Politics as Media Spectacle - Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor of California
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California recall election gubernatorial victory demonstrates the
increasing collapse of the boundaries between entertainment and politics in an era of media
Over the past decades, major struggles around politics, race, gender, and sexuality have
played out in the media. In the 1990s, the O.J. Simpson trial, the Clinton sex scandals, and
the proliferation of tabloid journalism made serious political issues and conflicts the stuff of
popular entertainment and culture.
Moreover, presidential politics on the level of campaigns and governing have also exhibited
a growing politics of the image and spectacle. In our media-saturated society, politicians
become celebrities who fine tune their image through daily photo opportunities, spin out
their message of the day, and, like celebrities, employ image management firms to make
sure that their performance is playing well with the public.
In an era of media politics, celebrities can become politicians and take on increasingly
political roles. Hollywood stars of film and television were prominent opponents of the
Bush administration’s 2003 Iraq war, while teams of celebrities were employed by both
sides in the California recall election.
Arnold Schwarzenegger had a familiar role to play in the California recall election scenario.
The people were angry at higher taxes, energy costs, and what appeared to be a deteriorating
economy and were looking for a savior. Arnold presented himself as the hero on the white
horse who would ride into California and solve the problems.
His “Rescue California” pitch thus played into a standard action/adventure genre where the
outsider lone hero arrives in a chaotic situation and through his agency and magical powers
defeats the evil forces, solves the problem, and returns the situation to stability and
As with the action-adventure hero of his films, Schwarzenegger appeared as the outsider,
not beholden to “special interests.” Arnold was “the terminator” who would stride in, chase
out the villains, and restore order to the polis. In the media frenzy surrounding the election,
viewers and voters saw Schwarzenegger wade into crowds, make entertaining statements
while playing on economic fears and amorphous anger, and repeating to audiences his stock
phrases like “Hasta la vista, baby!” (to Gray Davis) or his famous “I’ll be back.”
In particular, men were angry because of economic woes or cultural grievances projected
onto women, immigrants, gays and lesbians, or other groups associated with liberals and
Democrats. Schwarzenegger presented himself as the tough enforcer who would take on the
bureaucrats and “special interests” and restore strong leadership to California.
Schwarzenegger had cultivated a manly, macho...