The election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of America’s largest state represents a kind of milestone in the decline of American democracy. This is not “Reagan II, the Movie,” as some have suggested–a second actor being elected governor of the tinsel state. Reagan, for all the criticism that he was “just an actor,” in fact had paid his political dues, leading the actors union and getting involved in a variety of campaigns–for example against Medicare–before jumping into electoral politics to run for governor. While he certainly relied on his actor’s charm to manufacture a persona, he had a conservative political agenda and was fairly candid about it.
Schwarzenegger, in contrast, has no political background. He is a total artifice, a creation of a group of Republican backers who care little or nothing about his personal beliefs or ideology, and see him as a vehicle for restoring Republican control in a state that has been becoming increasingly Democratic.
What is incredible, and terribly demoralizing about this election is that a majority of voters in a state holding a fifth of the U.S. population bought the product. In a moment of nihilistic fury at the corruption and cronyism of the Democratic Party apparatus and its titular head, Gov. Gray Davis, they cast their votes along with the state’s Republicans for a man who stands for nothing but himself, who is a long-time misogynist with a history of assaulting women, and who is in thrall to business interests (who can be expected attempt to gut the state’s once model regulatory apparatus).
Make no mistake: the Democratic Party richly deserved this debacle. California Democratic politicians have long taken their traditional liberal, labor and minority base for granted. The ultimate Clintonians, California’s Democratic leadership bought into the neo-Liberal idea of deregulation, bringing on the state’s electricity crisis; they have endorsed right-wing get-tough approaches to crime that have made the state a leader in prison construction, and in the grotesque mass incarceration of minorities, and most seriously they have surrendered to the three-decades long Republican-led drive to limit property taxes (a grossly favor-the-rich campaign), refusing to offer progressive alternatives that would tax corporations and the rich to pay for schools, roads and other essential local services. Little wonder then that in a crisis, that progressive Democratic base not only failed to turn out to defend an embattled Democratic politician, but in many cases actually voted for his nemesis.
The sad thing is that they didn’t have to do it.
There was an alternative, and I don’t mean Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamonte, who despite his Hispanic name and working class background was just another cog in the Clintonian centrist Democratic Machine.
The alternative was Peter Camejo, the Green Party candidate–a genuine progressive and, like Bustamonte, a Latino.
Why the huge wave of Democratic support for Schwarzenegger?
My guess is that these normally Democratic voters weren’t really thinking. They were understandably angry at Gray Davis and the Democratic Party. That would explain the yes vote on the recall, and the failure to vote for Bustamonte, who is really just a better fed and less hirsute Davis. But if they had been thinking, they wouldn’t have voted for Schwarzenegger, who will in the end do nothing to help the state’s school system, which is beginning to rival Mississippi’s, especially in urban districts, in terms of poor outcomes, and who is likely to continue with deregulation schemes while gutting environmental protections and undermining organized labor. No Arnold, who has admitted to admiring, if not the actions of, then at least the style of countryman Adolf Hitler, has managed to copy his mustachioed mentor, in portraying himself as a muscular leader (the Austrian word for that is Fuehrer). And millions of Californians–many of them registered Democrats according to exit polls– apparently liked that.
Well, an awful lot of Germans also liked that one back in the election of 1932.
Of course, that’s not to say Arnold is Adolf. He has said he despises everything Hitler did and stood for, and we have no reason not to believe him. California is not about to become a fascist outpost on the North American continent because of his election. (If fascism is to come to America, it will arrive in Washington, not California, and more likely in creeping form via actions of the Pentagon and the Justice and Homeland Security Departments than overtly via election.)
What is dismaying about this recall election is how many Californians were willing to vote for that empty muscle shirt with the carefully dyed and coifed hairstyle above, and the carefully scripted and equally empty slogans. (Equally dismaying is the poor showing by the Greens’ Camejo. If there were ever a time for dissatisfied progressives to turn to a third party for a protest vote, this was it. For Camejo, who was articulate, campaigned aggressively, and who was able to get unprecedented state-wide attention in a heavily viewed televised five-way candidates’ debate, to have still garnered less than 3 percent of the vote, means that hard-line third party advocates need to seriously reassess their strategy of shunning, and running against, the Democratic Party. For whatever reason, that strategy ain’t working.)
Gen. Wesley Clark, the “muscle man” in the Democratic presidential primary campaign, has meanwhile offered an Arnold-like example of vacuity in announcing his candidacy with a speech that called for moving the country “forward, not backward,” a line that somehow managed to evoke wild cheering from his audience.
Nature may abhor a vacuum, but apparently California voters, and American voters in general, love it. Schwarzenegger’s big win in California–based as it was on such deliberate emptiness–is likely to reinforce this tendency in a national Democratic Party that for years, and especially since the election of William Jefferson Clinton, has consciously and carefully stood for nothing.
If the California electorate is in any way indicative of the state of the national electorate, the outlook for 2004, and for American democracy, is grim.
Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here: http://www.nwuphilly.org/dave.html