The Progressives of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fought for the recall initiatives that brought Gray Davis down. They also fought against the "smoky room" nominating process that allowed party elites to control nominees to elected office. Over the last hundred years, campaigns have changed in ways the Progressives could never have imagined; one of the equalizers for unseating an incumbent is name recognition. Celebrity has power. Turning fame into a political career is hardly original to Arnold Schwarzenegger. California turned out not just a well-known actor turned Governor, but Senator Sonny Bono, dancer turned right-wing Senator George Murphy and Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas. Douglas, a singer and Broadway actress, wasn’t really a film star; her only Hollywood role was as the title character in the film adaption of H. Rider Haggard’s She. But her husband, Melvyn Douglas, provided enough Tinseltown credibility for two. Later, two-term Congresswoman Douglas was smeared as a Communist sympathizer by Richard Nixon during their 1950 battle for a California Senate seat; she’ll go down in history as the first person to label him "Tricky Dick". Hall of Famers Bill Bradley, Jim Bunning, and Tom Osbourne went to Washington. So did b-listers including Fred "Gopher" Grandy and Ben "Cooter" Jones. Jesse Ventura became governor of Minnesota. (Predator clearly had magic gubernatorial powers.) But why look at solely at athletes and actors? When the people of Colorado sent John Glenn to the Senate, were they considering his stances on the issues or his dual appeal as a war hero and the first American to orbit the earth? What about all the generals who made it to the White House? Chester Arthur at least had a bureaucratic background as port collector for the state of New York before becoming Vice President, but Dwight Eisenhower and that excellent writer (and lousy President) Ulysses S. Grant were political blank slates.
Where’s the distinction between modern politics and performance art? The California gubernatorial race featured a lot of campaigns that walked the line. Were they jokes? Maybe a publicity stunt (although adult film actress Mary Carey sounds a lot more lucid, if not serious, than one might expect)? A means of sending a message? Perhaps the first step in a terrifyingly Machiavellian plot to seize the Presidency? That last one seems unlikely.
Modern campaigning has been largely severed from the actual act of governing. The world will get to see how Schwarzenegger does at that part of his job. Entirely apart from his nasty character, he’s probably not going to solve California’s fiscal problems and I don’t think he has a plan to. But even if he’s no better at being governor than Pigasus would have been, he was elected because he projected a message than millions of Californians found reassuring. The election in 2006 will be decided by other things than being able to deliver a stump speech and fend off fearsome interrogators like Jay Leno. But there’s political strength in being iconic, strength that Schwarzenegger is probably going to start wishing for now that he’s just another poltician.