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Will American-style celebrity politics come to dominate in Australia?

By Peter McMahon - posted Wednesday, 29 October 2003


The election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California is as dumb as it gets. This man has absolutely no claim to credibility as a politician (less than he does as an actor, if that’s possible) and has serious and manifest character flaws, even if we assume his respect for Hitler has dimmed with age.

It shows just how debased American politics has become. The biggest state in the US and about the sixth biggest economy in the world is now run by a man whose public utterances rarely go beyond spouting lines from his ultra-violent and otherwise vacuous movies.

And he is not even being original. He was preceded by another muscleman-cum-actor, Jesse Ventura, who just completed a controversial term as governor of Minnesota. Jesse was in a few of Arnie’s movies: he was the moustachioed, ceegar-chomping, faggot-hating no-neck who got offed early by the monster in Predator.

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Some commentators though the election of B-grade actor Ronald Reagan to president in 1980 was a one-off but it would seem to be increasingly the case that in America the best means of achieving high political office is celebrity.

Australian politics has known the odd celebrity, usually a sportsperson, but with the possible exception of Hubert Opperman, none has gone on to real political fame. Some, like Justin Madden, are doing fine but others like Mal Meninga fell at the first hurdle (in Mal’s case, not being able to bullshit on cue).

But, all in all, politics here has always had a different character, due in the main to its openly class-based origins. This need for class solidarity has made the party more important than the individual. Even celebrities like Bob Hawke had to submit to the will of the party, as he found out when Keating replaced him as Prime Minister.

However, the likelihood of Australian politics becoming as absurd as American politics is growing and the reason for this is the increasingly central role of the mass media.

Americans find it increasingly difficult to separate reality from the illusion of film and TV. Big Arnie was elected as governor because he was a famous movie star. He had been a Republican stalwart for years but the only reason he was a candidate and then elected was because of Hollywood.

Can Australia go the same way? It seems strange to be arguing this when we have as our two most important leaders two of the dullest men in our political history but one of the reasons why they are so dull is because they are so contrived by the media spin doctors. This is politics as public relations management, a big step along the road to no politics at all.

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Politics in America is a sideshow in a way it is not in Australia. From the outset American life has been dominated by business. Much of what passed for politics in America was to do with the construction and maintenance of the necessities of business. From the 1880s to the late 1960s government and politics was at least as important as business in shaping American life, mainly because of the global crisis that resulted in the long war from 1914 to 1945, and then Cold war. Over the past few decades, however, business – especially in the form of the new king, big finance – has made a triumphal come back. This was confirmed with the end of the Cold War and the rise of global business management institutions like the IMF and WTO as equally important as the formal governing structure, the UN.

American politics is run as a business, and some time ago the smart boys behind the scenes worked out that the mass media was the key to political power. And the media, of course, is itself big business.

So the central role of business, along with an obsession with individualism – a result of certain religious influences combined with the pioneering mentality - has produced this form of "content free" politics in America.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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