Bloomberg–Sanders Battle Could Determine the Democrats’ Future

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Tacoma, Wash., February 17, 2020. (Jason Redmond/Reuters)
Like Trump, both men are beneficiaries of our hollowed-out political parties.

The Bloomberg–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 trip and honeymoon in the Soviet Union. When he returned, he sounded a bit like Lincoln Steffens, the famous journalist who’d said of the USSR, “I have seen the future and it works.” In Steffens’s 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 Sanders’ 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. And he’s an unreconstructed enemy of the economic elites, particularly the hated “billionaire class.”

Which brings us to Michael Bloomberg, who sits atop the 1 percent of the 1 percent. 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, Bloomberg 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, and since sugary sodas contributed to obesity, Bloomberg clamped down on them. The data showed that young black men committed most of the gun homicides, so Bloomberg clamped 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,” Bloomberg said in 2015.

In a video from 2011 that’s going around, Bloomberg offered 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 said. “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 liberals’ “Chicago way” response to Trump. If the Right comes at you with a billionaire would-be Putin, you come back with a bigger billionaire would-be Lee Kuan Yew.

Both men represent strands of liberalism with very long pedigrees. Sanders can trace his lineage back to antiwar socialists and populists such as William Jennings Bryan and Eugene Debs, as well as to reformers such as Jane Addams. Bloomberg’s antecedents can be found in democracy-skeptical “disinterested” progressive pragmatists such as 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? If it’s Bloomberg, will the Democrats become the party of bureaucratic authoritarianism?

Again, Democratic politicians normally straddle these two tendencies. There are, of course, 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.



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