On the occasion of the anniversary of Michael Bloomberg’s announcement that he would ask the City Council to change the law so he could seek a third term, Bill Thompson’s campaign released this video revisiting this disgraceful chapter in American democracy and Bloomberg’s circumvention of the people’s will.
Last Thursday’s front page of the daily newspaper AmNY was very reminiscent of the movie poster for The Promise of New York. In particular, the “Bloomberg in a TV” image.
Just as the movie poster for The Promise of New York emphasized Bloomberg’s omnipresence on the airwaves and his media power, the front page was inspired by the mayor’s incessant advertising in the current election through TV, radio, print, internet, billboards… It’s like déjà vu all over again.
According to the cover article in AmNY, New Yorkers are growing tired of the mayor’s incessant ads. The results of a recent poll show that about 80% of New Yorkers have seen the ads, and that a majority of them find them to be annoying.
After a heated tug of war in the past month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York State Senate have struck a deal to reinstate mayoral control of the public schools in New York City.
The mayor lost control of the schools when the law giving him this power expired at the end of June. Seeking to enable more community and parental involvement, the Senate wanted to renew this control but with some new stipulations. Bloomberg’s administration would not budge and hence the heated tug of war between the two camps.
In 2005, Seth Blum, a high school math teacher and one of the protagonists of The Promise of New York, ran for mayor because he felt that education should be run by educators, not by businessmen and lawyers. The current schools chancellor, Joel Klein, appointed by the mayor, does not have an education degree.
I often think of the reality TV show American Idol when I think of how far American democracy is from the ideal we Americans often like to brag about. While it is not without its flaws, American Idol, hands down, serves as a better model for democracy, for how to elect a leader to represent us, than any election in US history, past or present, has ever shown to be.
First of all, the candidates are chosen from a large pool of talent, from all walks of life, from every corner of the country. Regardless of income, sex, race, sexual preference, political inclination, geographical location…ANYONE with the slightest calling or passion is allowed to try out. And when I say anyone, I do mean ANYONE—just watch this:
You can laugh and say, “Well, clearly the above candidate is not qualified”. But that is not the point: the point is he is given a chance to at least try out.
The same does not happen in American elections, for instance, which are clearly biased towards the candidates from the two major parties every step of the way: from media coverage to the qualification rules for televised debates, third party candidates are not given equal chance before the public, that is, unless they are a wealthy white man, like Ross Perot.
In America, we like to believe that anyone can run for office and win. After all, isn’t that the American dream that is weaved into the very fabric of our star-spangled banner and embodied by the likes of Ronald Reagan, the actor, Jesse Ventura, the wrestler, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Terminator?
We like to believe that it is so: anyone can run and be President—hell, even George W. did it and he can barely read, write or speak English!
But, as George Carlin said, they call it the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it: the reality is that, well, anyone can run, but not everyone can win. If you’re not a Democrat or a Republican you might as well just forget about it—especially if you don’t have big stashes of cash lying around somewhere. Even if they were members of either of the major parties, can you imagine a gay man, not to mention a lesbian, being nominated by the Republican party, or the Democratic party for the highest elected office? What about an atheist? Or an Asian-American? Or a Jew?
And yet, all this matters little when electing the American Idol of the year. The one and only thing that matters in electing the American Idol is the performance. In fact, the candidates are rigorously tested, time and time again, before the voting public on this one skill. They get up there on that stage and they have to give it their all to dazzle us and get our vote and—I’ll just mention this in passing—the public’s vote is direct and each individual vote counts, in other words, there is none of that “electoral college” nonsense. Furthermore, the candidates are given equal time and equal access to the same amount of resources—make-up, wardrobe, TV cameras, sound technicians, etc.
I can already hear those of you saying: “What about Sanjaya? Isn’t that an example of how even this model can be rigged? And wasn’t there a guy whose sexuality at one point became an issue, or a girl whose religious beliefs cost her or gained her some votes?”
