I missed the debates last night. A friend had tickets to see Michelle Wolf perform at a downtown comedy club and I tagged along. Wolf is working out some new material and making the rounds to smaller venues to test the jokes. She was incredibly sharp. Much of her material centered around the #MeToo movement and what we want the outcome of that movement to look like. The set was thoughtful, thought-provoking, and funny.
I did, however, regret missing this latest debate. It seems like a pivotal one, given that we’re approaching Super Tuesday, the most consequential of all the primary milestones, and also that Mike Bloomberg would finally have to face questions from the media and from the other candidates. This morning I read several debate recaps and I gather Bloomberg didn’t do so well. I’m not surprised.
People with that much money tend to live in a bubble where they are rarely challenged. It’s terrible debate prep. Anyone hoping to lead the country or represent a state or win any election needs to confront opposition on a regular basis. People may bend to your will when you’re the boss of a large corporation, but politics is a different world. You have to be able to talk to people who tell you when you’re wrong. You can’t just shut them down because you have the most money.
So I’m glad Elizabeth Warren challenged Bloomberg on his use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to silence women who’ve accused him of inappropriate behavior in the workplace. Bloomberg, and every other man who uses NDAs to keep women from speaking out against him, ought to examine why he chooses to quash speech rather than engage in a conversation and respond to allegations.
It’s worth noting that these sorts of NDAs are exclusively used by the very wealthy. They can afford the legal muscle to enforce these agreements. But a settlement in a sexual harassment or sexual assault case should never come with a muzzle. If men with money know they can buy silence, they have no reason to change their behavior. And isn’t that what matters most? Shouldn’t we be worried less about protecting reputations and more about creating a world where sexism and sexual harassment are so widely condemned and discredited that any man would be ashamed to engage in it? That world can’t happen if we aren’t allowed to talk about the world that came before.
It has never been okay to treat women the way Bloomberg allegedly has for his entire career. We can’t excuse it by saying that times have changed or that the rules have changed. But we can acknowledge that for much of our nation’s history there were absolutely no negative consequences for men, particularly wealthy and powerful men, who treated female employees and coworkers as sexual objects. This sort of behavior was normalized in many workplaces. It seems to have been the norm for Bloomberg for an awfully long time.
Now, it seems that Bloomberg wants to erase or ignore the history of sexual complaints against him. He wants voters to judge him on his words and actions now and to forget about all the words and actions that came before. He wants to make that easy for voters by ensuring that many of his most egregious past words and actions never see the light. But we know what lurks in the darkness of those NDAs. We may not know all of the specifics of Bloomberg’s transgressions, but we’ve seen this play out before. Bloomberg’s NDAs are no different than Trump’s NDAs or Roger Ailes’s NDAs or Bill O’Reilly’s NDAs. This is not great company.
If Bloomberg wants to move past the rumors about his misconduct, he needs to let his accusers speak. He needs to respond to the allegations and apologize to the women and to the voters. He needs to admit to any wrongdoing and tell us how and why he’s changed. Then, and only then, can voters decide whether he’s a legitimate candidate or just a slightly more palatable version of Trump.
One of the things Michelle Wolf talked about during her set is how we need to decide what we want from the #MeToo movement. Do we want retribution or do we want things to change? Do we want a better future? It’s not an either/or proposition and I don’t want to oversimplify the issue. But I do want a better, different future. One way we can make meaningful change is to outlaw these non-disclosure agreements in their current form. NDAs can be useful tools to protect trade secrets, but they should never be used to protect individuals from public scrutiny. We should make it illegal to use these agreements for that purpose.
I stand with Elizabeth Warren, who calls on Bloomberg to release his accusers from their non-disclosure agreements. Not only do voters deserve to hear from these women, Bloomberg needs to listen and respond to them. The only way he can prove he is different from the other men who’ve silenced their accusers, is to respond in a brand new way. He needs to allow dissent.
If we want a different future—a better future—we have to start dealing honestly with the past. Nothing will change if we continue to do the same things over and over. Money can buy you silence, Mike Bloomberg. It can buy you airtime and it can buy you a spot on the debate stage, but it can’t erase your past actions. It can’t absolve you from dealing with consequences. Money can’t buy you love, Mike, and it won’t buy you this election.