In a functional democracy, there would be no Bloomberg candidacy.
The legitimacy of a political figure would not derive from wealth. An individual so odiously problematic would not be able to hide his liabilities through sleek commercials and quirky social media videos. Unfortunately, his campaign is real and is being taken seriously.
Our campaign finance system was not supposed to be so broken. In 1974, prompted by the Watergate scandal, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act. The law, among other things, put restrictions on political contributions, overall political spending, and how much one could self-fund. Simply put, under this law, “Bloomberg 2020” would not exist.
Two years after its adoption, however, the Supreme Court gutted it. In Buckley v. Valeo, Justice Lewis Powell — who, before joining the Court, authored a secret memo to business leaders calling for massive expenditures to influence politics — and the other justices struck down not just the self-funding provision, but also any caps on candidate spending and independent expenditures. They proclaimed that these limits were in violation of freedom of speech.
Ever since, if you are worth $62 billion, as Michael Bloomberg is, you can spend as much of it as you want to become president. Having already dropped over $400 million, the former New York City mayor is taking this freedom seriously. And after a dumpster-fire debate performance on Wednesday, he will only increase his spending moving forward.
Bloomberg is not the first presidential candidate to self-fund. Ross Perot financed his bid in 1992. In 2016, Donald Trump spent approximately $66 million in personal funds. This cycle, access to capital gave legitimacy to the presidential campaigns of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Tom Steyer, both of whom are billionaires with no political qualifications. Even John Delaney provided over 80 percent of the finances for his lackluster presidential run.
Make no mistake, though: when it comes to using personal fortune, Bloomberg is in a league of his own. In just two months, he shattered the previous self-funding record set by Trump.
The Left should draw a lesson from this campaign season. Though a working-class agenda will always be assailed by defenders of the status quo, electoral rules determine in what manner and how effectively big money can leverage its power. While it is too late to make changes to affect this election, there is plenty that can be done moving forward.
In the long term, we need a new Supreme Court majority or a constitutional amendment to overturn Buckley. Fortunately, several presidential candidates have explicitly committed to doing what they can to make this happen. Overturning Buckley would also permit limits on the other main avenue that the ultra-wealthy have used to dominate politics: independent expenditures. As the Center for Responsive Politics revealed, over the past decade, the ten biggest donors have spent an astounding $1.2 billion, on federal elections, largely through outside groups.
Until constitutional change is possible, the Left must fight for public financing of elections. Though Congress cannot limit how much someone like Bloomberg can spend, it can use public money to either provide funds or boost the value of small donations to allow candidates without networks of wealth to be more viable.
A presidential public financing system was used to great effect decades ago but became obsolete in recent years as the cost of elections rose drastically. Reinvigorating this system — and offering it for congressional campaigns — would be a counterweight to billionaire self-funding. Indirect public financing — free TV time, for instance — would be a necessary addition, as well.
Any public financing system will have to be very generous. Bloomberg overwhelmed the public financing system in New York City by opting out of it and greatly outspending his opponents who participated in the program. Public money does not need to equal a Bloomberg fortune; it merely must keep grassroots candidates competitive against a big money onslaught. As Andrew Perez notes, public financing for congressional elections also reduces lawmakers’ reliance on “obscenely rich donors like Bloomberg,” diminishing the ability to use wealth to secure endorsements — as Bloomberg certainly appears to have done.
Public financing is far more important for congressional races than presidential ones. Bernie Sanders’s national fundraising juggernaut cannot be replicated for down-ballot candidates. That said, presidential public financing is an important step toward building working-class power, especially if designed in such a way that empowers all Americans to make contributions.
Another key reform to lessen the power of billionaires is ranked-choice voting in the presidential general election. One of the most frightening aspects of the Bloomberg campaign is that he has built an unaccountable political machine, filled with mercenaries, that has siphoned staffers from across the country. Though he has pledged to utilize it — and his wealth — to help the eventual Democratic nominee, there is nothing binding this commitment.
Bloomberg could easily choose to run as a third-party candidate to tank a Sanders presidency. Or maybe he — or another billionaire — will merely threaten to run as a third-party candidate, so that, if there is a contested convention, party leaders will be pressured (i.e. blackmailed) to select a centrist nominee. Ranked-choice voting would end the spoiler effect of a third-party candidacy, effectively removing the ability of a billionaire to hold a political party hostage.
Ultimately, to truly ensure a billionaire cannot buy elections, it may well be that a Bloomberg-style candidacy needs to be both legally and economically impossible. This means actually taxing the wealthy. After all, economic inequality has skyrocketed since Buckley, and our democratic system is collapsing under the weight of money.
It’s time to move beyond plutocracy, by reforming the laws governing our elections — and our country — to democratize power, for now and for the future.