I Think I m Dreaming
By, Jean-Marcel Bouguereau
Le Nouvel Observateur
Thursday 09 October 2003
I think I m dreaming. A B movie actor whose only titles to glory up to now have been winning the "Mr. Biceps of the World", alias "Mr. Universe" contests five times, a man with no political experience who built his immense fortune by playing the roles of paranormal and destructive robots has just been elected governor of the most populous of the United States, which, with its 35 million inhabitants, remains the world s fifth largest economy, approximately equivalent to France s. Significantly, voting also took place the same day-time differences exempted- in Chechnya and in California. In the first case, the ignoble front for a post-Communist dictatorship and its puppets won, in the other, behind "Terminator" the robot, it s the radiant face of the sequined world, where, as the great Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, himself a former unsuccessful presidential candidate in his own country, noted, "power is acquired through the techniques of manipulating human sensitivities and emotion.
That makes us laugh at the movies, but are games to make you cry in real life." Schwarzengger was elected without the least program, but with millions of dollars from a personal fortune estimated at $200 million. Building his short campaign on his celebrity as a machine-actor, he announced his candidacy during a comedian s show and presented what serves for a program on the platter of the show of his friend the famous Oprah Winfrey, also a multi-millionaire. A program which he summarized thus: "it s important to revive business, employment, education". "Terminator" has promised nothing less than to "destroy" the 38 billion dollar deficit California is struggling with. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not concealed his hand. Holding a broom, didn t he say "so that the people win, politics has to lose"? It has. In a disturbing way. As Guy Debord wrote in his famous work, "The Entertainment Society": "entertainment is the nightmare of chained modern society that expresses only its desire to sleep. Entertainment is the guardian of that sleep."
Jean-Marcel Bouguereau is Editor-in-Chief of the Nouvel Observateur. He is also an editorialist at the R publique des Pyr n es, for which this article was written.
Translation: Truthout French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher
By Mark Lawson
Thursday 09 October 2003
He has no political experience, no policies and a cupboard full of skeletons. So what does the rise of the Terminator tell us about the state of American politics? And should we be worried?
To borrow the format of those old doctor jokes, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that we are unlikely to have to sit through Terminator 4 for quite some years now. The bad news is that the biggest state in America has just chosen to entrust a $3bn deficit to a man who has no experience of politics and no discernible policies.
One of the tricks of history is the speed with which the impossible comes to seem inevitable. And, barely two months after the prospect of Governor Schwarzenegger seemed the biggest joke in politics since Hartlepool elected a man in a monkey-suit, the result coming from the radio yesterday morning felt almost boringly pre-ordained. Opinion polls and cynicism about the American electorate had long ago convinced most of us that it would happen.
It is important, though, to keep alive in our minds the unlikeliness of this event. Twentieth-century American democracy created something called a "machine politician": a candidate who owed office to long party service and the backroom machinations of the precinct bosses.
Now 21st-century American democracy has given us a candidate, Governor Schwarzenegger, who is in one sense the opposite of a machine politician - he has lost almost no shoe leather along the traditional routes of the future leader - but who, conversely, is the first major American politician not only to look and sound like a machine but to have spent much of his adult life playing one on celluloid.
And it is the Terminator franchise that touches on another remarkable aspect of the rise of the machine governor. Schwarzenegger's candidacy deliberately invoked the precedent of Ronald Reagan, the last Hollywood ham to reach the California governor's mansion. Arnie presented himself as a movie-leader sequel to the extent of holding his victory party in the same hotel as the star of Bedtime For Bonzo hosted his.
Yet there is a crucial difference between the two men's preparation for election. By the time Reagan reclaimed California for the Republicans in 1966, his film career was deep in recession. He had been active in union politics since as early as 1947, had put in years on the "rubber chicken" circuit of political dinners and had campaigned heavily in the presidential election of 1964.
For playing the role of leader, Reagan had spent at least a decade in makeup. What's startling about Arnie is that he parlayed himself from movie star to politician in so short a time that his most recent No1 box-office hit - Terminator 3 - isn't out on DVD yet.
The easy response to this plot twist in American democracy is to argue that Arnie, a physical freak, is also a political one. Machine politicians of the previous kind can console themselves with the fact that the unusual circumstances of Governor Gray Davis's departure - an almost unprecedented mid-term removal of a governor through the "recall" process - were especially favourable to a leftfield candidacy such as Schwarzenegger's. In a short race without primaries - and one predicated on showing dissent with conventional legislators - an instantly recognisable non-politician was always going to have the advantage over unknowns who knew their way round a debating chamber.
But, while the outcome can certainly be rationalised in this way, the odds should still have been against the election of a man who, in a political system biased towards soundbites, produced something more akin to a sound-chew and delivered even these in what was audibly a second language to him.
Incomprehensible in the present, he was then faced with the charge of having been unpalatable in the past: accused of both a wandering mouth - allegedly praising Hitler when a young man - and wandering hands: a queue of women lined up to describe nipple-tweaking, skirt-lifting and a general assumption, not uncommon among Hollywood alpha males, that the female of the species is a sort of snack tray for powerful men.
