Michael Bloomberg is not our savior
One day after dropping out of the Democratic primary, Michael Bloomberg announced he would form a new independent expenditure campaign—essentially a one-man super PAC—to fight Trump in the general election. In just over three months, the billionaire spent more than $500 million funding his own presidential bid. Now he plans to spend even more aiding the eventual Democratic nominee.
And why not? What’s the harm in successful business people using their money to fund political campaigns—whether their own or those of their co-partisans? Why shouldn’t the wealthy deploy their fortunes however they like, even if it’s to influence electoral outcomes?
The problem is that when billionaires like Bloomberg convert personal capital into political influence, they undermine what is arguably the most fundamental democratic principle: political equality.
In democracies, all citizens’ preferences are supposed to count, and they’re supposed to count equally. Super PACs (or, more formally, independent expenditure-only political action committees) are loopholes that enable the powerful and the privileged to count more. They enable powerful corporations or wealthy individuals to circumvent campaign contribution limits. Super PACs enhance the ability of the rich to influence elections, increasing their already disproportionate political influence.
The philosopher Jürgen Habermas famously argued that, in a democracy, no force except “the force of the better argument” should influence outcomes. Those of us who believe in democracy don’t think despots should coerce their subjects using military power. And we don’t think billionaires should manipulate their fellow citizens using economic power. Instead, we expect candidates to win popular support by making the better argument: by advancing platforms, developing policy proposals, and articulating goals that resonate with voters.
The enormous gaps in our campaign finance laws allow billionaires like Bloomberg to shape the messages citizens receive and to influence the ways they understand and participate in politics, by using the blunt force of superior economic power.
Of course, Bloomberg is just one example of a much larger and thornier problem: the power of big money in American elections. Many Democrats welcomed the news of Bloomberg’s new super-PAC with the claim that, in the wake Citizens’ United, Democrats need to be realistic. They need to fight fire with fire.
Yet if only the very rich—or those who are backed by the very rich—can fund campaigns, then our democracy has failed.
In this primary season, several promising candidates, including Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, dropped out early. They couldn’t raise money the way a Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or a Joe Biden can, and they didn’t have the personal wealth of a billionaire like Bloomberg. It’s no coincidence that these four candidates were women and people of color. As the cost of running for office increases, the advantages of wealth and social privilege are reinforced.
If we want to increase participation and diversify our pool of candidates for top offices like president, we need to radically change the way we finance our elections. That’s an enormous challenge. Ever since the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo, the Federal Election Commission has been barred from imposing spending limits, because—the Court claimed—such limits violate candidates’ First Amendment rights.
Yet there is hope in the numbers of citizens who are beginning to make small donations. Sanders has raised more than half of his war chest from small donors. Warren did, too.
A public financing plan that provides tax credits to people who make small donations—but not to those who make large contributions—could help tilt the balance in favor of “small money.” A plan that also matches small donations would go even farther.
Until then, the loopholes in our campaign financing laws will continue to advantage billionaires like Michael Bloomberg. But the outcomes of our elections should be not be shaped by the power of his checkbook.
Clarissa Rile Hayward is Professor of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of “De-facing Power” and “How Americans Make Race” and a member of the all-woman team that, beginning in June 2020, will edit the American Political Science Review.