The Bloomberg and Bernie battle is almost like a comic book come to life. The two combatants cover almost every cliché on the right-wing scorecard.
The right couldn’t have invented a better candidate than Bernie Sanders. In 1971, he was kicked out of a commune for talking too much. In 1987(!) he recorded a folk album. The following year he got married and left the next day for a combination fact-finding delegation and honeymoon in the Soviet Union. When he returned, he sounded a bit like Lincoln Steffens, the famous journalist who had said of the USSR, “I have seen the future and it works.” In Steffens’ defense, he visited in 1919, two years after its founding and before most of the inconvenient mass murder and starvation. Sanders thought the Soviet Union was the future three years before it collapsed.
Of course, this isn’t why most of his fans like him. He was on the right side of the civil rights movement when it really mattered. He’s been a consistent advocate of what he calls democratic socialism here at home all his life. And, he’s an unreconstructed enemy of the economic elites, particularly the hated “billionaire class.”
Which brings us to Michael R. Bloomberg, who sits atop the 1% of the 1%. Bloomberg is a perfect stand-in for a completely different kind of liberalism, one that doesn’t even like to call itself liberal. He headlined the launch of No Labels, an organization dedicated to getting ideology out of politics. A lifelong Democrat, he switched labels to become a Republican to run for mayor in 2001. By his third term he was an independent. Now he’s a Democrat because he’s running for president.
As mayor of New York, he was a poster boy for a kind of arrogant progressive-post-partisan technocratic government that prizes data over feelings. The data showed that obesity cost the health-care system money, sugary sodas contributed to obesity, so Bloomberg said let’s clamp down on them. The data showed that young black men committed most of the gun homicides, so Bloomberg said, let’s clamp down on them with stop and frisk. “Ninety-five percent of murders, murderers and murder victims fit one M.O. You can just take a description, Xerox it, and pass it out to all the cops,” he explained in 2015.
In a new video going around, Bloomberg offers a quasi-endorsement of “death panels.” “If you show up with prostate cancer, you’re 95 years old, [we] should say go and enjoy, you’ve lived a long life, there’s no cure. We can’t do anything,” Bloomberg says. “If you’re a young person, we should do something about it. Society’s not willing to do that, yet.”
This isn’t why his fans like him. For a long time he was an icon of the credentialed upper class who saw ideological culture war fights as so much boob-bait. More recently, he’s become the liberal’s “Chicago way” response to Trump. If the right comes at you with a billionaire would-be Putin, you come back with a bigger billionaire and would-be Lee Kuan Yew.
Both men represent two strands of liberalism with very long pedigrees. Sanders can trace his lineage back to anti-war socialists and populists like William Jennings Bryan and Eugene Debs, as well as to reformers like Jane Addams. Bloomberg’s antecedents can be found in the democracy-skeptical “disinterested” progressive pragmatists like Walter Lippmann, Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Wisconsin school economists. Usually these two strands intertwine and overlap (Barack Obama had a foot in both camps. He was both the anointed leader of a mass movement and the overseer of the Affordable Care Act, with all of its data driven rationing). But when stripped to their purest elements, one camp is all about solidarity and people power and the other is about technocratic expertise.
Like Trump, both men are beneficiaries of our hollowed-out political parties, which are incapable of performing the gatekeeper function of the nomination process.
And that raises the stakes of their contest. Trump has transformed much of the GOP in his image. Too weak to protect their own brand, the Republicans have adopted his.
If either Sanders or Bloomberg wins the nomination, it will be interesting to see if the same thing happens to Democrats. If it’s Sanders, will they become a populist party of Social Democrats? Or if it’s Bloomberg, will the Democrats become the party of bureaucratic authoritarianism?
Again, normally Democratic politicians straddle these two tendencies. There are, of course, still other options for primary voters. But the choice between these two is zero-sum, and if either man wins, the Democratic Party could end up making a choice that will define it as much as Trump has come to define the GOP.