This past weekend, the New York Times reported that Mayor Michael Bloomberg will spend $12 million on television advertisements advocating for federal gun legislation. The reactions were typical. Liberals shouted their approval; conservatives voiced their criticisms. In a sense, however, the debate missed the real issue entirely. While the NRA spreads fear about the threat posed to freedom by Bloomberg’s anti-gun stance, the far more sinister threat is that posed by the mayor himself. Bloomberg’s one-man quest for federal gun legislation is an example of how the once and future mogul routinely blurs the lines between government, civil society and the market, using all means available to pursue his individual political goals. And though those goals may align with liberals at the moment, his broader success comes at the expense of our democratic order.
What is that order? The stability of our democracy is premised, at the most basic level, on the separation of powers. At the federal level, these powers are formally divided among the branches of government. To take the classic example, the president depends on the Congress for money, the Congress on the president for implementation of its laws. But this is only the most formal level at which power I divided. Our politics has many more such checks and balances — indeed our politics is nothing but an interlocking system of counterweights. While Congress and the president contend, the media and private organizations work to hold them both accountable. Meanwhile, we erect barriers between financial and political power — thus the prohibitions on bribes and the limits on lobbying and campaign donations. The point of these divisions of power is to ensure that no single man or group of men can have undue influence or control over the operations of our government and its capacity to exercise force.
Bloomberg’s aggressive pursuit of his political goals, however, threatens these basic safeguards at multiple points. Take his work on climate change, for example. As mayor, Bloomberg aggressively pursued a variety of sustainability measures, most notably PlanNYC, his long-term vision for the metropolis. This work was appropriate to his role. At the same time that he worked through official political channels, he also supplemented his work as mayor with his private philanthropy, funding groups like the Sierra Club through the Bloomberg Foundation.
But in a move that has become all too typical for the mayor, these independent efforts were not enough. Instead, he began to braid together his political and financial powers. As mayor, he helped found the C40 Climate Leadership Group, a coalition of major world cities committed to acting together on climate change. As private philanthropist, he then funded the coalition, ensuring that effort could sustain itself. Meanwhile, he supplemented these efforts through an indirect influence over Bloomberg Magazine; it is perhaps not quite a coincidence that Bloomberg Newsweek ran a controversial cover article linking climate change and Hurricane Sandy one day before Bloomberg announced his support for President Obama because of concerns over carbon emissions. He has embarked on a similar campaign against tobacco, again leveraging both private and public power.
Perhaps this show is force is not particularly threatening — at least to non-oil or soda executives. But the logic of Bloomberg’s attitude towards politics is clear: he will liberally mix democratic power with personal and financial might. In the process, he abrogates to himself powers normally divided.
The threat of Bloomberg’s combined capacities and attitudes is most manifest in his work on gun control. Acting in his capacity as mayor of New York, he organized a coalition, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and recruited leaders of dozens of municipalities around the country. To push the coalition’s work, however, he then committed personal funds (the $12 million mentioned above) to run television advertisements in the home states of swing voters in the Senate. No mayor without personal funds could have so acted; at best, a different mayor might have asked the City Council for additional support to run a public education campaign.
But it gets worse. The advertisements are backed by the implicit threat of Bloomberg’s fortune. Vote with Bloomberg, the ads suggest, or watch his Super PAC attack you in the next election. Bloomberg’s larger estate, in other words, is being held like a club over the heads of elected officials. For a man worth something north of $10 billion, that’s no idle threat. The money he made as a businessman is no longer simply supplementing his work as mayor; its now being put to use as a political weapon to help advance his goals.
What is striking about Bloomberg’s funding of the pro-gun-control advertisements is that liberals, favoring his ends, have ignored the means. Whatever your view of the National Rifle Association, it is a legitimate civic association, sporting more than 4.5 million members. Bloomberg is but one man, but he is using his vast fortune to run advertisements to match the spending by those 4.5 million members for a cause in which they believe. Whether or not gun control is good for our country, a political system in which one man can counter 4,500,000 is not. He is a one-man political army, actively subverting a political system designed to check individual ambition.
When it’s the Koch brothers spending this kind of money to counter climate change, liberals are quick to attack. But no such criticism follows Bloomerg’s spending. The challenge for liberals is that we agree with his substantive goals — and therefore ignore the true nature of the actions.
Progressives must recognize that means do not always justify ends. When Bloomberg has a goal, he pursues it with all available tools, harnessing the forces of his position as mayor, his foundation and his business empire alike. Michael Bloomberg may be pursuing goals that many of us believe are in the public interest, but he does so on his own judgment and in his own way with little regard for the distribution of power in society. As far as Bloomberg is concerned, his judgment can and should stand in for that of the people. On such a belief has every tyranny been founded.