The genesis of this piece is a debate between comrades about how to relate to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign to be the Democratic candidate for president. Two weeks ago, Bloomberg opened five new campaign offices in Minnesota. I proposed that TCDSA take the opportunity to protest Bloomberg at the nearest one; most comrades engaged in the debate felt that it would be a strategic mistake to hold a “negative” action, that it would reflect poorly on the Bernie Sanders campaign, presumably because of DSA’s association with that campaign, and that we should focus on positive activities for Bernie instead.
That particular moment has passed, and there is no terrible loss in having missed the chance to protest a field office. But to my mind, the discussion suggested a range of views on two issues that do matter to what we’ll do in the future: how we relate to Bloomberg, and how we relate to Bernie.
This piece proposes that we treat Bloomberg exactly like the Trumpian figure he is—that is, by mobilizing the broadest coalitions possible to direct the full might of our fury at everything he represents, while fighting to keep our side’s focus on the racist and misogynistic hatred and all-out class warfare that defines them both (rather than on, say, their respective odious personalities). And it proposes that we begin a much more sustained and specific conversation about what it means to be an independent socialist organization in the context of a socialist candidate for running the U.S. state.
Don’t Treat Bloomberg Like Warren; Treat Him Like Trump
If the stakes weren’t so high, it would be comical how precisely Bloomberg is Trump’s mirror image. Just as the Bloomberg billboards proclaiming “Donald Trump eats burnt steak; Mike Bloomberg likes his medium rare” would have it, Bloomberg is the slightly less gauche and tacky representative of the 1% and its grotesque worldview.
As a boss, he sexually harassed women in his employ as a matter of course; to pick just one example that strangely has not been repeated much, sardonically suggesting to a group of women he employed, “All of you girls line up to give [a male employee] head as a wedding present.” Despite the outstanding campaign maneuvering of Elizabeth Warren to pressure him on this issue, we still don’t know how many women are bound by nondisclosure agreements with his company over harassment suits, what they alleged, and how much the company paid to silence them.
When it comes to one of Bloomberg’s signature policies as mayor of New York City, the “stop and frisk” program that he battled in court to continue and only disavowed as he began his presidential campaign, I suspect that white people who’ve never lived in New York might not fully grasp what the policy entailed. The name may conjure a relatively mild series of brief encounters with police. In fact, it was militarized racial terror.
Anyone who has not read personal accounts of stop and frisk should stop reading this newsletter and read that instead (and then come back to this newsletter!). You will read of adults and children going about their normal days, stopped suddenly by armed men in the street, thrown up against walls, searched (sometimes under their clothes), having their belongings strewn on the ground around them, being threatened with further violence, and then, if they are lucky, being sent, shaken, on their way. Some people, dark-skinned young men living in neighborhoods with other dark-skinned men as the city gentrified around them, experienced this dozens of times.
Bloomberg’s take on all this at the time (in 2013): “I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little.”
Other aspects of Bloomberg’s legacy in New York get less national attention but should really matter to us. He radically expanded the security state in New York City to surveil and repress two groups in particular—Muslims and activists. Literally, he proposed an “anti-terrorism” unit of the police focused on those two groups. And while that particular proposal was modified, he terrorized Muslims in the city (“We’re supposed to do that,” he said this past week) and used notable violence against activists protesting the 2004 Republican National Convention and, years later, Occupy Wall Street.
His fortune of about $64 billion—more than the entire federal budget expenditure on “housing & community” in 2015—was amassed from an industry, finance, that, as much as any other, represents what we are up against; he is rich and powerful precisely because we live in a society ruled by and for money, rather than by and for people, and he believes this is right and just. He uses his literally unimaginable wealth to buy off progressive organizations that decide they can’t afford to stand against him and lose his cash. It bought him a third term as mayor, even though he had to change the state constitution to allow it.
That point about progressive organizations is very important, because it raises the question of where the sustained left-wing opposition to Bloomberg will come from. Surely not from organizations who have taken his money.
