Yes, Michael Bloomberg Is Definitely an Oligarch

The multi-billionaire has spent his career using his fortune to undermine democracy and enact his preferred political agenda. His presidential gambit is just the latest example.

Paul HeidemanFebruary 7, 2020

Some people are saying Mike Bloomberg isn't an oligarch. They're wrong. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

In the wake of Tues­day night’s Iowa cau­cus results deba­cle, one ques­tion has been on every­body’s mind: Is Michael Bloomberg an oligarch?

For his entire career in politics, Michael Bloomberg has backed policies and politicians that protect his fortune.

The query was first raised by Bernie Sanders’ cam­paign co-chair Nina Turn­er, in the course of an inter­view by MSNBC host Chris Matthews. Her descrip­tion of Bloomberg as an oli­garch buy­ing his way into the Demo­c­ra­t­ic debates prompt­ed a spir­it­ed defense of the media mogul from The Root’s polit­i­cal edi­tor Jason John­son. John­son object­ed that Oli­garchy in our par­tic­u­lar ter­mi­nol­o­gy makes you think of a rich per­son who got their mon­ey off of oil in Rus­sia, who is tak­ing advan­tage of a bro­ken and dys­func­tion­al system.”

This is a strange defense. Aside from the men­tion of Rus­sia, a sub­ject known to elic­it unbal­anced respons­es from lib­er­al com­men­ta­tors, the descrip­tion fits Michael Bloomberg pret­ty well. He is indeed very rich, and it can scarce­ly be denied that he is tak­ing advan­tage of a bro­ken and dys­func­tion­al polit­i­cal sys­tem. John­son implic­it­ly acknowl­edged the lat­ter, effec­tive­ly argu­ing hate the game, not the play­er.” But the prob­lem with this argu­ment is that Michael Bloomberg has long been fight­ing to pre­serve the rules of the game that have made him so obscene­ly wealthy. He’s been act­ing, in oth­er words, like an oligarch.

Mak­ing Bloomberg

Bloomberg is famous for being some­thing of a polit­i­cal chameleon. He was a Demo­c­rat for most of his life, became a Repub­li­can to run for may­or of New York in 2001, became an inde­pen­dent in 2007, and then became a Demo­c­rat again in 2018, appar­ent­ly in response to Pres­i­dent Trump. But through­out all of these changes, one thing has remained con­sis­tent: his devo­tion to the inter­ests of the wealthy.

Bloomberg came into office in 2002 promis­ing to run New York City like a busi­ness, and he deliv­ered. He imme­di­ate­ly offered city unions con­tracts with pay rais­es, but demand­ed con­ces­sions on pen­sions and health­care, just as pri­vate sec­tor com­pa­nies have been demand­ing from unions for decades. At the next round of con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, when the costs of these con­ces­sions became clear to teach­ers’ union mem­bers and they demand­ed more, Bloomberg sim­ply refused to bar­gain with them.

He also got rid of pesky demo­c­ra­t­ic imped­i­ments to enact­ing his neolib­er­al agen­da. He placed city schools under may­oral con­trol, elim­i­nat­ing local school boards and imple­ment­ing pol­i­cy instead through the Pan­el on Edu­ca­tion Pol­i­cy, whose mem­bers he appoint­ed. At the same time, Bloomberg’s admin­is­tra­tion expand­ed char­ter schools in the city, fur­ther putting edu­ca­tion under pri­vate con­trol. Like a good busi­ness­man, he accom­pa­nied this pri­va­ti­za­tion blitz with a pub­lic rela­tions cam­paign, expand­ing the Depart­ment of Education’s PR staff from 4 to 23.

