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Jonathan Chait has a theory of how Bloomberg could win. I’m less interested in engaging with that, though I have my quibbles. Instead, I’d like to focus on something that tends to be elided during election season – what moral duty Michael Bloomberg has to the American people in making the decision to run.
Making a decision to run for a major party’s nomination is generally a pretty clear-cut decision, ethically speaking. One runs if one thinks one is the best option that party has for both winning the Presidency and the best option the nation has in a potential President. This is why there is probably some inherent madness to the act of running, but doing so through the normal channels is inherently straightforward in this regard (though that ignores the ethical questions relating to campaign conduct; that’s a whole different issue).
Running as a potentially-credible independent or third-party candidate, however, is substantially thornier. Doing so is inherently disruptive to the political process; moreover, there is an unavoidable ideological gamble involved. Such a candidate, in an admittedly oversimplified model, is drawing most of their support from the major party candidates; the crux is that they are very likely drawing more support from one candidate than from the other. The paradox is that the candidate from which they are drawing support is almost assuredly the candidate which they are closer to ideologically. While this point is disputable, it certainly seems credible to speculate that, absent Ralph Nader, Al Gore wins in 2000; given the events of just the first W term, one doesn’t need much imagination to see how that could’ve drastically reshaped the last fifteen years.
This issue is exacerbated at times when “normal” politics isn’t working well. Certainly Bush I and Bill Clinton would have governed different in the early ’90s, but neither of them were likely to immediately drastically destabilize America’s political, social, or economic systems.
That is decidedly not the case in 2016. There is, as of this writing, a very real chance that the Republican Party may nominate a candidate with a very high chance of immediately drastically destabilizing America’s political, social, or economic systems if elected.
Everything else that makes the comparison ludicrous aside, this is the fundamental asymmetry between Trump and Sanders. Bernie Sanders is a career politician. He is a left-wing (by American standards) career politician, but a career politician nonetheless. He did a bang-up job as the mayor of a real city, played nice in the House of Representatives for nearly two decades, and was a committee chairman in the United States Senate. His platform, if enacted, would be bad (at least in partial equilibrium) for the wallets of the Mike Bloombergs of the country, and the validation of his tone and rhetoric that nomination and election would bring would be bad for the egos of the Mike Bloombergs of the country. But Bernie Sanders wouldn’t break the country. Donald Trump would. Given the overwhelming likelihood of a GOP Congress in 2017, a Sanders presidency would be further restrained, but a Trump Presidency would face, at best, unpredictable restraint.
So the question for Mike Bloomberg cannot simply be “what are my chances of winning the Presidency?” The question must also be, “if I do not win the Presidency, do I make the election of Donald Trump more likely?” Given the possibility that he may draw at least as many Democratic-inclined voters as Republican-inclined voters if he runs, and given the fact that, should he throw the election to the GOP-donimated House if he denies either major-party nominee 270 electoral votes, the answer to that second question is very likely “yes.”
I am extremely certain that not only does Mike Bloomberg not read this blog, but that nobody of even remotely comparable wealth and prestige who could directly influence his decision reads this blog, either. Nevertheless, I’m going to address my conclusion directly to him:
Michael Bloomberg, you need to think long and hard about the consequences of the decision you are considering; not just about how and why you might seek the Presidency, but what could happen if you fail. I understand that the possibility of a Sanders Presidency seems worse than unpalatable to you, but there are far, far worse things than a left-wing Democrat in office with a Republican Congress to restrain them. If you run for President, and Donald Trump is elected, when history looks back on the dark era sure to follow, you will be first and foremost among those who receive the blame.
I’ve been musing for a little while on this really quite brilliant post from Matt Yglesias really deconstruction, brick by brick, the self-righteous illusions of a certain set of holier-than-thou critics of, like, the system, man. While musing, my wife asked me, essentially, what was up with this Glenn Greenwald dude, and it led me to try and think what was going on here, and while I was tempted for a while to just repost the greatest blog post of all time and call it a day, I do actually think I have a nugget of insight here I might as well share.
The way I got here is basically to wonder “why is nobody on the right like this?” And by “on the right” I am excluding Conor Friedersdorf and other genuinely-libertarian people who think the security state is a bigger threat to liberty than higher marginal tax rates on the ultra-rich and focusing on the bulk of what we might call the conservative movement which, over the last half-century, has managed to move from “fringe group excised from polite society, itself excising its fringe from polite society” to “totally dominating one of America’s two major parties and itself being dominated by its fringe.” In contrast, the American left as a movement has never really had that kind of power in American society even at its apex, mostly relying on a handful of well-timed crusaders, half-measures, lucky breaks, and incremental patchwork progress despite being roughly even in numbers or close enough to the parallel “core” of the conservative movement.
The simple answer, though, which is “conservatives have basically become increasingly skilled at using existing institutions, like primaries, to enforce their will” is only the next turtle down. It’s not like progressives haven’t tried – and sometimes succeeded! – to use primaries to challenge, pressure, or replace conservative Democrats. But systematically they haven’t embedded the fear of their wrath deep into the firmware of Democratic officeholders the way the conservative movement has done with Republican officeholders. So why is that?
