US economy

Bloomberg, Warren and the exhausted middle


Given the enthusiastic reader response to the previous Swamp Notes disagreement between myself and Ed over the Democratic debates and the former New York City mayor, I’m going to pick up that thread in my own note today.

First, let me get the cognitive dissonance issue out of the way — yes, I like both Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg. While Warren is far and away my first choice, I’d happily vote for either of them over Donald Trump (in fact, I’d vote for any of the Democratic field over the president, although I’d have to grit my teeth to do so for primary front runner Bernie, not because I don’t think nationalised healthcare or a dramatic reform of our educational system is a good idea, but because I worry Bernie can’t work with others and that good progressive policy ideas might be dismissed as a result).

How is it possible to be willing to vote for both a progressive like Warren and a former Republican like Bloomberg? I don’t know, but what I do know is that plenty of Americans are like me — they are more interested in practicality than ideology, and are perfectly happy, in an era in which all the old political labels seem less and less relevant anyway, to go a pick-and-mix direction with candidates. Call them intellectually incoherent, or simply call them, as a pollster friend of mine does, “the exhausted middle”.

Part of this trend is about the rise of a new generation of millennial voters who are not yet wedded to particular political ideologies. Another part of it is about the way in which the more mainstream parts of the Democratic party became, over the past few decades, aligned with neoliberal economic thinking in ways that have left space for both far-left and far-right political forces to cultivate the working class vote. Perhaps a third factor would be the way in which globalisation, financialisation and technological job disruption have disconnected productivity and pay in such a way that traditional right/left solutions about how to grow national economies must be revised. A final part is the way in which Trump and a cadre of incredibly cynical Red State politicians have decimated the Republican party.

Whatever the case, I find myself lurching politically in ways that feel strange, but appropriate to the times. I think we probably need a European style social safety-net to see us through the coming period of tremendous labour disruption (something that progressives would like). I also think individual cities and states will need enough flexibility to implement the right local economic solutions (a federalist attitude more associated with traditional conservatism).

It may also be that, at the end of the day, identity matters more than I like to think it does in shaping personal politics. As Swampians know, I grew up as the child of immigrants (a teacher and an engineer) in the rural Midwest. I believe in bootstrapping. But I also saw how free trade wasn’t all upside, and a lack of good funding for public education or thoughtful vocational training could result in an unskilled underclass. I saw the importance of making it possible for people to start and maintain small businesses, like my dad and the farmers who lived around us did. But I also learned, particularly after moving “out East”, about the huge divide between Wall Street and Main Street, and why markets need strong regulation.

I suspect that there are more Americans than just me out there who feel this way, despite how sharply bifurcated politics seem right now. Ed, would you agree? And how has your own background shaped your political identity?

Recommended reading

  • The New York Review of Books analysis of how coming of age as a woman in the 1970s shaped Elizabeth Warren is worth a read. I think it’s wise that she hasn’t made gender a huge thing on the campaign trail, but there’s no doubt that her experiences as a working woman during that time are crucial to who she is.
  • In the FT, I was struck by my colleague Gillian Tett’s analysis of how and why share prices are defying all gravity, and Ed, I thought your FT Lunch with Lloyd Blankfein was a must read.
  • Finally, though I know some of my colleagues disagree, I must agree with the NYT’s James Stewart that all the philanthropy in the world — along with a presidential pardon — won’t rewrite the history of junk bond king Michael Milken.

Edward Luce responds

Rana, I’ve no doubt that people are far more complex and quirky than our binary horse race politics would admit. I have friends who are militantly pro-Bloomberg and simultaneously very worried about America’s oligarchification. One of the most charming and considerate people I’ve ever known is a diehard Trump supporter. I have an aunt who was a Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament who now champions Brexit as Britain’s independence day. I am continually surprised by what I hear coming out of the mouths of rational friends. No doubt the feeling is mutual. Nothing straight was made out of the crooked timber of humanity. 

So I am sceptical about linking one’s background to political preference. In my case, I come from a very Tory English family. My mother’s father was a Conservative MP for more than 30 years. My father was a Conservative MP for 22 years. And the aunt I mentioned had defected from the Tories to the Lib Dems (now back with a vengeance). I spent most of my formative years in draughty Victorian boarding schools (co-ed thankfully) before I was somewhat impolitely asked to leave. My disciplinary record was not up to scratch. I then went to a London state school (public school in American), which is when my real education began. It was a very different world to the one that I left. So much for my background. 

My life experience tells me that liberal democracy and late Rome-scale inequalities of wealth and power are unsustainable. Of course, I would far prefer a President Bloomberg to a President Trump. But it would be a pyrrhic victory. If you can buy the Democratic nomination, then you can buy democracy. Once seats in Rome’s great Senate were up for auction, the republic was over. The imperial phase and tyranny followed. We live and breathe the temporal narcissisms of our age. The lessons of history do not fade. 

Your feedback

Thanks to all who voted in our poll on Friday. Among FT readers, Michael Bloomberg emerged as the clear winner. 

And now a word from our Swampians… 

In response to: The Democratic debate: Are we not entertained?
“I was at a dinner Thursday night with eight anxious and depressed Democrats. We all (particularly women) thought that Elizabeth Warren had an absolutely ghastly [debate] night — and we couldn’t understand why others had come to the opposite conclusion. Maybe Trump has lowered all our perceptions of what constitutes acceptable political discourse. I appreciate that memories are short and the candidates are in a dogfight — but her savage (and often unfair) attacks on the rest of the field smacked of desperation and will surely undermine her party and her own high-minded reputation.” — Chris Millerchip, publisher, Rye, New York

“After the Vice movie, I got more and more convinced that the second name really matters: my favourite pick is Michael Bloomberg. My guess is you do not agree with me …but which would be the best ticket for Democrats, with Bloomberg as vice-president? From the electability point of view?” — Gianluca Dimartino, Intesa Sanpaolo, Milan, Italy

“I agree with you that this is a show and reminiscent of many movies. Unless the Democrats get their act together and focus on winning the election rather than the primaries, they are handing Trump a second term.” — Samy Dwek, founder and CEO of
White Knight Consulting LLC, Florida 

We’d love to hear from you. You can email the team on swampnotes@ft.com, contact Ed on edward.luce@ft.com and Rana on rana.foroohar@ft.com, and follow them on Twitter at @RanaForoohar and @EdwardGLuce. We may feature an excerpt of your response in the next newsletter. 



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