berlusconi, bloomberg, and the rise of the demomonarchy
I'm talked out on the subject of last week's elections, and I'm not sure I have very much different to say than anyone else, anyway. In a nutshell, the Republicans did well: if the Democrats learn the right lessons, they'll correct, and if not they'll lose still more ground. Those who want to hear more can follow my blog at www.pa2010.com
I want to talk here about an election that didn't get much coverage: the coronation, uh, reelection of Mike (never Michael) Bloomberg as Mayor of New York City. For those who didn't follow, Bloomberg spent close to $100 million--more than presidential elections cost until recently--and put together an enormous campaign organization to ensure his third term, not to mention getting the city charter changed to permit it. His opponent, William Thompson, was almost totally unheard of. Most people predicted a walkover; many didn't bother to vote. Instead Bloomberg won by about four percentage points: had Barack Obama accepted an invitation to campaign for his opponent, he probably would have lost.
I think the Bloomberg story is in many ways the sleeper of this election season. For one thing, it helps to put the Tea Party and similar movements into proper perspective. These have often been portrayed as conservative or right-wing as opposed to the "moderate" Republicans who would provide the party with a brighter future. The problem is that many of these "moderates" are more accurately described as elitists: business-oriented candidates who win with money and organization but whose roots in the community are, well, not particularly deep. Some of them, like Bloomberg and Arlen Specter, have ceased being Republicans, altogether. A challenge to their leadership is no more inherently quixotic than was that of Obama to Hillary Clinton or Thompson to Bloomberg: and no more certain of failure, either.
The Bloomberg situation also provides an interesting example of a new global phenomenon, what might be called demomonarchy: the rise of elected officials so wealthy and powerful as to be virtually unremovable except by their own accord. Several mornings a week I stop by my local cafe to watch the Italian 1:00 pm news. Since Italy is a nominal democracy they cannot avoid reporting bad news. But since both the public and private TV stations are effectively controlled by one man, Silvio Berlusconi, they tend to report it in a less than enthusiastic way. Thus, on one recent morning, a story that the Constitutional Court had rejected a law providing immunity from criminal prosecution for Berlusconi and other top officials--roughly equivalent to the Supreme Court's decision on the Nixon tapes in 1974--received five minutes of blase coverage while a mudslide in Sicily went on for a quarter hour. When a Catholic journalist suggested that Berlusconi, who has been hanging around with underage women, was perhaps not a good choice for Catholic support, a cabal of Government hacks quickly dug up dirt on the reporter; he resigned shortly thereafter.
Bloomberg is not Berlusconi, and he seems to be doing a pretty reasonable job. But Italy is not the country you want to be emulating in political matters. The more we see power (as in Italy) concentrated in a few hands--and the further the boundary between public and private power erodes--the more angry people will become and the more dysfunctional our system will be. Sometimes the revolt will come from the left, and sometimes from the right; many of these will be distasteful in many respects. But it is the sclerosis of the system that is the real problem rather than people's response to it: the longer the fix is delayed, the nastier things will get.