by Seth Sandronsky
August 26, 2003
There is no doubt about it. Arnold Schwarzenegger has electoral appeal and a real chance to be the next governor of California.
Appalled that the top GOP gubernatorial candidate in the recall election is attracting such popular support? Wonder why so many workers and small merchants back a wealthy entertainer like Arnold?
Some of them want to be as financially successful as he has been, to gain great wealth to buy impressive commodities and impress others. In this way, they can, one day, live the “American dream” that now eludes them.
Author and scholar Thorstein Veblen noted this distorted and distorting trend about a century ago. He wrote: “Purposeful effort comes to mean, primarily, effort directed to or resulting in a more creditable showing of accumulated wealth.”
Veblen had a term for this. He called it “pecuniary emulation.”
It was, for Veblen, a key concept for understanding the social process in class society. How much has changed since then?
Well, Arnold’s run for political office reminds us how ordinary people can respond to symbols of wealth in a market economy that exalts competition.
This is a principle that Arnold backs to the hilt.
Is competition king, a “male thing?” This brings us to another and related part of what makes Arnold such a popular figure in California politics.
In a society dominated by males, Arnold has gender appeal. Some males respond to this, and some do not.
Significantly, Arnold’s acting and bodybuilding careers diverge from the daily reality of his many male supporters. Yet the greater this distance, the more the attraction.
Arnold personifies one type of masculinity for some men. They can vicariously live larger than they do on a daily basis through him.
The cinematic reality that Arnold projects has become political reality.
That is a contradiction that speaks volumes about U.S. culture.
There’s something about social life in a modern society such as America’s that creates the conditions for such a phenomenon. Why are so many of us willing to follow a film star like Arnold?
Part of the answer is how Americans live, subject to constant social change. It has torn apart life at home and work.
I think that Arnold’s movies speak in part to this unstable nature of living and working. Under such conditions, Arnold’s mass entertainment offers a comforting morality tale.
His violent characters defeat foes who pose a menace to one view of society. These villains, not militarism, racism, and sexism, are demons to fear.
Additionally, we live in a culture dominated by rich people with white skin. Arnold appeals to some whites who think that their skin color entitles them alone to acquire such wealth.
In contrast, there are the others (presumably with darker skin). Government helps them avoid working the long hours that many of Arnold’s backers must labor (without becoming rich) to make ends meet.
Arnold’s run for governor continues the GOP trope about lazy folks living on the public dole. In California, they have bloated social spending that has busted the state budget, the biggest deficit in the nation.
Federal war spending not going to California is exempt from Arnold’s concern with the state’s budget deficit. But then he strongly backs the U.S. occupation of Iraq that is careening out of control into a quagmire with untold regional and global effects.
War and racism go together. International ANSWER, the anti-war group, is on the mark.
Arnold supports U.S militarism, and progressives should not turn a blind eye to his related (though muted) appeal to white skin color. It is a coded backlash against nonwhite Californians, but present nonetheless.
In California and across America, there is no political race without racial politics. Arnold’s campaign for governor complements that of Ward Connerly, Republican backer of California’s Proposition 54, the racial privacy initiative on the recall ballot.
“Bad cop” to Arnold’s “god cop,” Mr. Connerly is deceptively brilliant. He says that race is a social construction.
Thus the state government is wasting resources collecting data based on racial categories. If approved by voters, the RPI will end that.
What Mr. Connerly and Arnold do not say about racial construction is vital.
It has been created and sustained to justify white supremacy, the nightmare of the “American dream.”
In my view, Arnold and Connerly are two sides of the same coin. In their implicit and explicit pandering to white privilege, they want government to be more efficient.
Many black, brown and nonwhite folks generally know what this means. They will likely have a more difficult time getting by in California if Arnold and Connerly succeed on Oct. 7.
Not that California Governor Gray Davis is a progressive. It will be a cold day in Hades before he warrants that label.
Davis has never met a new prison construction project to his disliking. On that note, he has accepted much campaign cash from the state prison guards’ union.
Now is the time for progressives to analyze Arnold’s class, gender and race appeal. Such a strategy could nurture coalitions with many people at-risk from politics of, by and for capital and its mouthpieces.
Seth Sandronsky is a member of Peace Action and co-editor with Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.