All the world loves a terminator. There is hardly any other reason for the thumping victory of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the mid-term gubernatorial election in California. His success represents the time-honoured Hollywood fable: poor foreign boy goes to the top in the land of opportunity. And Schwarzenegger has captured the twin peaks of physique and politics. To be crowned Mr Universe in a milieu that worships the perfection of the body is no mean feat. For the Greeks, the perfect male body represented balance and justice; for the American it means glamour and Hollywood. Schwarzenegger’s rise to fame as a Hollywood star can now be read with hindsight as the already written shadow script of his rise in politics. Only, in politics he did not rise, he arrived. Going by the shadow script, he had already made it. So it is no wonder that a television film to be called See Arnold Run has been announced, in which the producers will show as parallels Schwarzenegger’s race for governorship and his effort in 1973 to capture the bodybuilding title.
This is only to be expected of an intensely narcissistic culture — the combination of Hollywood and California is perfect in this respect. There is stuff in it for wider consumption as well: Schwarzenegger’s background and achievements make him another icon in the realm of “the American dream”. In some ways, he is better fitted for this role than even Ronald Reagan, film star turned president who loved the “Star Wars” programme that defence experts had thought up. But showbiz and politics have a deeper connection. They are both about spectacle, about power over people, about personal charisma, about acting and eloquence. The more showy the culture, the more favoured are film stars as political leaders. In India, the South is particularly fond of putting stars at the heads of political parties and governments, and northern India is not doing too badly in acquiring film stars for Parliament. The star’s following at the ballot box is guaranteed.
This, of course, is the crux. Acquiring office often — not always — means dealing with hard questions. The governor in an American state would be unlikely to get away with expressed intentions alone. California has done the unusual thing of throwing out its earlier governor for inefficiency only ten months into his second term. The most populous state of the country, which also calls itself the world’s fifth largest economy, decided to punish the man it thought responsible for the unsatisfactory condition of the economy, of power and education. This is a serious step, and in principle, raises questions about the democratic process. While accountability is important, it needs to be asked whether an elected official should not be given his due time to work things out his own way. Besides, to punish him if he fails or falters, before it is time for him to face the people again, is also to undermine the electorate’s judgment. That goes against the spirit of democracy. Schwarzenegger is under the spotlight for more reasons than one. To go along with the American dream, the former Mr Universe will now have to prove himself a responsible and able administrator.