Long-time readers recognize Jonathan Chait as less of an ideological sparring partner for Reason writers than as a punditry piñata that never runs out of Sweet Tarts. Nevertheless, in New York magazine's recent issue devoted to the legacy of outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Chait has some very interesting things to say about Bloomberg, his place in the progressive tradition and his relationship to the liberalism of the modern Democratic Party.
In "The Dashed Dreams of President Bloomberg," Chait writes about the fading fantasy that New York City's potentate of condescension could transfer his project to the national stage. "Bloomberg was a rousing success; Bloombergism, a debacle." He continues:
Bloomberg's image of himself as a potentially unifying national figure rested all along on a series of deep misconceptions. Bloomberg imagined that his brand of good governance would transcend ideological divisions. He attracted talented civil servants, applied rigorous metrics to every facet of their performance, and made government work. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, making government run well is indeed a recipe for broad approval.
In national politics, though, the wisdom of making government run well is a bitterly contested idea. The vision of a government managed by disinterested experts who follow the dictates of empiricism dates back a century to the Progressives—good-government types who are found today on Glenn Beck's blackboard, connected by conspiratorial arrows to various Obama-administration figures…
Later in the piece, Chait describes Bloomberg's nanny-statism as an "odd synthesis" of conservative willingness to regulate personal behavior to achieve the the goal of "forcing a liberal nanny state upon an often unwilling public." He also describes the mayor as "not merely a functional elitist but a philosophically committed one" who feels "contempt for the hoi polloi." This isn't an odd synthesis—it's progressivism at its core. Progressivism has a long history of seeking to "improve" people, from work ethic to music preferences to sexual habits, whether or not they consent to such enhancement. Progressivism also has long derided outsider groups—and even strayed into racism with an elitist and pseudo-scientific veneer.
Chait then goes on to place Bloomberg in the context of modern politics.
Bloomberg's faith that bureaucratic competence would allow him to escape partisan division was merely naïve, but his apparent belief that his views on national politics situated him in the center is downright bizarre. He is a conventional social liberal. To the degree that he has separated himself from the Democratic Party, he's done it mainly by articulating more outspoken versions of the standard liberal view on climate change, gun control, immigration reform, and gay marriage. Yes, Bloomberg assailed Obama for lacking a plan to reduce the budget deficit, which sounds conservative, except that Bloomberg's own proposal included ending all the Bush tax cuts, not just those for the rich. (The last prominent politician to advocate that? Howard Dean.)
Bloomberg did position himself clearly to Obama's right in one way, and it was very telling: He robustly defended the rich in general, and Wall Street in particular, from the widespread public revulsion it has faced since the economic crisis. Far from clashing with the general liberal cast of Bloomberg's ideological profile, this one piece completes it. Bloomberg is the candidate of the Democratic Party's donor class. He stands for the things the $50,000-a-plate social liberals wish Democratic politicians would say if they weren't so afraid of how it would play in Toledo. Bloombergism at a national level is merely Democratic Party liberalism stripped of any concern for public opinion.
After detailing Bloomberg's incursions into personal freedom and his de-legitimizing of critics, a seemingly disillusioned Chait closes, "Bloombergism is the sort of thing the Constitution was designed to prevent."
Reason gets a shout out for calling Bloomberg "Pol Pot on the Hudson"—in the context of describing Bloomberg as a "national hate figure among conservatives." Apparently repeatedly calling out the mayor for "stop and frisk" as well as soda bans is an artifact of right-wing thinking. Frankly, that seems more illuminating about Bloomberg's progressive supporters, even those who have lost their enthusiasm, than his critics of whatever ideological stripe.
Check out Jonathan Chait's whole piece. Its a rare, honest look at what may be America's most unalloyed modern progressive politician.