Arnie's total recall

Jem Jones comments on Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming the new Republican governor of California

Picture this: a young man travels to the US in search of fame and fortune. He finds it. Along the way he has lots of adventures and marries a beautiful woman. He loves his adopted country so much that he decides he wants to be one of the men charged with running it; and the people love him so much that they want him to.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, body-builder, movie star and restaurateur, has added to his list of achievements by becoming the new Republican governor of California, the world’s fifth largest economy. It could be the plot of some schmaltzy and highly improbable Hollywood movie, with Arnie starring in the leading role as the poor immigrant who finds success in the land of opportunity.

The reality is that like all US politicians Schwarzenegger is obscenely rich and has nothing in common with the ordinary citizen. He differs from most politicians in that he is a household name because of his often gratuitously violent, machismo-fuelled, multi-million dollar movies. He also happens to be married to Maria Shriver, daughter of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and scion of that infamous political family, the Kennedys.

There is nothing unusual in Schwarzenegger becoming governor. Big money and powerful political families dominate US politics and, lest we forget, prior to becoming president, Ronald Reagan was also both an actor and governor of California. As Arianna Huffington, one of the 135 candidates in the election, and who stood as an independent, perceptively observed, “The truth is, American politics is broken - controlled by a powerful elite using its financial clout to set the political agenda. Our representative republic has been replaced by the dictatorship of the dollar.”

It is easy to be cynical about US politics. The British bourgeois media and intelligentsia have raised such cynicism almost to an art form (while turning a blind eye to the democratic deficit in our own country). For example, those who from a British chauvinist point of view decry the election of a movie star as representing the demise of democracy itself somehow fail to remember last year’s election of a ‘monkey’ as mayor of Hartlepool. Such scorn can, however, obscure important details. In the case of the Californian gubernatorial elections it has meant that a great deal of coverage has been afforded to the candidates, particularly Schwarzenegger, while too little heed has been paid to the political process which brought about the election in the first place.

The election did not take place because the term of the previous governor, Democrat Gray Davis, had expired. It took place because the electorate recalled the incumbent. Enough of the people he represented were dissatisfied with him, and so a vote was held to determine whether he should be removed from office and, if so, who should replace him as governor.

The act of recall was put on the statute books in California in 1911 in order to provide the electorate with a mechanism to remove elected representatives from office before the end of their term. The proponents of the recall have to issue a notice of intention, declaring why they want the recall to take place, and then have 160 days in which to gather signatures equal to 12% of those who voted in the original election. This having taken place, the lieutenant governor is obliged to call an election within 80 days.

This legislation prevents governors from hanging on to their position against the will of the electorate. It acts as a counterbalance to any tendency to call elections at times when they judge they are more likely to be re-elected. If a representative is performing an unsatisfactory job, they can be removed. Communists defend such progressive legislation. We argue that the ability to immediately recall all elected representatives from below is integral to democracy.

However, California is unfortunately far from being a model of democracy. Since 1911 there have been 31 previous attempts to recall the incumbent governor - itself a highly undemocratic office, like the US president somewhat akin to an elected monarch. This is the first to successfully result in a ballot. The reason why this particular recall was successful seems to be due less to the dissatisfaction of the electorate with Gray Davis than the disgruntled Republican machine which lost the election last November. What is more, in order to run as a candidate, it is necessary to either gather 10,000 signatures or pay $3,500 (in which case only 65 signatures are required).

California is facing an estimated $38 billion deficit. The Republicans blamed Davis for the failing economy. Their solution to the fiscal crisis: tax cuts. Although Schwarzenegger has largely refused to engage with real politics - only once participating in a televised debate, where his replies were scripted - throughout he has made his opposition to anything above minimal taxation clear. The interests of capital were on display for all to see in this campaign: the ‘statement of reasons’ on the recall petition gives “gross mismanagement … by overspending taxpayers’ money”. Conversely Davis argued against the recall, not by mounting a defence of public spending, but on the grounds that such an election would cost up to $40 million. The public dissatisfaction that led to Davis being ousted from office derived from his connections to powerful lobby groups, from whom he received considerable donations.

With his Teutonic good looks, muscle-bound body and taciturn use of language, it is easy to sneer at Schwarzenegger (although probably not to his face). However, it must not be forgotten that this is a man who has already been very successful both as a body-builder and as a movie star. Although he has been reticent about talking about politics in any detail, this could be due less to an inability to discuss such weighty matters than a calculated move on his part to sell himself as being different from conventional politicians. The US public are more enamoured with celebrities than they are with whey-faced professional politicians and bureaucrats. Schwarzenegger is popular because he is a larger-than-life character. He is popular because, rather than engage in political debate with his rivals, he repeats lines from his movies.

Schwarzenegger’s campaign strategy paid off. He shrugged off the allegations of having sexually assaulted women. He shrugged off the fact that he said he admired Hitler in an interview in the 1970s. He managed to attract the votes of considerable numbers of women, gay people and ethnic minorities, voters who traditionally align themselves with the Democrats. Of the 55% of the electorate who voted to remove Gray Davis from office, Schwarzenegger gained more votes than his two nearest rivals combined.

Incidentally, aside from the more conventional of the 135 politicians who contested the election, the independents included infamous, gold-plated-wheelchair-bound pornographer Larry Flynt and the “adult film star”, Mary Carey, whose election pledges included promising to install live web-cams in the governor’s mansion. In calling for legal unions for same-sex couples, Carey was more progressive than Schwarzenegger, who was quoted as saying that “gay marriage should be between a man and a woman”. Perhaps the new governor has been taking lessons in rhetoric from the president.

Ultimately the role of a politician in a bourgeois state is simply to provide a veneer of democracy whilst allowing free reign to capital. Schwarzenegger is likely to be able to fill the role admirably. His considerable experience in special-effects-laden Hollywood blockbusters will no doubt have prepared him adequately for the world of smoke and mirrors that is politics. The people of California deserve better.