During Tuesday night’s Democratic primary debate, former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg challenged his opponents’ assertions that he hadn’t been a consistent supporter of the party’s values and candidates. “They talk about 40 Democrats,” Bloomberg said of the candidates that swept Republicans from the House of Representatives in 2018. “Twenty-one of those were people that I spent $100 million to help elect,” Bloomberg told the cheering crowd. “I bought—I got them.”

This was less of a Freudian slip than a frank, if depressing assessment of our political system. Money has always been the lifeblood of electoral politics in America. According to the dictionary, we are living in a plutocracy: the average net worth of a member of Congress is more than $500,000, five times that of the median U.S. household, and around half its members are millionaires.

“From whom does the government hear? We show over and over again, six ways to Sunday, that the government hears from well educated and affluent people,” said Kay Schlozman, a political science professor at Boston College and the co-author of Unequal and Unrepresented: Political Inequality and the People’s Voice in the New Gilded Age. “Both individually, as well as the organizations that they support, much more than people of ordinary means or especially of limited means.”

Wealth does not guarantee a victory at the polls. “Time and again, people throw ridiculous sums of money at races and go down in flames,” said Sheila Krumholz, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money and its influence in the political system.

“A presidential general election is probably the least effective place to spend money, since most voters have strong partisan predispositions and a lot of information about the candidates,” added Larry Bartles, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University. “The Democrats outspent Trump pretty substantially in 2016, but somehow he wasn’t crushed.”

But according to Krumholz, Bloomberg’s wealth puts him “at a level altogether different from the average rich candidates that have come and gone before.”

Bloomberg, the twelfth-richest person in the world, is roughly 40 times richer than Tom Steyer, the other billionaire on stage Tuesday night, and considerably richer than Ross Perot was when he ran as an independent in 1992. The Bloomberg LP founder spent hundreds of millions of dollars on his three campaigns for mayor ($174 per vote to win his third term) and untold billions to elect Republicans and Democrats, while furthering causes like gun control, anti-tobacco measures, and fighting global warming. As of this writing, he has spent more than a half a billion dollars in campaign advertising, $190 million more than everyone else on the debate stage combined.

“I think Mike Bloomberg is a very special kind of candidate,” said Robin Kolodny, a professor who chairs the political science department at Temple University.If it were just about money, Tom Steyer should be cleaning up. A huge difference is that he’s a three time mayor. He knows how to campaign.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg (Republican of New York) welcomes Donald Trump and Melania Knauss to his hospitality suite prior to the White House Correspondents Association Dinner in April, 2001.

Decades of federal case law, from Buckley v. Valeo to Citizens United, has firmly established that money is considered protected speech under the First Amendment, and the open primary process adopted after the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention created a cash-fueled, party-warping process that is unique among modern democracies.

“You think of all those other democracies—what happens is, a party has a conference, they’d take elected officials of parliament, or paid party officials, and those people go to a convention, and they would select the top of the ticket. Because in those other democracies, you’re supposed to be looking at the program of the party not just the top,” said Kolodny. “What we’ve done here is just the opposite. ‘We don’t really know what the Democratic party stands for in this election. Here’s six different brands. Choose one and then we’ll tell you.’”

Taking federal elections out of a set schedule and thus a permanent campaign cycle, and creating public financing programs could blunt money’s effect somewhat. But the idea that money equals speech is an awfully sticky one, especially when candidates like Mike Blooomberg derive most of their power from it and express zero desire for putting checks on the system. (The Bloomberg campaign did not respond to our questions for this story.)

“I don’t like this better than anybody else, but here’s the fundamental problem: There’s no way to stop this. None,” Kolodny said.

"Every single country that has state-supported campaign money, every single one of them can’t keep private interested money out of the system," Kolodny added. "Trump used to violate these laws all the time. They just interpret the fine as the cost of doing business. Really to me, that’s the part that you can’t reconcile...Even if you could go ahead and make it so money wasn’t able to be spent, how do you do it in a way that wouldn’t violate some other fundamental right?"

So what kind of effect does all this money have on the electorate and the idea that democracy is supposed to embody quaint ideals like “one person one vote”? Do voters bombarded with Bloomberg ads internalize the fact that wealth can drown out all other methods of creating political power?

“Certainly there is a relatively widespread understanding that politics is rigged. The understanding of exactly how it's rigged—there’s no consensus on that, but we definitely know that cynicism about politicians and so on has gone up a lot since the 1960s,” said Schlozman, the Boston College professor. “I definitely worry that another extremely rich candidate who is using his own resources on his behalf will continue to bolster the notion that the system is rigged.”

Susan Lerner, the executive director of the government group Common Cause, said that Bloomberg’s entire public career has hurt small-d democracy.

“He did it when he was mayor, and now he’s doing it in a highly increased manner running for president. And it feeds a discouraging cynicism on the part of the public. It turns people off,” Lerner said. “They believe, well, I don’t have multiple millions, therefore my voice doesn’t count, it’s all prearranged. You can buy your way onto the debate stage, you can buy your way onto the ballot, you can buy your way into office and it doesn’t really matter what I think or which candidate I work for because there’s an infinite amount of money trying to put a thumb on the scale.”

Lerner pointed to the way that Bloomberg literally subverted democracy to gain a third term as mayor.

“If anybody was able to convince the voters that it was a good idea to extend to three terms it would have been Mike Bloomberg at that time,” Lerner said. “He refused to submit his arguments to the voters, he came up with an extraordinarily high-handed procedure to grant himself a third term, and then turned around and created the situation where we are looking at two thirds of our city council being termed out in 2021, which is a disaster from a institutional, continuity point of view.”

Aside from his spending, there are other problems that Bloomberg’s record as mayor pose to democratic institutions.

“His critics would say that the most undemocratic things about him were the way he used the police department to shut down the protests around the national political convention at the beginning of his mayoralty,” said John Mollenkopf, a political science professor and the director of CUNY’s Center for Urban Research. “Or the way the police department moved on Occupy Wall Street, or the surveillance of Muslims after 9/11, or the rise of stop-and-frisk.”

The $60-billion question may be whether Democratic voters will see Bloomberg’s wealth and record as enough to defeat Trump. The fact that he has a record at all gives him a leg up over his ultra-wealthy progenitors.

“It’s a stinky system, we don’t want a system in which the capacity of anybody to write checks is going to determine the outcome. In this particular case, he has a lot more to go on than just his ability to write checks,” Mollenkopf said. “I wouldn’t dismiss him just because he’s a rich guy.”