No, California Is Not Falling Into the Sea
I tried to explain the recall to my kid last night. It didn't go very well.
He's only three and a half, but I took him into the voting booth, let him push the buttons and thereby sparked the relentless fusillade of questions that has long made his demographic infamous. The ensuing conversation was a bit surreal (although not half as much as Judy Woodruff's smirking interview of West Wing actor and Schwarzenegger campaign hanger-on Rob Lowe later in the evening) and made the old standby, "Why is the sky blue?" seem like, well, child's play.
Because to explain the recall, of course, I had to try, picking my way, with only small words, to explain what "government" is, how we choose leaders and what they do, why we pay taxes, and all the rest. I also had to explain how one person presumes to lead 33 million others -- "lots and lots and lots of people." I sounded like Arnold himself, full of platitudes about clean water and air and new roads and hospitals, avoiding any messy particulars of how things actually get done, or the hard choices involved. An hour after our trip to the precinct and arriving at an Arianna Huffington election-eve party, my son had ignored most of my civics b.s. and clarified it to its sporting core: We had picked a team and we wanted them to win.
When they didn't, he wanted to know why. The simple answer, which I told him, was that a lot of people liked a man who is in lots of grown-ups' movies and said what people wanted to hear. And, personally, I don't think there's a whole lot more than that going on here.
Forget what the talking heads tell you: California is not falling into the sea, people. And if this is a sign of the coming Apocalypse, it is only the latest of its type. Or have you forgotten the kind of folks we elect here on the left coast? Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown, George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, Gray Davis -- those are the governors that have run things here since I was born, and I'm not sure how Arnold could be much worse.
Furthermore, when Arnold gets to Sacramento he is not only going to be bored out of his mind -- Ole' Sack-A-Tomatoes makes his hometown of Graz, Austria look like Paris -- but he's going to find himself stuck firmly between his hack reactionary advisors (never mind the token nods to free-thinkers like Warren Buffet) and the hard-nosed Democratic vet John Burton running the legislature down the street. It won't matter how many East Coast Kennedys he has delightedly sniffing his sweat, the first move is now Arnold's and the Democrats get to play the spoilers. Remember how the government shutdown backfired on the Gingrich gang? A sequel is definitely possible here.
In fact, going down the line, there is actually nothing shocking about last night's results. We are just relearning the same old lessons:
- Americans are -- stop me if you've heard this before -- disconnected from the democratic process and so frustrated with feeling powerless to "be heard" that they are increasingly resorting to clumsy, angry acts of rebellion against anything that can be considered the status quo. Arnold is most definitely a Republican, but he still managed to secure the crucial "a pox on both your houses" vote.
- Elections of individuals are always at their core personality contests, as frustrating as that may be to intellectuals of all political stripes, who want them to be about the facts, the issues, the qualifications and platforms of the candidates. Schwarzenegger had more charisma and effortlessly garnered more media coverage.
- American voters no longer think celebrities or politicians should be held morally responsible for things they do on their "own time." Furthermore, if we like you, you'll be forgiven quickly, as long as you express a bare minimum of contrition.
- We don't think our vote is "precious," and we're not at all sure it really matters who sits up in the Capitol, so why not have somebody that we like to see on TV? Like Mack in the Dr. Seuss story, "Yertle the Turtle," we're all much more aware of the view in our immediate vicinity than what happens in the proverbial smoke-filled room. Things not feeling so good at the bottom of the muck? Let's shake the tree and see what falls out.
- Intellectuals need not apply: The progressive left tried to take Arnold down for not being smart, drafting to oppose him an honest-to-god debating champ from Oxford. Duh! Americans, and Californians have made it abundantly clear: They do not like know-it-alls, except on "Jeopardy!" After all, most Americans don't have time or the willingness to read the front section of their daily newspaper, don't discuss politics beyond the bare surface in their social circles, aren't active in any political organization and see democracy as primarily a once-a-year ten-minute duty. Why would we want to elect somebody who makes us feel uninformed? If you're book smart, like Gore, you'd better do like so many women have done through the centuries -- hide it well.