While we in TCDSA have been uncertain about the optics of directly confronting this particular enemy (or his well-compensated field staff), our comrades in anti-racist movements in particular have had a different approach. Black Lives Matter and related groups routinely target candidates, and I credit them with both pushing Bernie to better positions and widely publicizing Clinton’s racist history in 2016. This time around, they beautifully disrupted a Pete Buttigieg event. And immigrant rights groups regularly protest candidates, especially Biden, for their roles supporting deportations; RAICES disrupted a recent debate, while Movemiento Cosecha occupied Biden’s campaign headquarters last July. This pressure matters, especially in a primary where immigrant rights has barely registered as a factor despite being Trump’s signature issue. (And, of course, Bloomberg’s field offices have been vandalized by individuals who may or may not support Sanders, too.)
A crucial aspect of each of these anti-racist actions is that, although they are targeted directly at specific candidates, they are connected not to inter-candidate jostling but to the real things we are fighting for. These aren’t the legion of Twitter accounts angrily urging Warren to step out of the race (a tactic that persuades nobody and alienates many of her followers). These are our comrades keeping a laser focus on the world we want.
What I want comrades to imagine is, what if we had gone inside Bloomberg’s field offices on the day they opened and read from the book of his misogynistic “witticisms” at work, with signs saying “You can’t fight a rapist president with a sexual harasser”? What if we had brought audio and broadcast Black New Yorkers telling their stop and frisk stories, or Muslims talking about what it meant to fear going to their own mosques?
What if we made lists of all the things we could do with $64 billion and asked why any person gets to control that much of the world? What if we set up a table outside and asked people walking by to vote on how they would spend that money (with just one option being, “Mike Bloomberg should own it”)? What if we invited friends to come and each decide what their top priority for $64 billion would be, and filmed each other asking Bloomberg’s staff—without personal attacks, but with calm determination—why it’s OK that that money belongs to Bloomberg instead of our schools, our national parks, our care for the sick and the elderly?
Call that negative campaigning if you like, but I would also call it being concrete about how exactly we deserve better than what we are getting. There is something very positive and inspiring about saying exactly what it is that we are not willing to tolerate any longer.
We are not just an appendage of the Bernie campaign
Equally important to how we understand Bloomberg is how we understand ourselves. Are we an arm of the Bernie campaign, and are we bound by the same tactical judgments about civility that campaigns sometimes are?
My argument is that, if we see ourselves that way, we will be less able to help Bernie win and far less able to do what we need to do if he does win.
I’m wary of election prognostications and I’ve gotten them wrong more often than right, but a contested Democratic convention seems highly likely. If that happens, the pressure on Bernie and his official campaign to play by party rules—rules set by a party of career politicians representing career lobbyists—will be overwhelming. Bernie’s campaign will have to figure out how to maneuver in that situation, and it will likely feel very constrained in doing so.
We, the independent movements that support Bernie, can help precisely to the extent that we are less constrained than the official campaign is. To the extent that we can—in carefully-chosen ways that persuade, not alienate, potential allies—disrupt the party’s operations to a degree that it cannot easily contain, we can exert pressure that the campaign itself may not be able to. This strategy only works if the disruption is clearly and identifiably a mass movement of the people the party claims to represent, and clearly genuinely not in Bernie’s control. There is no guarantee that we can succeed in creating this; I also think it is an enormous strategic mistake to forgo it without trying, by seeing ourselves as a public face of Bernie rather than establishing ourselves as an independent socialist movement.
And then there is afterwards. It may seem strange to say this in the middle of a fierce campaign for a socialist candidate, but I am haunted by fears of what will happen if Bernie wins. If he wins, Bernie will become the leader of a country whose most powerful people will be extremely determined to either co-opt or defeat him, beginning with a Congress that will want to undermine his best ideas. He will take control of a U.S. military that violently crushes social movements around the world, and which Bernie’s record of opposing has been mixed. He will inherit an economy that might well enter a recession during his presidency, and if it does, he will be likely—certainly without a massive campaign of upheaval pushing him the other way—to become the figurehead of austerity.
We know from the experiences of our comrades in Europe what happens when leftist politicians carry out austerity. What happens is the far Right grows.
If we want a Bernie presidency to be what we need it to be, we need a truly independent socialist movement that will push him to be what we want him to be and that is clearly and identifiably distinct from him when he isn’t. It’s not too early to be trying to figure out what that means concretely, and it starts with how we see ourselves.