Well, I did say this model is not without its flaws. But I do think that, even in the cases where there were distractions that had little to do with the candidates’ ability to deliver a song, the contest (read: election) is structured in such a way that the focus on performance quality is so consistent and strong that, in the long run, it does overshadow everything else, resulting in an elected candidate who, despite media controversies, background, and so on, has proven themselves, time and again, to be great at what they do onstage.
Now, let’s look at the televised debates in our elections, which are the part of an election that, in the end, comes closest to proving anything about the abilities of our political candidates to govern and represent us. Now, I want you to tell me: when was the last televised debate that you saw that tested any other skills from the candidates, except the ability to talk while saying absolutely nothing?
It’s hard to bring one to mind, I know. So let me finish my American Idol/American Democracy comparison while you give it some more thought:
Imagine this: instead of a televised debate where we test our political candidates on their ability to spew empty rhetoric, we have a weekly show where their ability to govern is consistently and rigorously tested over the course of several months before millions of viewers.
How can we test their ability to govern in this way?
Well, here are some ideas: we have all candidates—not just Democrats or Republicans—play a live game of SIM City—or SIM State or SIM Nation, as may fit the office for which they’re shooting. These are video games that allow us to, in a relatively short period of time, see how a population declines or prospers based on the abilities of the person in charge.
Another idea: we drop all candidates by parachute—this is, after all, American television—in the middle of different but equally run down and poor neighborhoods. Each candidate is given the same bag of provisions, including some clothes, some food and $100. Armed with only these resources, they must, in 30 days, improve the quality of living in these neighborhoods to the best of their ability, they must lead these neighborhoods out of poverty and into prosperity.
If this is a presidential race, after 30 days, we can have them all rotate neighborhoods and see how well they fare in different areas of the country, among a different populace.
All throughout this contest, American voters can call a toll-free 1-800 number during the frequent elimination rounds where, after listening to a panel of expert judges share their thoughts on the performance of the candidates, they can evaluate who they want to be their elected official. And so on, until only two candidates are left standing.
Oh, and in no way are candidates allowed to advertise throughout this competition. Imagine if American Idol contestants began running ads on television in order to gain an advantage over their opponents—unthinkable, right?
Which brings me back to the current mayoral election here in New York City:
In response to a question about his limitless, exorbitant campaign spending and the immensely uneven playing field it creates in the mayoral race, incumbent Michael Bloomberg responded that no election is ever fair: candidates come into a race with different levels of education, different experiences, just as they come with different levels of income.
He does make a good point and, after all, it is true: candidates never enter a race on the same playing field. But to pretend that campaign spending does not create an uneven playing field in its relation to the media exposure that it affords a candidate is to overlook the obvious. This is the very reason why organizations that monitor campaign spending came into existence in the first place.
Think of it this way: an American Idol contestant running ads on every other network during prime time, page ads in every newspaper, banner ads on every website, regardless of his or her singing ability, is playing unfairly. It’s about the singing, the performance, the delivery of the song—that’s what counts.
In the case of an election, it should be about one’s ability to lead, to govern, to answer to the will of the people—but Michael Bloomberg knows this is not enough for him to win. If he believes as much as he does on his record, on his message, and how voters can be trusted to judge in his favor based only on this, why doesn’t he put his money where his mouth is? Or, rather, why doesn’t he put his money away, period?
Whether Bloomberg’s money won the day or merely got him into the contest, he still isn’t mayor without it. He’s a famously shrewd businessman, right? (“There’s nobody that understands the private sector, I think, more than I do,” he’s said.) He wouldn’t have spent $175 million so far over the past eight years on his elections if he didn’t think he needed to in order to win.
More importantly, Jarrett goes on to talk about what the long-term impact of this type of uneven campaign spending might have:
Whatever the impact of the mayor’s spending on his own fortunes, the longer-term question is, what effect will it have on the system that tried to limit the importance of money in city politics?
New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, and 2005 Democratic mayoral candidate, as seen in The Promise of New York, announced Wednesday that he will not be throwing his hat in the race for mayor this year.
Weiner cited Bloomberg’s vast financial resources as one of the major factors in his decision. The harsh economic times we live in also influenced Weiner’s decision, who felt his time is better spent working in Washington where he can be more effective in helping his constituency through Congress.