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Acting to High Office
August 14, 2003
By Michael Wensky

It's official. Arnold Schwarzenegger has officially filed the paperwork to run for governor of California in the recall election on October 7. Arnold was greeted with predictable cheers and shrieks when he came to the courthouse to file the paperwork, despite being chastised in front of TV cameras by Arianna Huffington for driving an SUV. Huffington, who is also running for governor and who just happened to arrive at the same time as Schwarzenegger, also "accidentally" knocked down the microphone stand before Arnold could speak. Luckily for her, the Terminator was not in search and destroy mode.

Ever since Schwarzenegger's announcement on The Tonight Show, California GOP leadership has worked overtime to clear the field for him, with some success. The day after the announcement, a weeping Darrell Issa dropped out of the race for governor. Issa, a conservative congressman from San Diego, who has spent millions of dollars of his own money for the recall effort, claimed that he planned all along to leave the race as soon as there are other "qualified" candidates on the ballot. Other potential heavyweights, like former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, also bowed out. However, bumbling businessman Bill Simon, the man who lost to Davis just ten months ago, remained on the ballot.

It may seem strange that the socially liberal bodybuilder from Austria was able to jump into the race as the Republican frontrunner. The Republican Party didn't exactly have a warm relationship with celebrities. It just a couple of months ago when Republicans were busy chastising Sean Penn, Sheryl Crow, and the Dixie Chicks for giving their two cents about the war against Iraq, insisting that being famous doesn't give one any credibility to speak out on serious issues.

However, the truth is that the Republican Party has a history of running inexperienced entertainers as candidates for high office. Our 40th president Ronald Reagan had exactly the same amount of political experience as Arnold when he ran for governor of California in 1968, which is none. Fred Thompson, an actor who represented the great state of Tennessee from 1994 to 2000, was a complete political neophyte when he won his senate seat. Sonny Bono was voted the Mayor of Palm Springs, California - a small but important resort city - with no previous administrative experience.

To be sure, there are liberal celebrities who sought public office. However, as much as progressive voters may identify with the politics of self-described pornographer Larry Flynt or daytime talk show host Jerry Springer, they have never accepted these candidates are mainstream. Even though the vast majority of politically active actors and singers are progressive, there has been no movement to draft any liberal celebrity into political races. The liberal celebrity candidates who were successful in seeking high office, like Senators Hillary Clinton and John Glenn, were not entertainers.

The right's infatuation with know-nothing celebrity candidates can best be explained by its anti-intellectual culture. As the historian Richard Hofstadter explained in his book Anti-intellectualism in American Life, the fundamentalist mind is "essentially Manichean; it looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and accordingly it scorns compromises (who would compromise with Satan?)." In such a world view, Hofstadter added, "The issues of actual world are hence transformed into a spiritual Armegeddon, an ultimate reality, in which any reference to day-by-day actualities has the character of an allegorical illustration, and not of the empirical evidence that ordinary men offer for ordinary conclusions." Therefore, a fundamentalist would not assess a leader by his actual political behavior. What he would do instead is to decide where this leader lie in the realm of moral and spiritual values, which for him was infinitely more real.

It is natural for entertainers to thrive in a political culture that values a leader's private morals more than his stand on issues, that focuses more on his public image more than his qualifications. After all, entertainers made their living by promoting a particular public persona that may have nothing to do with reality. Years of presenting themselves in front of large groups of people gave them poise and articulation. They're also experienced in reading out loud with while coming across with sincerity. They are the perfect spokespeople for a political movement build on compact sound bites.

The inexperience of celebrity candidates has not been a liability at all. In fact, it can be turned into an asset. Conservative voters are known to be derisive, rather than appreciative, of knowledge. Remember that after the second presidential debate between Bush and Gore, Al Gore was lambasted by the media punditocracy for using the names of the sponsors of the Patients' Bill of Rights, Dingell-Norwood, to distinguish the bill he supported from the one Bush was advocating. The right wants candidates who don't pepper their speeches with annoying foreign names, boring technical jargons, and - god forbid - any accounting or math.

The main trait that right wing voters believe to best qualify a candidate for high office is not education, political experience, or knowledge. It is wealth. They're not really particular about how the candidates made money, as long as they made a bundle of it. You can become a millionaire through insider trading and running companies created by your daddy's business partners, like the current president, or you can get your millions from the simple expedient of being born in the right home, like Steve Forbes. As long as you made a serious amount of money you are automatically assumed to possess high marks from the school of hard knocks, assumed to possess the wisdom and common sense needed to take on the responsibility of public office.

When a new candidate emerges, a typical progressive voter's first question is on what has he done, while a right wing voter is more likely to ask questions pertaining to the candidate's character. Once the right winger is convinced that the candidate possess the right character traits, he is willing to overlook even significant deviations from conservative orthodoxy. That is why the Republican Party, which is made up of such disparate elements as economic supply-siders to anti-abortion activists, can seem to move in lock step. Orrin Hatch's support of stem-cell study cost him almost no political price, while a Democratic senator who voted for the partial abortion ban would suffer fundraising losses and even draw protests.

Liberals shouldn't be distressed that they do not have their own Arnolds and Ronalds. Liberals want perspective, context, and nuance, not red meat and foaming mouths. On so-called "liberal" radio stations like NPR and Pacifica, you don't have and will never have shows that consist of one guy ranting about the virtues of one party and the horrors of another for two hours. Liberal talk shows always have guests. Liberal callers would never call themselves "dittoheads." That format would not appeal to the fastest growing segment of Democratic voters, professionals with college and advance degrees.

Developments in the mainstream media will unfortunately create more viewers and listeners who think like fundamentalists. A media that overreports Kobe Bryant and Laci Peterson while underreporting the facts of the Iraq war and the Bush tax cut encourages its consumers to be interested in private scandals, superficial personal biographies, and to be averse to details and facts. A voter who is used to a media market where stations show thirty minutes of world news and two hours of local petty crimes and unsanitary restaurants a day is not likely to concern himself with the effect of the budget deficit, the dynamics of Middle East peace, and various proposals at corporate reform. Well-meaning but nonpolitical citizens who want news outlets that promote thinking, deliberation, and perspective are hard pressed to find them.

However, people are not as dumb as some politicians like to think. Arnold Schwarzenegger may think he has a good chance of winning because he's running in California, the home of Hollywood. However, he should be worried that he's running in California. Through the endless cycles of voter initiatives and propositions, the people of California were forced to learn government issues like property tax, the energy market, worker's compensation, and healthcare. As a group they're a better educated and more politically aware than voters of other states; when they start to ask the tough questions, Arnold had better come up with answers of more than five words. Catchphrases and slogans may be good enough for the voters who signed the recall petition, but the rest need more than "I'll pump up Sacramento" to circle Schwarzenegger's name.


Michael Wensky is a writer based in Houston, Texas.

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