By all known psephological textbooks, a man presented - caricatured, he insists - as a Nazi-sympathising sexual harasser should have no chance of winning in the most liberal and feminist state in America. The importance of what happened in California on Tuesday is that two questions were tested which may have some relevance to the future of American politics. Is the sheer power of celebrity enough to take a person from nothing to government? And can a candidate win despite the discovery of horrors in their biography? The Schwarzenegger victory suggests that the answer to both is yes.
Neither response is entirely surprising. In a culture obsessed with speed - in which even relative connection times to the internet become the focus of advertising battles between corporations - an already-famous face starts a campaign with a vast advantage. And - as Bill Clinton first showed - scandal has become survivable because the cynicism that the public feels towards politicians is also extended to political journalists who expose the candidates' weaknesses.
But the key to the election of Governor Arnie is a phenomenon which might be called narrative politics. American electoral campaigns have tended to be driven by the theory of "retail politics": the candidate made as many speeches, shook the maximum number of hands, accrued the largest air-mile account as possible. Races were won by imprinting a face and a few simple policies through ceaseless repetition.
But, in recent American elections, the centrality of chapped hands and battered soles to a candidate's chances has been balanced against the quicker, simpler power of narrative politics. The victor was likely to be not the man who put in most hours but the one who told the most extraordinary story about himself.
Hence George W Bush - a notoriously indolent campaigner - was able to match the more assiduous Gore because his candidacy was a better yarn: a son following his dad into the Oval Office, a drunk sorting himself out, a child taking revenge on the administration that beat his father.
Previously, the election of the wrestler Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota was an extreme example of narrative politics - voters bored with the process waking themselves up with an unlikely plot twist - but even Clinton can be seen as a beneficiary of this electoral mentality. In 1992, the entry into the White House of a womanising, draft-dodging poor Southern boy whose father had died before he was born was simply a better story to tell history than the re-election of the patrician George Bush senior.
A rough rule of narrative politics is that the candidate whose life story makes the best Hollywood movie will win the race. Which is why Schwarzenegger represents the greatest triumph of the theory to date. In the past, narrative politics has had to be combined with retail politics: Clinton, like Reagan before him, had spent years shaking hands and practising legislation.
Schwarzenegger, who had done the retail part unknowingly in multiplexes over decades, relied during his campaign entirely on his narrative: his pitch. Beginning with the neatness that a man who had made a film called Total Recall should be competing in a recall election, his run for governor was such a bold and ridiculous tale that you kept thinking it needed a script editor.
Even apart from his own compelling back story - body-building to nation-building - there was also the B-plot that his marriage to Maria Shriver (niece of JFK and Bobby) also made the race a strange and wonderful pay-off to one of America's greatest political storylines: the Kennedys. The advantage of narrative politics is that weaknesses are reclassified as strengths. A politician who knows nothing about politics? What a premise. A leader who can barely speak an American sentence aloud? Such a gripping yarn. A candidate whose answer to the bankruptcy of California is to propose tax cuts? We sure want to stay and see how this turns out.
The paradox of narrative politics is that it is the very improbability of the campaign that gives it plausibility. In voting booths now - as always in cinemas - audiences will sacrifice coherence for surprise. This is democracy played by the rules of a Hollywood script conference and so, in this context, the coming of the machine governor ceases to be a surprise. Arnie may know nothing much about politics but he's a proven genius at the business of getting Americans to swallow preposterous propositions and outcomes.
The sequel to Schwarzenegger's victory is harder to script. No major American political office can ever have been filled by someone so devoid of ideas. Even the sleepy Reagan had Reaganomics; Arnie goes in to tackle the budget deficit armed with just a few puns on his most popular movie titles. Reagan made up for his lack of interest in position papers by his brilliance at reading speeches. But, in Governor Arnie, we are faced with a politician who can't do either. He is rapidly going to have to find some kind of stand-in - an ideological stunt-man - to do the stuff beyond the photo-opportunities.
The governor also needs to worry that, even in the new politics, a ruthless rule of the old politics may still apply: what goes around comes around. The impeachment of Clinton was the Republicans' revenge for the Democrats forcing Nixon's resignation. If Davis can be tipped out of office in mid-term by the Republicans, then the Democrats - unless the Californian situation rapidly improves - can, and will, use the same constitutional device against the new guy. Whatever his contribution to politics, Arnie is a gift to political journalism because he has already provided the headlines for the coverage of a crisis. True Lies would be followed rapidly by Recall II.
But, as the new governor of California knows from the movie business, what seems to be the biggest twist should always be followed by another one. Cut to the presidential race in 2004 or 2008. Don't worry: restart your heart. There is no risk of Arnie being in it. Although his admirers speak of supreme court challenges, his Austrian birthplace constitutionally prevents him from imitating Reagan a second time.
Yet - if the age of narrative politics has dawned - then the potential leader with the best pitch is Hillary Clinton. After the first father-and-son presidential double-act and the first muscle-building movie-star governor of California, the best way of keeping American voters buying popcorn would be the first First Lady to become the first female president. In that sense, at least, one Democrat may have smiled at the Californian result.
Jump to TO Features for Wednesday 10 October 2003