About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

No third term for Michael Bloomberg, please

This may strike non-New Yorkers as a rather parochial column, even though I feel like the Big Apple still is the unofficial capital of the world (hey, guess where all the current financial turmoil, with worldwide consequences, is rooted?). But in fact the announcement by NYC Major Michael Bloomberg that he will seek a run for a third term, despite the law currently enforcing term limits for the mayoralty to two terms, is indicative of a malady affecting all democratic countries (including, of late, my native Italy with its neo-Mussolinian Silvio Berlusconi), and especially the United States: the hubris of men who think the world just can’t turn without them, and the gullibility of so many people who believe them.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Mayor Michael, despite the fact that he is a Republican (until recently, he turned “independent” earlier this year, when he was considering a run for the Presidency). He has done much good for the city, not only in terms of fiscal policy, but of environmentally friendly decisions, support for the arts, and even (gasp!) gun control. Besides, he is an affable man who talks sensibly and seems to really care for the city he has inherited from neo-fascist Rudy Giuliani (who also, incidentally, sought to overturn the term limits law and run a third time -- and was thankfully rebuffed).

First of all, a third term may be bad for Bloomberg’s health and reputation. According to a New York Times report, only four mayors (out of 108 during the city’s history) won a third term, before limits were imposed by the voters. All four emerged with their reputations battered, despite having done fairly well, and in a couple of cases really well, during the first two terms. Moreover, one three-time major died a few years after his last term, battling cancer, one was nearly pushed out of town by popular furor, and a third one seriously considered committing suicide. Why tempt fate, Michael?

More importantly, what is disturbing is the very idea behind Bloomberg’s proposal: he truly thinks he is the only guy (in a city of eight million!) who can steer New York through the current financial crisis, on the basis that he has been so successful for the past eight years, and that he knows about money because he is a billionaire. Besides the obviously arguable validity of the latter point (running a private corporation founded by oneself is a completely different thing from running a city as a democratically elected official), the basic point is that the vitality of democracy resides precisely in the assumption that while many may validly contribute to it, nobody is essential. Personality cult and a sense of individual invulnerability and infallibility is what has brought disasters to democracies (think of the recent spectacular debacle of Governor Spitzer of New York), and that historically has led down the path to fascism (no, I am not accusing Bloomberg of being a fascist, I’m simply saying that his attitude is generally connected to the conditions that lead to fascism).

Furthermore, even more enraging is the way Bloomberg wishes to accomplish this feat. You see, New York voters have twice affirmed, in recent years, that they do want term limits. We can have all the discussions you want about the wisdom of forcing political careers to be short (though just imagine what the country and the world would be like if we allowed George W. to run for a third term...), but the fact of the matter is that the people have spoken, and Bloomberg should bow to their decision because we are (supposedly) in a democracy. Instead, Mayor Michael wants to ask the City Council to overturn the law, something that at least a few council members have said could be challenged in court because three of the five city’s boroughs -- Brooklyn, Bronx and Manhattan (the remaining two being Queens and Staten Island) -- are under the tutelage of the US Department of Justice’s civil rights division, which would have to authorize the action in question. This would likely cause the city to be involved in a potentially long, contentious and expensive legal battle, all in the name of changing a twice-voted law to allow the oversized ego of a single man to prove how he can save all of us from financial ruin.

Please, Michael, rethink this whole thing over, retire while you are on the upswing, and let democracy run its course. This is the city that never sleeps, surely we can find at least one person as awake and ready to take the helm as you. Right?


  1. From the point of view of the voters, though, given the City's recent record with Mayors, trying to keep one that doesn't suck may not be the worst strategy.

  2. I was actually heavily for Bloomberg running for a third term prior to reading this blog, but now perhaps I should rethink it. You raise some great points about the issue of a third term and I think I agree, the democratic process should supersede the ego of a person.

  3. And they say that writing blogs is a waste of time because people never change their minds... :)

  4. The following was penned by Tom Waters, who really knows his NYC politics, and I agree with him whole-heartedly:

    Term limits are a good thing. Eliminating them and extending them are bad things.

    Here's why I think so:

    1. The longer an official holds elected office, the more certain his or her re-election becomes, and the less he or she needs to respond to the concerns of constituents. Term limits set a limit on how far this process can go.

    2. Term limits create open-seat races, where the issues that matter to voters -- not just campaign contributors -- can influence the outcome of an election. They create opportunities for mobilized constituencies, such as tenants, to become a force by voting and by campaigning.

    3. Term limits at the city level produce a stream of recognizable political figures who can challenge entrenched office holders at the state level, creating hope for change there. What do Joe Addabbo and Jim Gennaro -- the Democratic challengers running against state senators Serf Maltese and Frank Padavan -- have in common? They are term-limited city council members.

    4. Look at the track record. From charter reform through term limits, we had an entrenched, anti-tenant City Council and an entrenched, anti-tenant Speaker, Peter Vallone. Since term limits, we have had two speakers who led the Council to pass important new protections for tenants. I don't believe that that is a coincidence.

    5. The city's voters have repeatedly made it clear that they want term limits. Defying their -- our -- express will based on some cockamamie story about the financial crisis is insulting.

    6. The only reason that the newspapers and Ron Lauder want to change term limits now is to help billionaire Republican Mike Bloomberg and his monomaniacal pro-development agenda that is making our city less affordable and less livable at a terrifying pace.

  5. Regarding "And they say that writing blogs is a waste of time because people never change their minds... :)"

    I used to be a Republican until blogs like this, well Bush's performance and the RR's hijacking of the Republican made me enough of a Democrat to donate money to a political campaign for the 1st time in my life.

  6. Agreed.

    The same problem was quite discussed in Brazil a few months ago, and every once in a while it rears its ugly head again.

    There, we also have a limit of two four-year terms, for all executive posts: mayor, governor and president.

    Current president, Lula, has extremely high popularity, something like 75% approval, I think (proportion of people saying his performance is "good" or "great").

    So "people" start throwing around the idea that we should change the (young) constitution (a stupidly thick book, BTW) to allow a third term. Lula and other big shots around him said that would be a very bad idea, dangerous playing with democracy, blah, blah. But there is no doubt that, if the majority of the population did approve of such a change (which according to some polls they currently don't, fortunately), the talk would change to: "well, since it's the will of the people, what can I do but serve them, etc....". They don't make many George Washington-type people anymore, I suspect. Obviously the people who started the noises about third term are part of the president's party (PT, the Worker's Party, formerly a leftist party), but never mind that... :-)


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