In the end, the election wasn’t a farce. Everyone thought that Arnold Schwarzenegger
would win with fewer votes than Grey Davis, and that didn’t happen. In fact,
it looks as though he got
an outright majority of the votes, despite running against more than 130
opponents, a large number of whom were members of his own political party. An
impressive showing by any measure.
The knee-jerk reaction across the pond (and, indeed, in many liberal enclaves
in the US) will be to start talking about how the US is a laughingstock once
again – this crazy so-called democracy where the president got fewer votes
than his opponent, where the election was decided by the Supreme Court, where
Clint Eastwood and Sonny Bono and Jesse Ventura and now Arnold Schwarzenegger
win elective office.
But in fact there were good
reasons to vote for Schwarzenegger, and a lot of those who bemoan the fact
that Davis wasn’t allowed to serve out his term are the same people who would
desperately love to see the same fate befall Hugo Chavez, in Venezuela.
For me, though, the most interesting parallel is with Argentina. Schwarzenegger
was clearly the beneficiary of a general disgust with politics as usual –
a sentiment which will resonate strongly with the vast majority of Argentines.
In California, as in Argentina, politics is dominated by two enormous political
parties, both of whom are desperately constrained due to their debts to special
interests. And in California, as in Argentina, the voters shunned a once-in-a-generation
opportunity to elect an independent candidate.
I’m not saying that Arianna Huffington would have made a better governor of
California than Arnold Schwarzenegger, although it’s entirely possible. And
I’m not saying that Elisa Carrio would have made a better president of Argentina
than Nestor Kirchner. But I am saying that both of them got comprehensively
steamrollered by political machines which were, by all accounts, completely
The people who voted for Schwarzenegger yesterday are the same people who voted
for John McCain the Republican primaries in 2000, or who are going to vote for
Howard Dean in the forthcoming Democratic primaries. They’re protesting against
the status quo by voting for candidates who talk tough yet still stand firmly
within the two-party system, and who will do nothing to change it. For the two-party
system is much bigger, and much stronger, than any candidate, and it will outlast
That, of course, is a Very Bad Thing. The special interests will continue to
rule Sacramento (and Washington, for that matter), and the prospects for meaningful
reform are distant at best. But the irony is that the alternative is even more
chilling: the only thing worse than strong political parties is weak political
parties. A large part of the problem in Venezuela is that Chavez used popular
hatred of the political parties to tear them down and construct a new system
where there basically isn’t any coherent political opposition to him at all.
And one look at the list
of Italian prime ministers since the war tells you everything you need to know
about a system where everybody spends their entire time fighting everybody else:
after decades of chaos, you end up electing a spectacularly corrupt businessman
who is so rich he can buy an entire country.
The ideal, I think is somewhere in between. I’m no expert on Canadian politics,
but I have a feeling that they have it pretty much right. An entire political
party (the Conservatives) can self-destruct and it doesn’t seem to matter very
much; meanwhile, for all the craziness and shouting, Quebec is still, somehow,
part of the country.
Plus, of course, Canada had the most dapper
premier that north America has ever had. I can’t imagine Arnold in
a tuxedo, doing the tango.