‘Schwarzeneggerian politics’

What began as an unfunny joke in a bad Sylvester Stallone movie (1993’s “Demolition Man”) turned out to be a grim prophecy: Arnold Schwarzenegger really did get elected to public office after all.

Pop-culture references aside, the recall of California Gov. Gray Davis and his replacement by a megalomaniacal multi-millionaire celebrity with virtually no political experience or convictions is not without precedent. The recent freak show in California is actually only an extreme manifestation of a larger trend in American culture – namely, the convergence of politics and celebrity worship.

Elections have always been popularity contests, and the arrival of television in the last century certainly tipped the scales in favor of politicians who were best at manipulating a mass audience. But until recently, style could never completely overcome substance – not when people knew their lives and political futures were at stake.

The California debacle suggests that might already have changed. The most outstanding characteristic of Schwarzenegger’s campaign was that it contained virtually no politics whatsoever. The moderate positions he adopted on issues like gun control, abortion, environmental regulations and gay rights seem expressly designed to court the maximum number of voters – as if his campaign staffers took a survey to find out what Californians thought about various issues and then took the exact median stance on each one.

As for the issue that started the whole mess – California’s titanic deficit – Schwarzenegger never said how he planned to fix it. Instead, he uttered insane banalities such as, “It’s disturbing to realize that after taking a close look at California’s budget, it’s hard to make any sense out of it.” Right – that and $38 billion will solve the deficit.

Instead of focusing on the issues, Schwarzenegger’s campaign staff deftly shifted the focus onto Schwarzenegger himself. His life story – a mixture of Horatio Alger meets Scarface with hefty doses of Primobolon and Dianabol (two popular steroids Schwarzenegger once abused) – was offered up as evidence that he was a natural-born leader, a can-do kind of guy who worked his way up from a poor immigrant son of a Nazi to an international superstar.

Political elections in the postmodern United States have apparently been reduced to the level of the world’s highest-stakes reality TV series. As a friend of mine who teaches journalism at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks put it, “It’s as if people feel like they need to get the same feeling from politics as they do from a rock concert.” People will throw away votes on anyone – from Jesse Ventura to Ralph Nader – who gets them excited about politics.

This does not bode well for the current lineup of 2004 Democratic presidential candidates, who are all unfailingly dull.

During Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, the most serious charge leveled against him was that he was “boring.” Unfortunately, it cost him the election (Supreme Court chicanery notwithstanding).

Now the Democrats are in a tough spot. Their most qualified candidates – John Kerry and Joe Lieberman – are widely perceived to be boring beltway insiders who lack the star quality to draw potential swing voters.

On the other hand, the two rising stars in the party – Howard Dean and Wesley Clark – are both problematic. The first is considered to be another George McGovern, who would lose to Bush in a landslide. The other has the kind of military background Democrats drool over but has no political experience and might or might not be a fanatic.

Dean’s propensity for telling the truth also puts him at a serious disadvantage. As P.J. O’Rourke once pointed out, only candidates who don’t expect to win can tell the truth.

Clark, on the other hand, is vague and equivocal enough to get elected. Clark, above all the other Democratic hopefuls, has the star quality – the good looks, sly confidence and evasive style – necessary to win over an American public that suffers collectively from national attention deficit disorder.

Perhaps the lesson we should take from California is Americans don’t really want politicians who are going to deal with the issues; rather, they want men whose images are exactly what you would want political leaders to look like.

Schwarzenegger is the apotheosis of this principle: a man who presents no strong views on anything but nevertheless comes off looking like a leader. Californians seem to have elected him on the off chance his king-of-alpha-males persona will somehow translate into actual political ability.

Nicholas Busse’s column usually appears alternate Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]