Through­out his admin­is­tra­tion, Bloomberg was also a vocal defend­er of the inter­ests of the rich. In clas­sic trick­le-down fash­ion, he argued that help­ing the poor was best accom­plished by help­ing the rich. Want to address pover­ty? Attract more very for­tu­nate peo­ple. They’re the ones who pay the bills, he said in 2013. When the 2008 finan­cial cri­sis hit, Bloomberg ran inter­fer­ence for the banks, repeat­ing right-wing lies that blamed fair hous­ing laws for the mort­gage melt­down. When Occu­py Wall Street put inequal­i­ty into the nation­al spot­light, Bloomberg dis­missed the protests, argu­ing that the coun­try had been over­spend­ing” and social ser­vices should be cut. And though he’s singing a dif­fer­ent tune now, in 2012 he was a dogged oppo­nent of rais­ing the min­i­mum wage.

It would be bad enough if Bloomberg were just a New York prob­lem. How­ev­er, because of his vast wealth, Bloomberg has secured a role as a play­er on the nation­al stage, back­ing politi­cians and caus­es that pro­tect the wealth of the bil­lion­aire class. He sup­port­ed George W. Bush for reelec­tion in 2004, after Bush passed mas­sive tax cuts for the rich. He donat­ed mon­ey to the late Sen. John McCain (R‑Ariz.) and backed a host of ultra-con­ser­v­a­tive politi­cians, rang­ing from reli­gious zealot Sen. Orrin Hatch (R‑UT) to racist loud­mouth Rep. Peter King (R‑NY). Though he donat­ed to Democ­rats as well, up until the 2018 midterms, Bloomberg’s super PAC Inde­pen­dence USA spent more mon­ey fund­ing the cam­paigns of Repub­li­cans than Democrats.

Oli­garchy in action

Now, Bloomberg is run­ning for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion for pres­i­dent. As with the rest of his polit­i­cal career, he’s run­ning entire­ly on the sup­port of his per­son­al wealth. So far, he’s spent more than $300 mil­lion of his per­son­al for­tune on his cam­paign. And fol­low­ing the Iowa cau­cus deba­cle, Bloomberg announced he would be dou­bling his ad spending.

What’s more, Bloomberg has been able to use his obscene wealth to shift the insti­tu­tion­al field to his favor. He has picked up a num­ber of endorse­ments from promi­nent may­ors in whose cities he spent phil­an­thropic mon­ey, such as Michael Tubbs of Stock­ton, Cal­i­for­nia and Greg Fis­ch­er of Louisville, Ken­tucky. Oth­er endorse­ments have come through may­ors who received train­ing in Bloomberg’s Har­vard City Lead­er­ship Initiative.

Even more out­ra­geous­ly, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee recent­ly elim­i­nat­ed the donor num­ber require­ment from the Neva­da debate, allow­ing Bloomberg on the stage even as oth­er can­di­dates were elim­i­nat­ed by the DNC’s strict debate rules. Bloomberg’s mon­ey just doesn’t buy him a cam­paign — it buys his cam­paign the abil­i­ty to change the rules.

Michael Bloomberg is, there­fore, a per­fect exam­ple of a rich person…taking advan­tage of a bro­ken and dys­func­tion­al polit­i­cal sys­tem.” It’s worth remem­ber­ing that in oth­er coun­tries, Bloomberg wouldn’t be able to throw his wealth around like this. In Cana­da, for exam­ple, can­di­dates and par­ties are bound to max­i­mum spend­ing lim­its, scaled to the pop­u­la­tion of the elec­toral dis­trict in which they’re com­pet­ing. Not so in the Unit­ed States, and Bloomberg has tak­en full advantage.

For his entire career in pol­i­tics, Michael Bloomberg has backed poli­cies and politi­cians that pro­tect his for­tune. In doing so, he has act­ed exact­ly as an oli­garch does. The term oli­garch” dates back to ancient Greece. There, Aris­to­tle used it to describe a gov­ern­ment which the rich con­trol in their own inter­ests. This has been Bloomberg’s approach to gov­ern­ment through­out his career. It’s the game he plays, and any­one who wants to change it will learn very quick­ly that he is not on their team.

The views expressed are the authors’ own. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

Paul Hei­de­man holds a PhD in Amer­i­can stud­ies from Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty – Newark.
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