The Democratic presidential primary contests are now turning into aggravated hyperreality. It has suddenly turned into a three-way battle between anti-billionaires, a billionaire and a group of billionaire devotees. The panicked party’s nagging doubts about its capacity to win an election against incumbent Donald Trump have erased from nearly everyone’s thoughts the question of what they stand for and whom they represent. When the goal is winning, the only thing that matters is how you pay for the victory.
The search for a magic anti-Trump bullet has turned the media’s attention to the richest man ever to seek the presidency: Michael Bloomberg. They seemed resigned to the idea that if political ideas or familiar names like that of a former vice president can’t defeat Trump, money can. If Rosa Parks were alive today, she might conclude that, race no longer being the principal factor, what they are proving is that money can buy you a seat at the front of the bus.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper decided that, airtime being limited, the best way to clarify today’s political debate would be to interview retired TV journalist and sheep farmer Sam Donaldson. He may have no moral or intellectual authority, but people recognize his face. And, of course, he was known for covering presidents in his active days, so he must have something insightful to say.
Michael Bloomberg’s Buy-In to Getting Elected
It was a strange interview. Cooper skirted around the real question most people are wondering about: the role of money in politics. In any incredibly indirect approach, he reminded Donaldson that Bloomberg hadn’t actually campaigned. Donaldson understood the meaning of the question and was more direct, replying: “Unfortunately, money buys elections. Thanks to Citizens United, the Supreme Court’s case, everybody’s money can get in and do so. Bloomberg is putting his own money in. He’s not going to beholden to anybody when he wins this race … I’d rather have Bloomberg’s money than their money.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A convenient word to use at the beginning of a sentence as a way of making it appear that as a realist you willingly accept and condone what others consider to be unacceptable while empathizing with their criticism.
The meaning of Donaldson’s explanation can be translated by the following reasoned thought (or cop-out, depending on one’s moral point of view): “If we lived in a better world, I wouldn’t trust the results of an election that was bought with hard cash, but as we live in the world whose rules have been written by other less virtuous people, we have the duty to play by their rules and to follow those who have the means to skew the game in our favor.” He clearly states his belief that Bloomberg’s money is cleaner or more respectable than “their” (the Republicans’) money.
This entails a logical as well as a moral problem. It limits electoral logic to a choice between smelly money and perfumed money. It peremptorily excludes from consideration anyone who claims that democracy is not fundamentally about money and that it can be conducted on the basis of democratic principles by allowing the people to express themselves rather than act as consumers of political advertising.
So why not listen to the democratic Democrats or Republicans rather than plutocrats? The implicit answer to that question is that if the truly democratic contenders can’t put up similar amounts of money to the plutocrats, their arguments won’t be worth listening to because they won’t even be heard. The idea of “worth” literally becomes a purely monetary concept. This was already the case before Citizens United, but Donaldson seems to be saying that now that the Supreme Court has made it official, let’s accept that as our reality.
To make his case, Donaldson invokes the most maudlin of American myths: If we don’t get this right, we may lose the things that have made this country the best place to live in the world and that shining city on the hill that Ronald Reagan used to talk about, which was the envy of the world.
Cooper appears to accept this patriotic babble rather than asking this follow-up question: If we count on one man’s money to save the nation, wouldn’t that prove that we have already lost the fantasized, romantic ideals Donaldson invokes? He might even have pointed out that Ronald Reagan’s borrowed the stale metaphor from the 17th -century New England Puritan John Winthrop, who called democracy “the meanest and worst of all forms of government.”
So why does CNN consider Donaldson’s jingoistic ravings in defense of plutocracy as news? Juan Gonzalez on Democracy Now pointed out the possible reasons today’s media have for calling on irrelevant voices favorable to Bloomberg’s candidacy: “The media, the commercial media, directly profit from Bloomberg’s rise, because they’re going to be collecting all of the ad revenues that he is putting out across television nationwide. So there is an actual economic interest in continuing to see Bloomberg’s rise in the poll on the part of many of the commercial media.”
In the US today, you never have to seek very far the reason for the hyperreal show that masquerades as political news and analysis. Follow the money.
For several months, the Democratic Party has been desperately seeking to avoid having to nominate at its convention a socialist who calls into question the party’s now established ethic of rallying around sources of money rather than ideas or social needs. The media has developed the reflex that guarantees its success. It consists of a trio of motivational factors. The first is the imperative need to respond positively to the desires of its sponsors, and Bloomberg, in this campaign, is a rich and generous sponsor.
