet at the very same time, he is facing very little criticism from the Democratic party’s establishment. “I think that his involvement in this campaign will be a positive one,” said the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, one of the country’s most powerful Democratic party figures. Not long after the stop and frisk controversy resurfaced, a slew of African American politicians endorsed Bloomberg.
The reason Bloomberg is able to float above criticism is because he’s the eighth richest person in the country. In 2018, he spent $100m backing various House Democrats in their congressional races. One of his gun control groups spent $4.5m electing Lucy McBath, the African American Georgia congresswoman who endorsed Bloomberg in the midst of the latest stop and frisk controversy. Some of those who have supported Bloomberg recently were not even shy about why they were so forgiving of his record on policing issues.
Bloomberg’s ability to buy silence presents a challenge not only to the Democrats, but to democracy itself
Calvin Butts, a Harlem pastor who came to Bloomberg’s aid in February, admitted that Bloomberg gave him money for his economic development operation. “He used his money, which is one of the reasons I continue to support him, to express his sincerity,” Butts said bluntly.
Bloomberg’s ability to buy silence presents a challenge not only to the Democrats, but to democracy itself, because while American democracy can’t be snuffed out by brute force, it can be drowned by money.
Bloomberg has spent over $350m on his presidential campaign so far, deploying a barrage of television ads and endorsements that has rocketed him to third place in national polls. If he became president, he would not only control the world’s most powerful government office, he would be able to tap into a $50bn fortune to bend both major parties to his will. Recall that Bernie Sanders needed to amass 1.4 million donors to raise $100m. That’s a rounding error in Bloomberg’s bank account.
The mayor’s defenders are likely to point out that he is known to be an efficient, data-driven leader who brought down New York City’s crime rate and improved school graduation rates. Indeed, “Mike Will Get It Done” is the campaign’s slogan.
It’s hardly a surprise that Bloomberg is on record defending the Chinese system of government, insisting that Xi Jinping is “not a dictator”. Bloomberg sees himself as an enlightened autocrat, who uses his money to get around inefficient democratic processes.
But the people who built our democracy – from the suffragettes of Seneca Falls to the men who stormed Normandy – believed, as Abraham Lincoln did, that our government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people”.
The people are imperfect, and democracy is messy, which may be why Bloomberg thinks he can replace our democratic process with the process of writing a check. We’re about to find out if Americans let him.