Democracy and citizenship will always require constant vigilance against those who fan the flames of partisanship in ways that consume us and lead to, in Washington’s words, “the ruins of public liberty.”Bloomberg has always harbored the dream of winning the presidency as an independent, and this fantasy has made him stupid. Long, Coughlin, and the rest of the people he names certainly were demagogues, but their problem wasn't partisanship, if you define that as excessive loyalty to a political party. Coughlin and Long were Democrats who opposed Roosevelt. Wallace also attacked fellow Democrats. The targets of McCarthy and Buchanan included fellow Republicans.
We have certainly seen such figures before, in both parties. In the 1930s, there was the despotic Huey Long in Louisiana and Father Coughlin in Michigan, who blamed “Jewish conspirators” for America’s troubles. Then came Charles Lindbergh in the ’40s, Joe McCarthy in the ’50s, George Wallace in the ’60s and Pat Buchanan in the ’90s. Every generation has had to confront its own demagogues. And every generation has stood up and kept them away from the White House. At least so far.
In this year’s presidential election, we’ve seen more demagoguery from both parties than I can remember in my lifetime. Our country is facing serious and difficult challenges. But rather than offering realistic solutions, candidates in both parties are blaming our problems on easy targets who breed resentment. For Republicans, it’s Mexicans here illegally and Muslims. And for Democrats, it’s the wealthy and Wall Street. The truth is: We cannot solve the problems we face by blaming anyone.
But Bloomberg has to put the problem of demagoguery in these terms, because he's determined to demonstrate that Both Sides Do It (but those in the "sensible center" don't). He tells us that "candidates in both parties are blaming our problems on easy targets who breed resentment. For Republicans, it’s Mexicans here illegally and Muslims. And for Democrats, it’s the wealthy and Wall Street." Yes, but Bernie Sanders doesn't want to shut down Wall Street or deport all rich people. He wants to turn America into Denmark, not Democratic Kampuchea. By contrast, it's not crazy to think that Donald Trump really does want to turn America into Putin's Russia.
Bloomberg says, "We cannot solve the problems we face by blaming anyone." But we also can't solve the problems we face by blaming everyone indiscriminately. Some people are more responsible than others. When we grade on a curve to ensure that we ascribe demagoguery equally to each party, we lose the ability to tell which are the politicians who are genuinely endangering democracy and which are just the passionate defenders of ideas that are a bit outside the bounds of "respectable" politics. Bernie Sanders is in the latter category. Donald Trump is in the former. And Bloomberg is trying to make us unable to see the difference.
Bloomberg passionately defends the superrich, but I know the other issues he cares about: climate change, gun violence, infrastructure spending. Why does Bloomberg think we can't act on these issues? Preposterously, he blames social media:
Today, elected officials who decide to support a controversial policy don’t just get angry letters, phone calls and faxes. They also get millions of angry tweets and Facebook posts denouncing them in the harshest possible terms. This is democracy in action. But this kind of instant condemnation also makes elected officials afraid to do things that, in their heart of hearts, they know are right.I don't know of very many Democrats who are afraid to act on climate change or infrastructure. Many are emboldened to act on gun violence. And I keep hearing that there are Republicans who understand the seriousness of these problems.
Do those Republicans, assuming they exist, fear angry tweets? No -- they fear primary challenges from candidates further to their right. They fear the wrath of organizations funded by Republican billionaires. Remember how Barney Frank described the Republicans in Congress a few years back: "Half of them are Michele Bachmann. The other half are afraid of losing a primary to Michele Bachmann."
Donald Trump is a businessman who's picked up a lot of terrible ideas from the right-wing media. Mike Bloomberg is a businessman who's picked up a lot of terrible ideas from the centrist media. Trump is a lot more dangerous and a lot more ignorant. But Bloomberg is nearly as much of a know-nothing on this subject as Trump is on every subject.