The second is the media’s quest to build a titillating electoral drama. In this case, with Sanders as the current frontrunner and Bloomberg as the challenger, they can build the drama around a showdown between a billionaire (Bloomberg) and a self-appointed billionaire killer (Sanders).
The third factor of motivation is of course the requirement of remaining within the bounds of the corporate agenda. This means that the news must not contradict the interests of the corporate entities that are at the core of the national oligarchy.
The sudden, and now apparently overwhelming, promotion of Mike Bloomberg in the media proves two things that reveal how radically American democracy has evolved. The first is that Americans now see democracy itself as a form of entertainment. They endorse the idea that the biggest spender will be the one who puts on the best show and who will see it as natural when the biggest spender wins. You might call it “Political America’s Got Talent.” Like the news, politics must offer entertainment, which is the real reason the oafish clown, Donald Trump, may get reelected. And as everyone knows, entertainment has become an industry that requires heavy investment and seeks big, quick profits. Amateurs abstain!
The other revelation is that it should now be clear that no real distinction exists between the Democratic and the Republican parties. If the 2020 election ends up as a contest between Trump and Bloomberg, it will be between a Republican president who was once a Democrat and a Democratic candidate who was once the Republican mayor of New York. Who belongs to which team? It’s all about talent — and talents, the ancient money in Biblical days. Like in professional sport, the best players will end up on the teams that can pay the price. Or, like in the NBA, the best players will choose the teams on which they’ll have the best chance of winning, partly because that will attract better sponsoring deals.
Dodging one of Cooper’s attempts to ask a more pointed question, Sam Donaldson insists on drawing attention to the notorious injustice done to Democratic candidate, Stacey Abrams, in the Georgia gubernatorial election. By all traditional measures, Abrams should have won the 2018 election but was denied due to massive election fraud perpetrated by her opponent, Brian Kemp, who at the time was secretary of state in charge of election procedures.
Donaldson credits Bloomberg with giving Abrams $5 million and frames it as an act of disinterested generosity, though Bloomberg had a decidedly self-interested reason for making that offer as he needed to counter the terribly negative image he had with the black community, whom he notoriously victimized as mayor of New York. Stacey Abrams is a black woman.
Bloomberg’s gifts to Abrams are part of what The New York Times calls the former mayor’s “empire of influence,” which has permitted him to use philanthropy and well-targeted campaign funds, grants and favors to build a network of local politicians and especially mayors who subsequently feel indebted to him and who are now endorsing him.
In the meantime, Abrams has risen to celebrity in the Democratic Party as a political martyr, the victim of Brian Kemp’s decidedly evil ways. She is now focusing on exposing the system of voter suppression that Kemp used to defeat her in the 2018 election. The central irony here, which none of the media have highlighted, is that Bloomberg’s money is serving to hire the services of Greg Palast, the investigative reporter who has dedicated his career to unearthing the various forms of voter suppression practiced for decades most brazenly by Republicans across the nation. Brian Kemp became one of his most conspicuous targets.
The fruit of Palast’s multiple and persistent investigations into the organized subversion of democracy took the form of a book and a documentary film with the title “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.” Its subtitle is “A Tale of Billionaires and Ballot Bandits.”
Neither Palast nor anyone else would accuse Bloomberg of being a “ballot bandit.” But Bloomberg has clearly stepped into the public role of “the billionaire who buys elections” even more brazenly than Donald Trump in 2016, mainly because he can spend $1 billion without it making a dent in his fortune. He does it legitimately, through advertising and indirect influence rather than through electoral skullduggery. But pouring money into branding and influence-peddling isn’t quite what one thinks of as democracy. It certainly isn’t what Jefferson, Madison, Washington and the other Founding Fathers had in mind, however committed they were to rule by the propertied classes (whose property may well have included Stacey Abrams’ ancestors).
No one can say that American history, even as it unfolds today, is devoid of irony. But do Americans see it? Bloomberg apparently doesn’t and seems unconcerned with the idea that others may notice it. As often as not, the ironies of US history tend not to play out in the traditional comic context people associate with irony, but rather in its tragic form.
The 2020 election may turn out to be a prime example of tragic irony. Observers from abroad, particularly from the UK, have consistently noticed that US culture has a problem finding a place for irony. They tend to miss the point. Back in 2015, Business Insider offered a very serious take on “The Real Reason Americans Don’t Get Irony.” The American author of the article, Gus Lubin, sifted through the theory about contrasting cultures and came up with this simple conclusion that “we’re pragmatic talkers, inclined to speak in terms that will maximize clarity for the maximum number of people, and we expect others to do the same.”
And, as everyone knows, nothing clarifies better than money.
[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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