It’s become kind of a cliche that the American media, with a few notable exceptions, gives people what they want rather than what they need. What they want being sordid and salacious tales about wealthy waistrels who have squandered their opportunity and hypocritical politicians who have – gasp! – done something of dubious moral character, what they need being information that allows them to make informed decisions in the political process. To my disappointment, while visiting my parents this weekend I noticed my step-mother has transformed into one of those many Americans who is nourished by gossip and clucks contentedly about their own virtue, that is, she’s joined the chorus of voices that want more sensational stuff. Depsite there not being a hell of a lot on the news this weekend besides the hurricane Ike-inspired competition to get the most embedded reporter, the most pity-inducing shot of wet and abandoned animals, and the coolest colored pinwheel graphic spinning across a map of the Gulf of Mexico, but what little there was consisted mostly of another competition, and one that has unleashed the passions of my step-mother: who has the mantle of “reformer” in the upcoming election – a mantle devoid of meaning and one step away from things like “patriot.”
Being a Californian, I’ve had ample experience with celebrity driven reform campaigns, notably our last two elections for governor. For those who don’t hail from the golden state, here’s a quick recap. Back in 2003, a Democrat named Davis was governor and presided over a spike in energy prices and subsequent rolling blackouts. Davis was hapless and perhaps willfully ignorant of what was causing it (Enron’s illegal machinations, it later became clear) and quickly became the scapegoat of everyone, including, eventually, a brawny celebrity that traveled up and down the state in a bus throwing out infectious one liners and taking no real position on anything. This was our famous recall election. The process, which allows voters to throw out a sitting governor in a special election if he is unpopular enough, had been spearheaded by a Republican Congressman named Issa who had his own gubernatorial ambitious but was quickly hijacked by Arnold, who then went on to win the election. He blustered for awhile, but like any other outsider, eventually settled in and embraced a centrist policy and has worked with the local Democrats who control the state legislature ever since. He won again in 2006, that time with less one liners but an equally content-free campaign against a bland Democrat and State Treasurer named Angelides. I doubt most Californians could name anything that he has done outside of his very vocal (some would say hypocritical) advocacy on behalf of the environment, but he is still fairly popular. I don’t consider myself that much better informed about California politics, but I can tell you the following: despite frequently bashing “special interests” he took just as much money from them as the other candidates; he talks frequently about the environment; he has not consistently been able to deliver a balanced budget; his promise to take on entrenched powers extended to the teachers union but not to the much more powerful prison guards union (in fact, he wants to build more prisons now); he fucking loves bond issues and puts them on the ballot every single election; and he has some truly thought-provoking insights about why Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia (R-Cathedral City) is so darn feisty. I had thought for a long time that the reason Arnold kept getting elected despite being a fairly run of the mill politician had to do with his being a celebrity, but I’m beginning to think there was another phenomenon at work that we can see manifested more clearly this presidential election.
What’s truly fascinating this cycle has been the ability of political insiders from both parties to effectively portray themselves as outsiders with a zeal for reform. While this may have some factual basis for both the ticket headliners, it certainly does not extend to their vice presidential picks. Obviously, populst barnstorming and outsider posturing are nothing new – Arnold’s shenanigans in California demonstrate that clearly enough. Still, it’s not often it comes from someone who has already made a career in politics, especially one punctuated by constant gaffes and an odd episode of plagiarism of a British MP (Biden) or an even more deplorable history of budget overruns and ethical abuses (Palin). The benefits of outsiderdom are so obvious a remedy I can’t believe no one thought of it sooner: if Arnold was able to get away with the aforementioned remarks about a colleague while in office and the fucking bizarre cumming soliloquoy in Pumping Iron and emerge unscathed, what can’t you get away with? When an insider does something naughty, hypocritical or downright idiotic it’s because they have been corrupted by power. When an outsider does that very same thing, it’s because they’re a “real” person who makes mistakes just like the rest of us. A significant amount of people want a politician who reminds them of themselves. It’s probably likely that a similarly high number would want to a see “a naked woman smoking crack” on one of their favorite shows. I’ll leave you to ponder about the accuracy of our instincts. I think Churchill’s observation that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried” might be relevant here.