The slogan of the presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg It is concise and astonishingly eloquent: “Mike will.” Removing Donald Trump from the White House is the priority of about half of Americans facing the November elections, and the Democratic candidate says he will “do it.” Why? Because he has 64.2 billion dollars to do it.
Never in history has a presidential race so openly explored the possibilities that money provides to achieve political power in the United States. And it also happens when the mere existence of a thousand millionaires and their effect on society constitutes one of the great ideological debates in the Democratic primary. Two candidates, Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, third and seventh in the polls, belong to the select club of 607 Americans with fortunes of more than one billion dollars. And two others, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, First and fourth, they base their campaigns on reducing the increasingly extreme economic inequalities that the country is dragging, with aggressive fiscal plans to redistribute that elite’s wealth.
“To this we must add that, for the first time in history, the president who is running for reelection is also a millionaire,” said Jason Seawright, a professor at Northwestern University (Illionis), who investigates the political preferences of Rich Americans and their role in democracy. “That changes the game. In a campaign that confronts Trump, Bloomberg and Sanders, the conversation about money and politics is inevitable. ”
November elections they will be, in some way, a referendum on billionaires. Voters can choose between getting rid of them (Sanders, Warren), putting one in charge of the country (Trump, Bloomberg, Steyer) or leaving them more or less as they are (Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar).
In the debate of the Democratic candidates last Wednesday in Las Vegas, the expression “one thousand millionaire” was pronounced more times than, for example, “China”, “immigration” or “climate change”. More than a note of the debate, billionaires constitute the very melody of the race. They are the candidates and their nemesis. They are the bosses of the economy that created the inequalities that caused the populist wave that the country is experiencing. And they are also, from Mark Zuckerberg to Jeff Bezos through Rupert Murdoch, who control the persuasion platforms.
The emergence of millionaires in the front line of American politics, Seawright explains, “has been gradual.” “One factor is that there are more and more billionaires,” he defends. “Since the 80s, the gap that separates the richest from the rest has widened. Another factor is that, since reforms in the primary systems were introduced in the 1970s, the control that political parties have over the election process of their candidates is weaker. ”
95% of Democratic voters believe that economic inequalities are a big problem for the country today, according to a Pew Research study. It is high on the list of concerns, just behind the cost of healthcare and climate change. 55% of Democrats who support Sanders and 49% of those who support Warren believe that the existence of people with fortunes of more than one billion dollars is bad for the country, while 69% of supporters of Bloomberg and 67% of those who support Biden believe that it is neither good nor bad.
“Years of growing inequalities in the United States have turned it into a central issue in politics,” explains David Callahan, researcher and director of Inside Philantropy, a project that pursues the control and transparency of large-scale philanthropy. “Economic inequality always translates into political inequality, finding the rich ways to turn your money into influence. In an era with more rich people who have more money, that elite enjoys a growing influence. ”
The 400 richest Americans have tripled their share of the country’s wealth since the 1980s, and today they have more than the sum of the 150 million adults who make up 60% of households, according to a study by Berkeley economist Gabriel Zucman . Four out of five Americans support tax increases to the richest to finance greater social coverage, similar to that in most rich democracies. But those preferences are not just reflected in public policies. “Our research has long shown that Americans are in favor of measures that redistribute the money of the richest,” explains Seawright. “However, economic policies systematically fall on the side of those rich. There is a problem of non-representation, and it has to do with the influence industry and the lobby”.
Billionaires have been marking US policy for decades without the need to run for elections. The explosion of the influence industry in Washington has been spectacular. In 1971 there were 175 registered lobby groups. In 2019, there were 11,862. Philanthropy has also become an effective weapon of political influence. “Thanks to lax campaign finance laws and diffuse guidelines for charitable contributions, billionaires have multiple options to turn their wealth into influence,” Callahan explains.
Charities such as Trump had until December 2018 became, according to the report by journalist Jane Mayer in her book Dark Money, “a new generation of hyperpolitical foundations” that “invest in ideology as venture capitalists.” Bloomberg has also been financing key groups in progressive causes for some time, as well as campaigns of congressmen and local politicians, weaving an extensive network of valuable support for a presidential race.
Special mention deserves the brothers Koch, Charles and the late David, whose sophisticated work in the shade for years has been instrumental in spreading the ideas of right-wing populism that has brought Trump to the White House. They have invested, for example, in university education to instill their ideas to the new generations, with scholarships and foundations that finance programs and academic research aligned with their vision of economics and politics.
But the influence of money does not understand political color, and today many of the richest Americans finance Democratic candidates and causes associated with that party. “The difference is that progressives talk more and give less, and conservatives talk less and give more,” says Seawright.
In this context, the case of Bernie Sanders stands out, whose campaign is financed exclusively with micro contributions from his followers, and who boasts of not having received a single dollar from billionaires. “If those who give you the money are the citizens, you govern for the citizens. If the billionaires give you the money, who do you govern for? ”Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked the crowd at a meeting of the senator in New Hampshire. But Sanders is not the only candidate who does not intend to accept a dollar from any multi-million dollar donor. Nor will Bloomberg. He has plenty of what he has.
“Michael Bloomberg receives everywhere in a lively Democratic debate.” No one can deny that the headline reflects what happened in the last clash between the candidates to face Donald Trump, the first in which the billionaire centrist candidate participated, held last Wednesday in Las Vegas. Headlines like this were seen by all means. The exceptional thing about this one in particular was a little higher, at the top of the middle that carried it: Bloomberg.
One December morning, John Micklethwait, director of the prestigious international news agency Bloomberg News, came to the newsroom with a tricky mission: explain to his team of policy writers how to cover a presidential campaign in which your boss participates. “We will write about virtually every aspect of this presidential campaign in the same way we have done so far,” he wrote in a memo. But Bloomberg News could not “investigate” the chief and the ban would be extended to other Democratic candidates. Yes they can continue investigating the White House, but the campaign of the now also candidate Donald Trump considered that this was a bias and has denied Bloomberg journalists access to cover their events
Among the guidelines that already existed in the company is the prohibition of covering “the wealth and personal life” of the boss. “I don’t want the reporters I pay to write a bad story about me,” he said in an interview in 2018. His three terms in the New York City Hall, and the entrepreneur’s own career as a philanthropist and political donor, already offered the 2,700 journalists of his company a testing ground to handle conflicts of interest. But this is another league. For the peace of mind of his workers, one of his conejeros assured this week, if he wins the elections, Bloomberg will sell the company that bears his last name.