Michael Bloomberg is annoyed—with both the Democratic Party and the left in general. The recently Republican former mayor of New York made big headlines in March when he announced, gruffly, that he won’t be running for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. I didn’t understand why this was news. My Republican uncle won’t be running for it either; I imagine a great many former GOP officeholders will be giving the Democratic primary a pass. But Michael Bloomberg is a billionaire white man, so apparently what he had to say was relevant.
Here’s what Bloomberg argued, at an executive forum where he continued to hold forth on the state of the Democratic Party: We’re being too hard on privileged white men. And as much as I’d like to ignore him, to keep moving with the ever-churning news cycle, Bloomberg’s petulant fit still demands a response, especially since it’s part of a toxic trend among the self-styled “centrists” who hope to make Democrats great again in 2020.
In explaining his decision to stay out of the race, Bloomberg didn’t discuss the many substantive reasons why he’s so wildly unpopular with Democratic voters. (His poll numbers never broke 2 percent.) Instead, he lashed out obliquely at identity politics, offering a mixture of sympathy and derision for the other rich white men who want to be president. Bloomberg wants them to understand that they’ll never get a fair shake, so they should stop with all the apologies. He groused that “Joe Biden went out and apologized for being male, over 50, white.” And he seemed downright sad for the younger “Beto, whatever his name is,” who debased himself even worse than Biden did: “He’s apologized for being born.”
These sorts of outbursts are familiar to those of us who spent 12 years living under Mayor Mike’s rule, with his unabashed contempt of democracy and his ire for anyone who questions elites. He became expert at defending the establishment while passing it off as brave truth-telling and data-driven realism. It seems that this will be his contribution to the 2020 primaries as well.
So let’s talk about the “apology tour,” a term that Bloomberg first encountered on CNN and, tellingly, has now latched onto. For starters, I can’t figure out what’s wrong with showing a bit of humility when you’re auditioning for one of the most powerful jobs in the world. You’ve led a charmed life; you’ve got a “sorry” or two to spare. But also, let’s be clear: Apologies and explanations are, in fact, due from the crop of candidates throwing their hats in the ring.
Beto “whatever his name is” O’Rourke is an intriguing politician, to be sure. But he has a thin résumé and has articulated no big ideas; his greatest political achievement was losing a Senate race. Plainly, his meteoric rise in national politics is as much a result of who he is (a white, male Gen Xer with vaguely hip credentials) as it is of what he’s done. O’Rourke sounded terrifyingly oblivious to this reality when he declared that he was “born” to run for president. The fact that he later acknowledged as much when challenged on it ought to be considered strong leadership, not weak pandering.
Elizabeth Warren—who actually won her upstart Senate race back in 2012—is more exciting. She has offered perhaps the most detailed set of big ideas so far. But still, she owes us an explanation for her creepy appropriation of Native American heritage. Likewise, Kamala Harris’s tenacity on the Senate Judiciary Committee is really appealing, as is her potential to make history as a black woman running for president. But if she’s running on the slogan “For the People,” we do need her to acknowledge the way she policed the black people of California as the state’s chief prosecutor.
I could go on in this fashion. I won’t even get started with Biden, who has a lot more to apologize for than being male, over 50, and white.
It’s not that the Democratic candidates all need to march through some sort of parade of contrition. But if you want to lead a party dedicated to reform at this moment in history, we need to know how you’ll deal with the sins of the past—starting with your own. These are crucial tests of leadership.
Donald Trump represents nothing so much as America’s chickens coming home to roost. We have spent generations papering over and compromising around the fundamental inequities in our democracy, our economy, and our society overall. These inequities are not aberrations; they reflect deliberate choices made throughout our national history to foster white and male supremacy. Those choices are unsustainable for a host of reasons, not least because an ever-growing majority will no longer tolerate them. Our future leaders need to understand all of this, and a good way to begin showing that they do is by publicly interrogating their own choices.
They also need to understand that there’s no going backward, no return to the false peace that gave us Trump. It’s plain that a far-right strategy for the coming election will be to stir up intra-left fights, and to weaponize the raw emotions around race and gender in that effort. Already, one troubling revelation after another has emerged from opposition research appearing in right-wing media. So be it. It’s further proof of the point: We cannot build a new, better America unless we learn how to deal with the white-male supremacy that built the one we’ve got. We need candidates that can show us how to do that, both in policy and in their own lives.