McTernan on politics

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election as governor of California may be
the most significant political event of the past year because of
what it tells us about the future shape of politics in the West.
After all, social trends expressed in California eventually reach
our shores.

Remember Woody Allen’s Californian friend, Dick Christie, in
Play it Again Sam obsessively phoning his office to give
his staff the phone number where he is at any given time? In the
1970s that was outlandish yet nowadays we festoon ourselves with
technology – mobile phones, pagers and laptops – to make sure we
are never out of contact. At about the same time the electors of
the state were setting ground rules for politics which still apply
in most countries. Proposition 13 – the infamous referendum which
capped property taxes – was the beginning of a global middle-class
revolt against taxation which swept Reagan and Thatcher into power.
It remained the battleground on which Labour lost the 1992 general
election – an experience which shaped the psyche and policies of
New Labour.

So, when California acts we would all do well to think carefully
about what it might mean for us. First, Schwarzenegger’s victory is
a stunning example of the continuing incursion of the entertainment
industry into every sphere of life. For nearly a century California
has been the home of the most influential dream factory the world
has ever seen – Hollywood. The studios have often influenced
politics by bankrolling politicians. The one apparent exception –
Ronald Reagan – was a highly experienced political campaigner by
the time he became governor of California, having started as a
trade union activist in the Screen Actors’ Guild in the 1940s. Now
that political virgin Schwarzenegger has jumped straight from
screen to high office who will be next – Sir Sean Connery as first
minister of Scotland? Shurely not.

Second, the recall of out-going governor Gray Davies shows how
money can be used to fuel a populist drive to oust an elected
politician. The successful recall campaign was funded by a
millionaire who paid volunteers for each signature they collected.
Similarly, the United Kingdom Independence Party was the creation
of one man who bankrolled it to contest the 1997 general election.
Now it has several members of the European parliament. Finally,
there is the question of why voters in a liberal, Democrat state
flocked to vote for a Republican bent on destroying the Democrat
machine. The answer, I think, lies in Arnie’s celebrity status. Ask
teenagers, both here and in the US, what they want to be when they
grow up and many will reply they want to be famous.

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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