Angus Reid
Vancouver Sun

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s entry into the bizarre world of California politics ranks as one of the greatest capers in modern American political history. Like all grand stunts, it has left the audience shocked, mesmerized and at least temporarily disconnected from the broader plot. Indeed, the Terminator’s stunning announcement on the Tonight Show earlier this month, the long list of wacky contenders for the governor’s job and the Byzantine procedures of the Oct. 7 balloting process have turned the serious business of recall into a farce. This in turn has served to mask a potentially important shift in American public life—one that could have implications for politics in Canada.

Not surprisingly, many observers have sought to link the California recall initiative to the current flood of reality television offerings that have proved so popular among United States and Canadian audiences. American Idol and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? top the charts as suggested alternative formats for the California recall balloting process. The first, according to former Newsweek editor Mickey Kaus, has the appeal of winnowing the list through a series of “tryouts” culminating in an extravaganza where the winner is chosen from a small group of finalists. The Millionaire format would be used to select a future governor through skill-testing questions like naming the state flower or spelling the names of California towns such as Rancho Cucamonga, San Juan Capistrano and Tehachapi.

All of this, of course, is great fun and will keep the humourists busy right up to the vote. But there’s another, more portentous angle to the events unfolding in California—ironically also linked to the emergence of reality TV. The tremendous publicity surrounding Schwarzenegger’s announcement and his early lead in the polls is but one installment in a bigger story that began with the amazing popularity of a new format in television programming and that could end with the surprising choice of former Vermont governor Howard Dean as the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004.

The common thread that ties these seemingly disparate phenomena is that each portrays in varying degrees the ascent of the amateur and an increasing tendency for audiences to embrace unconventional, anti-establishment approaches to the public sphere, which both politics and entertainment share. Schwarzenegger’s political act is breathtaking because it symbolizes something that has been happening with increasing frequency in American public life—the established line between performer and audience has been breached.

The beginnings of this shift can be traced back to the start of our new century with the unexpected and unprecedented explosion of reality television. Though this genre has been around in various guises since the early 1960s with shows like Candid Camera, the onslaught of current offerings is nothing short of stunning. More than 100 new reality shows have been launched since 2000 and, though many have bombed, others like Survivor, Fear Factor, The Amazing Race and American/Canadian Idol continue to dominate the ratings.

The entertainment industry can do a better job spotting new trends than a busload of sociologists. So when a new format captures the attention and enthusiasm of audiences with the force exerted by reality television, it’s a sign that something is stirring in the soul of America.

But what? A repulsive voyeurism, a new form of escapism or a changed attitude toward celebrity and power?

Three years ago, at the start of the reality TV surge, Steven Reiss and James Wiltz, both psychologists at Ohio State University, conducted a study to determine why people found this genre so fascinating.

“The message of reality television,” they concluded, “is that ordinary people can become so important that millions will watch them.” If anything, this genre transforms the audience from voyeurs to potential participants since it sparks a “secret thrill” that average Americans—people from the audience—can be transformed into celebrities. The cynics may see reality TV as “Amateur Night at the Bijou,” but for the audience there’s a new sense of empowerment and participation.

The Schwarzenegger episode is a surprising twist that shares many theme elements with this unfolding story. Just as reality TV contestants like Survivor’s Richard Hatch are stealing jobs from professional actors, Schwarzenegger is poised to steal the governor’s job from Gray Davis—an accomplished 30-year veteran of California politics. Although he is running under a Republican label, his campaign style and many of his policies are decidedly unconventional. He’s smoked pot, embraces gay rights and has liberal positions on abortion. The Republican establishment is not amused.

If you think this story is isolated to California or only involves celebrities and celebrity wannabes, look no further than the surprising performance of Dean, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 2004 American election. Coming from a perennial backwater state, Dean is an amateur in the brass-knuckles world of the national Democratic party. And he isn’t just running outside the establishment—he’s attacking it every chance he gets.

In the post Sept. 11, 2001, world of U.S. politics, where few Democrats have dared question the Iraq-dominated foreign policy and tax cut fetish of George W. Bush, Dean has relentlessly attacked the administration on both counts. He started his campaign earlier this year with little money, a ragtag collection of political castoffs and volunteer neophytes, and a communications strategy that relied heavily on the Internet to locate and mobilize supporters, who meet the candidate at local town hall meetings.

For the pros, it all seemed so corny. Jim Jordan, campaign manager to senator John Kerry, laughed off the Dean campaign earlier this year as “almost like watching a reality show.”

Of course, Kerry’s people aren’t laughing any more since Dean has emerged as the frontrunner in the early stages of the primary race. He has collected more money—most of it in small donations—than any other candidate, now leads in the polls and has already won the first ever virtual primary election, which was held in June over the Internet.

In Canada, our public sphere isn’t immune to the shifts under way in the U.S. Here, the growth of reality television has paralleled the experience south of border. Over the summer, three of the five most watched programs—including Canadian Idol—have been in this genre.

In politics, there have also been surprises involving the combination of political amateurs and widespread citizen involvement. Look no further than mayor Larry Campbell’s unexpected victory last year in the Vancouver municipal elections.

But if we’re witnessing a revolution of sorts, it will make its presence felt most forcefully in the federal election, expected next summer. Indeed, the greatest threat to Paul Martin could be the growing segment of frustrated and angry Canadians who want an alternative to professional politicians who are scripted by cynical veterans and bankrolled by the establishment. The time is ripe for a grand stunt to renew Canadians’ enthusiasm for and participation in our national political life.

Wayne Gretzky for prime minister. Just imagine.