I have a guess, and it has to do with the ideological nature of these movements. Conservatives, fundamentally, see themselves as restorative (the more pejorative word might be reactionary). They believe that there was once a past where things were as they should be, but somehow things have become polluted and corrupted, and so we need to purge those elements and restore what once was. Now, exactly when that ideal era was seems up for debate (the 1950s? The 1850s? The 0050s?) and there’s a lot of selective remembering and historical fudging going on, not to mention some conflicts between the hypernationalist element of the ideology and the bemoaning-the-fallenness-of-our-current-state element of the ideology (hence why Colbert’s subtitle “re-becoming the greatness we never weren’t” is so ingenious), but that’s the impetus, and it is extremely compatible with working within the system. The system is not the problem; it’s all those viruses and bacteria, and conservatives are the antibodies. The body politic is sick, but it can be cured (even if it requires the equivalent of the Milwaukee Protocol).
Progressives, on the other hand, were rather aptly summed up by various brothers Kennedy riffing off George Bernard Shaw and each other: “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’” Progressives believe that, even if the path is not linear and progress intermittent, that history has been a process of improvement for a destination not yet arrived at, and that things could always get better, could always be better, and should always be better. To the extent that they look to the past, it is less often (though not always) because things were better than but for lessons for how to make things better in the future. They are often prone towards utopianism and revolutionary fervor, and their lack of attachment to the status quo and their lack of anchor to some past glory means they are not only much more willing to discard existing aspects of the system they don’t like but they are much more willing to discard the system altogether and even refuse to have nothing to do with it for fear of infection or corruption. The body politic is sick; it must be quarantined to contain the disease.
Here’s another metaphor – progressives are Jews, still waiting for the Messiah to show up, and conservatives are Christians, waiting for him to come back.
And this has huge consequences. It’s why conservatives, no matter how many rejections, failures, SNAFUs, and embarrassments they’ve suffered in their quest to take full control of the American system of government, have never relented, whereas progressives have failed to do exactly that. The key is organizational resiliency – look at the way progressives reacted to the 1972 election and the way conservatives reacted to the 2012 election. In fact, the immediate reaction was the same; but with conservatives it lasted a couple months and with progressives it lasted three decades. That was a long time when the Democratic coalition was basically reduced to internecine squabbling between constituencies and insidious takeover-by-concern-trolling of mushy privatist centrists.
The meta point is that politics has ideological roots that can’t really be disentangled from its economic, policy, and interest group components. This is why I never really buy into the simplest models of median voter theory or election results being purely driven by economic variables (Jonathan Bernstein was hinting at that a little, here, but I’m say humbug to his subtlety and break out the giant magic hammer). It’s also why I tend to scoff at public choice theory, which Matt Yglesias ingeniously summarized last week as the “tedious formula of …[taking] “political economy” [scholarship] when done by a political conservative …[and] acting as if the exposé that the politicians and regulators behind some given move weren’t pure as the snow itself constitutes a policy argument.” Certainly many politicians and regulators have motives and incentives that economics as a discipline is well-equipped to explain and expose. But they have many that don’t. Egypt’s first elected government collapsed, in part, because they inherited a civil service that was a mix of mismanaged, neglectful, and actively hostile. Yet when George W. Bush sat down in the Oval Office after one of the mostly controversial elections in American history the bureaucracy kept on ticking like nothing had changed because they believed in doing their jobs. That’s not to say they’re immune to incentives, just that ideology is an incentive structure all its own and one that is difficult to model in the nice simple arithmetical way that material incentives are.
I had a back-and-forth with Dave Stroup yesterday about how to best use one’s vote in the upcoming At-Large DC election. Of course it seems like he’s currently in a position where he’ll tend to make arguments that lead people to vote for Bryan Weaver. But beyond that I think he touched on an interest facet to the whole issue of whether to strategically vote.
Voting is a public exercise of civic responsibility and power, not a form of self-actualization or idealistic expression. Ergo, you should vote in such a way that creates the best possible outcome. So if I were a voting Floridian in the year 2000 I would have voted for Al Gore rather than Ralph Nader even if I preferred Nader’s issue platform (and clearly arguments that losing their left flank would force Democrats to move to the left in response have not been borne out by events). But the assumption underpinning that decision is that my impact is knowable – I would have a pretty high degree of certainty that only Gore or Bush would have been president come Jan 20 2001; that the election was close enough that it would depend on the preferences of a handful of swings states; and that one of those swing states was Florida. And that’s because polling, in the aggregate, is pretty good at predicting electoral outcomes, esepcially as Election Day nears.
But in the upcoming election here in DC there is a vast amount of uncertainty. Polls have been few and far between, and their reliability is very uncertain as this election is probably going to have low turnout and the electorate is pretty hard to model. With a small group of high-information voters, endorsements (like WaPo’s endorsement of Patrick Mara) could have outsized impact. And this electorate is small to begin with – in last year’s very heated and closely contested Mayoral Democratic Primary, fewer than 135,000 votes were cast. In the only past special election I could find (May 2007), fewer than 15,000 voters showed up in each of the two wards that were up for grabs, meaning there could be well under 100,000 ballots cast on April 26th. So in this case it seem like strategic voting could be a lot harder to do, increasing the utility of simply voting for your preferred candidate unless a clear choice comes into sharper relief as election day nears.
As for the issues in the campaign itself, I think by far the most important determiner of which candidate to prefer for any voter ought to be how they would fill DC’s $300 million budget gap. And as someone who thinks the situation calls for even more progressive revenue increases than the mayor proposed, it seems from debates that Weaver is the best candidate on that score, though he doesn’t lay that out explicitly on his website.