- It is not that Americans like stupid leaders, although we certainly have chosen plenty over the years. But we are very afraid of being condescended to, and violently opposed to what we consider elitism. Unfortunately, most of us are deluded by our culture into believing we are only a lottery ticket or a few decades of hard work away from being millionaires, and we want our tax breaks to be nice and juicy when we finally get there. Compare this to the fact that most Americans consider being an intellectual (or, god forbid, an artist) only slightly less burdensome on society than being a "welfare cheat," and it becomes clear what a bonehead move it is to keep pushing brain-on-a-stick nerds like Ralph Nader and Arianna Huffington into the mainstream as our chosen representatives.
- In fact, everything that we said bad about Arnold arguably helped him. We said he was a megalomaniac, for example -- but this is America, we love megalomaniacs here! Henry Ford, John Kennedy, Joe Namath, Barbara Streisand, Muhammad Ali, Billy Graham, Bill Clinton -- a massive ego combined with a winning smile can take you very, very far in this country. Similarly, we emphasized Arnold's "bad boy" side, ignoring the abiding fondness Americans have for the leering pirate who opposes the Puritan angel on our other shoulder. The key for a public figure is not to be pure -- yuck! -- but merely to aspire to be pure, and show us an "aw shucks, you caught me momma," smile once in a while.
- In bad times, the current government will be blamed whether it deserves it or not. Life isn't fair.
- As the saying goes, "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything." For triangulating, take-no-risks Democrats like Gray Davis, it eventually becomes clear to voters that there is no 'there' there.
- We don't trust the media, especially when it uses words and not pictures. People wonder why the groping stories didn't seem to affect the outcome, but it's not a mystery: They were reported in the print press, otherwise known as the liberal media, and we didn't see the harassed women themselves on Oprah. This allowed pundits like Rob Lowe to dismiss what amounts to an overwhelming amount of evidence that Arnold is a sick, abusive man as "puke politics."
- It is easy to have a perfect platform on paper. (If you don't believe it, check out the innovative progressive solutions offered by porn star candidate Mary "Carey" Cook.) It is very, very hard, however, to build movements and win elections. I personally like Arianna Huffington and think she is one of the most brilliant pundits around. But think about it, she is famous in California for two things: The nutty, cynical campaign her millionaire husband ran for governor with her strong support; and being on Comedy Central, a niche cable channel for smirking Bohemians.
- The vast majority of us don't have any emotional attachment to a political party. Consider this: I was born and raised in California. I am 36 years old and have voted in every election I could, even sometimes when abroad. I went to college. In all that time, I have never been personally approached by a Democrat or Republican to take part in a political activity except for on election day. We live in a democracy and politics are not in any way part of the tissue of our lives, except for, possibly, the local school board. This is a problem. We can believe that Arnold is "not a real Republican" because we don't feel like a real [fill-in-the-blank] ourselves. Are you a Democrat? A Green? Say it out loud and see how it feels.
For those who think Arnold will be a less-than-one-term guffaw, guess again. His victory is not a fluke, a result of "a perfect storm" as NPR's national political analyst said this morning. In fact, probably the only reason he didn't run -- and win -- the year before is because he was thought to be too liberal for the conservative base that votes in the Republican primary. We have known the guy was coming for a few years, just like the next Terminator sequel, and the fact that it didn't surprise anybody hasn't hurt sales.
For now, Arnold is not Hitler-groping, steroid-pumping gazillionaire but a winner. Americans -- and this will be my final sweeping generalization for the day, I promise -- love a winner, and for now, Arnold is not a guy who has to figure out how to balance the budget or try to find a good cigar bar in California's version of Squaresville, he is simply a megalomaniac, charismatic, not-so-bright-you-couldn't-have-a-beer-with-him, self-made man with a huge smile.
So call us crazy, world, tell us it was all a circus, shout that the sky is falling. Hey, we're California -- we don't care at all what you think, frankly. But know that the problems this exposes are both far bigger and more mundane than whether an action figure should be governor.
Christopher Scheer was born in Berkeley, which many people consider to not actually be part of the United States.