‘I’ll be blank’

Arnie's California victory shows the triumph of anti-politics.

Helen Searls

Topics Politics

The recall of governor Gray Davis and the resulting election of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governorship of California have once again made US electoral practices the object of ridicule around the world.

European newspapers (and many of America’s East Coast political purists) are aghast that the ‘Terminator’ – with no political experience whatsoever and with ‘the strongest Teutonic accent since Henry Kissinger’ (1) – is now set to run America’s most populous state and the world’s sixth largest economy. President Putin of Russia compared the California election to the recent debacle of an election in Chechnya

Undoubtedly much of what took place was a farce. The recall vote only came about because a lone disgruntled millionaire, Darrell Issa, dug up an obscure 90-year-old statute that had never before been successfully used, and then proceeded to pay enough people enough money ($2million) to collect enough signatures to force the issue to the ballot box.

What’s more, the election would have been an even greater quagmire of confusion – with 134 faceless candidates – had not a Hollywood movie star with instant name recognition decided to enter the fray. If nothing else, the whole process is indicative of the triumph of bureaucratic manoeuvring over democracy and politics.

But simply saying that the election was a joke misses the fact that it also casts some light on the current state of American politics.

For a start, the election ought to be a severe wake-up call for all Democrats. Across the globe Arnie’s candidacy was the big story, but in California the one thing that united the electorate was contempt for the sitting governor, Democrat Gray Davis. The recall vote may have been initiated by a rich car alarm salesman, but once the question was put to the electorate Californians seized the opportunity to dump Davis.

The only significant group to vote against the recall of the sitting governor were black voters. African Americans are traditionally the most loyal of all Democrat voters – so it is worth noting that at least a quarter of them voted yes to recall. Among other voters Davis fared much worse. A majority of women – who were supposed to be scared off by revelations of Arnie’s sexual misconduct – voted in favour of recall. Hispanic voters and union members were split down the middle. In fact, more than one in four of registered Democrats also decided to vote yes to the recall (2).

Nationally, Democrats have tried to explain these results as a reaction to Davis the individual. He certainly is not Mr Charisma, and California’s $38billion budget shortfall this year hardly inspired voter confidence in Davis. But what ought to be even more worrying to Democrats is the governor and the local party’s inability to gauge the mood of the electorate at any given time. Davis spent much of his early campaign smugly dismissing the whole idea of recall as a silly joke. His team seemed to have no feel for what was at stake – an attitude that seems to afflict Democrats across the nation.

If things were going according to plan for the Democrats, their fortunes ought to be picking up a bit. President Bush’s popularity is waning, as issues like Iraq, homeland security and the economy create big problems for his ruling Republicans. But far from making political headway, Democrats are in the midst of what must be the most tedious primary elections of all time for the party’s 2004 presidential nomination.

Primaries – even recent primaries – occasionally do something to ignite a bit of passion and get some of the electorate excited by new faces and ideas. Consider Senator John McCain’s campaign against Bush in 1999. In contrast, the current primary is so dull it is barely covered by the press. Even the late entry of General Wesley Clark into the race has not changed things. Indeed, the early departure of Clark’s campaign manager, just three weeks after entering the fray, indicates that things are unlikely to improve anytime soon.

The Democrats seem to have no purchase on politics at present. They have nothing to say and nothing to offer. It is difficult to see how they can pull back from this position before 2004.

However, the California election was not just bad news for the Democrats. The recall vote was a shot across the bows for all politicians. Californians voted against Gray Davis in droves, not only because he had screwed up the state’s finances, but also as a reaction against all politicians. Before Schwarzenegger entered the race, the whole thing was a big mess. Voters wanted Davis out, but had no idea of an alternative to take his place.

Arnie’s candidacy became a focus, not because of his great ideas (he has none), nor because he is a Republican (he is pro-choice and pro-gun control), but rather because he was the antithesis of a politician. He comes across as a guy who has no record, no experience, and no partisan affiliations to speak of. He said nothing in the campaign to jeopardise this image. Some Schwarzenegger fans may have voted for Arnie the man, but the rest of California voted for Arnie the blank page – the perfect anti-politician.

Rather than smugly pointing the finger at just how dreadful things are in the USA, politicians and commentators across Europe would do well to note what exactly took place in California this week. The recall election may look like the kind of weird thing that could only happen in America, but as Le Figaro reminded its readers: ‘You shouldn’t mock Arnold Schwarzenegger; what California invents, America adopts and Europe ends up imitating.’ (3) After all, hasn’t a town in England already elected a man dressed like a monkey as its mayor?

(1) Le Figaro, 7 October 2003

(2) Washington Post, 8 October 2003

(3) Le Figaro, 7 October 2003

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Topics Politics


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