That's entertainment

Although much of the country was mystified by, even aghast at, California’s recall election, Californians appear to have enjoyed the spectacle immensely, turning out in droves to replace a bland professional politician with a movie star best known for aping the gestures of a robot programmed to ape the gestures of human beings. It’s amazing what a promise not to raise taxes will do, even for a bad actor.

Whether Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election signals the next step in the triumph of entertainment and stagecraft over substantive politics, and of celebrity over character, remains to be seen. It certainly feels like it. One thing is certain, however: Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to be watched intently here and around the world. Although his campaign was, in one respect, little more than the shrewd manipulation of innocuous images and empty rhetoric-the sort of public-relations trick that American historian Daniel Boorstin once labeled a “pseudo-event”-it nevertheless touched a genuine chord with voters. Schwarzenegger put his own rags-to-riches story center stage, demonstrating the enduring appeal of the American promise of unfettered opportunity and immigrant success. His sincerity, if not the coherence of his ideas, was undeniable.

Schwarzenegger’s victory is being heralded as a triumph for popular democracy and a rebuke to the “political class.” Certainly it was a rebuke to Democratic Governor Gray Davis (see Thomas Higgins, page 6), who had been elected to a second term less than a year ago. Hit hard by the collapse of the dot-com economy, whose taxpaying entrepreneurs and investors made the state government flush in the 1990s, California is now facing a possible $10-billion budget shortfall. Lacking the tax revenue produced by a booming economy, the state has few options for balancing its budget. Californians already pay one of the highest income taxes in the nation, and thanks to antitax initiatives such as the notorious Proposition 13, local government is severely restricted in what it can raise in property taxes. Moreover, California is one of only two states that require a two-thirds majority in the legislature to pass a budget. That makes deadlock almost inevitable, even when one party controls the governor’s office as well as both houses in the legislature, as it did under Davis. Voters, faced with the prospect of higher taxes or draconian cuts in social services, or some combination of the two, decided they had little to lose by opting for a political novice with a populist, probusiness, antitax message. “For the people to win, politics as usual must lose,” Schwarzenegger proclaimed. He will now have to do the politicking such rhetoric is meant to discredit.

Whether California is governable at all may be the question. With its system of initiatives, referendums, and recall elections, little is predictable in state politics. In addition to recalling the governor, California voters can make law and overrule laws passed by the legislature. Some cheer these populist mechanisms as “direct” democracy, but they are easily manipulated, especially by the wealthy and the ideologically extreme. The recall of Davis was financed by a millionaire Republican ideologue. The rules of the recall itself hardly seemed fair, with Davis having to win more than 50 percent of the vote to stay in office while his successor needed only a plurality to win. Arguably, the sort of paralysis California’s politics has descended into is precisely what representative democracy, or politics as usual, was designed to avoid. Californians are constantly asked to vote on ballot measures-forty-three in L.A. County in 2000-that they have little information about, while term limits for state legislators, the result of another initiative, make expertise and leadership hard to come by.

Not only will Schwarzenegger face an entrenched Democratic opposition, he will also have to balance a budget that, thanks again to successful initiative campaigns, places 70 percent of the general fund beyond the grasp of the governor and legislature. Balancing the budget under these conditions without raising taxes will be a trick perhaps possible only in the movies.

Schwarzenegger’s proponents think he will be able to use his star power to pressure Democrats and his popularity to bring financial help from Washington, where President George W. Bush is assessing the electoral potential of having a Republican governor in the nation’s most populous, and perhaps most Democratic, state. Schwarzenegger’s impact on the Republican Party’s social and cultural agenda has also provoked speculation, especially in the light of accusations of sexual harassment made against him. As an abortion-rights advocate, gay-rights supporter, and environmentalist-not to mention a member of the Kennedy family-Schwarzenegger stands for much of what the activist core of the Republican Party despises. What Republicans will find difficult to resist, however, is the new California governor’s appeal to suburban women, independents, even Democrats.

It is hard to be sanguine about what California’s recall election means for the health of democracy. Except in cases of obvious corruption or fraud, recalling a legitimately elected governor is a usurpation-not an expansion-of popular sovereignty. It is also a recipe for electing officeholders incapable of making unpopular decisions, lest a disgruntled, well-financed minority threaten one recall campaign after another.

Schwarzenegger has promised Californians much more than most observers think it is possible to deliver. What’s new about that kind of politics? Did voters actually think he would be the answer to the state’s problems? Were they blowing off steam or just confusing fantasy with reality? Probably all three. But like box-office magnetism, celebrity is a fickle business. Schwarzenegger’s sudden emergence as a populist antipolitician brings to mind Jesse Ventura, the once much-talked about governor of Minnesota. Ventura’s term ended unhappily for all concerned, a reminder that politics is real work, not mere play-acting, and celebrity is usually as hollow as it appears.

Published in the 2003-10-24 issue: 
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