SANTA MONICA, Ca. — “Paradox” is a thoroughly inadequate description of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appearance last month before the GOP convention. The event’s internal contradictions bounce off each other like reflections in a funhouse gallery, creating disorientation if not suspicion across the entire spectrum of GOP ideologues. What most fail to see is that, obscured by the pomp, the irony, and the mischievous “action hero” overtones of Schwarzenegger’s ascendancy is a big fat opportunity for conservatives.
Imagine: A Republican governor voted into power in a special election by a luridly Democratic state. Now, he movingly and passionately supports the nominee, highlighting his policy differences in personal domestic policy only by his abject silence.
It gets better: Before Arnold speaks, the pundits worry how this outsider, this actor, this pro-choicer would be received by the more conservative convention assembly. The answer, of course, is with affectionate, raucous acceptance of his message of strength abroad and opportunity at home. Few in either party remember that his father-in-law, Sargent Shriver, was, in 1972, the last pro-life candidate on a national Democratic ticket.
And for those keeping score at home: Twelve years earlier, Margaret Sanger, arguable founder of the pro-choice movement, declared that she would “leave the country” if Mrs. Schwarzenegger’s uncle, John F. Kennedy, (a dangerous Roman Catholic) were elected. (She didn’t.)
In the battle for the soul of the Republican Party, Arnold represents neither side — and both. For fifty years, Republicans have been periodically riven by a seemingly irresolvable collision of philosophies. Most partisans consider this a zero-sum battle, where each side’s gain is the other’s loss.
Broadly speaking, the fault line is between those classic conservatives who “just say no” to liberal social programs and the “Rockefeller Republicans” who eschew ideology to realistically (cravenly?) meet the Democrats half way on every expansion of government. Schwarzenegger smashes that dynamic, as he moves toward realizing a vision of government that is both libertarian and authoritarian, both laissez faire and confiscatory, both brutal and affectionate.
Both sides are confused: Is the governor some kind of hypocrite, schizophrenic, or poseur? Only if we rely on an obsolete, last-century worldview. Arnold introduces a new way to play the game: with a conservatism that is unique, and not made in America. In an age where “European” has become synonymous with “socialist,” “progressive,” or maybe just “depraved,” Schwarzenegger is a living, breathing import of the retro liberal/authoritarianism introduced into central Europe by the notable social architect Otto von Bismarck.
THE GREAT PRUSSIAN AGGREGATOR of the late 19th century German empire, Bismarck achieved initial success the real old-fashioned way, with “blood and iron,” better strategies, and faster implementation of new armaments. Then, determined to head off the socialism that had roiled neighboring countries, Bismarck initiated path-breaking social welfare programs for the disabled and the elderly. Funded by payments both from the worker and the government, it became the template for all liberal programs of the next century. To the consternation of the “real” conservatives of the ruling class, Bismarck saw no incongruence between the cold blooded pursuit of national power on the one hand and a nurturing governmental safety net on the other. Like his unification of the local Germanic fiefdoms, social welfare was just one more component of his vision of the modern state, an inexorable evolution from an inferior feudal world. (A Nexis search of “Von Bismarck” in proximity to “Rockefeller Republican” yields no matches.)
Technically speaking, Governor Schwarzenegger is an unlikely emissary of Bismarckian social welfare into the New World. Arnold is from Austria, a territory with which Bismarck allied but specifically excluded from his confederation. Moreover, Arnold is a Catholic, the group against which Bismarck launched the original Kulturkampf, seeing the Church as an alternate ruling structure and thus a threat to empire’s power base. Nonetheless, by both words and behavior, Schwarzenegger displays a deep internalization of the mindset that the Iron Chancellor imposed on the region 125 years ago. In fact, the personal parallels are strong:
• Both are outsiders, taking leadership of a population and a society far larger than their own birth country.
• Both are by their nature authoritarians, with a visceral contempt for anything that smacks of socialism — yet both appeal to the power of the “common folk” as allies in their battle against entrenched special interests.
• Bismarck was the father of “realpolitik.” Even when not playing the Terminator, Arnold is also no slouch when it comes to emotionally-detached strategy and the power of self discipline.
• Both consciously employ strategic misdirection to confound their opponents often “winning” the battle before it begins.
Like Bismarck, Arnold’s fusion of conservatism and social welfare is not a milquetoast compromise, but rather the simultaneous pursuit of twin core passions. In the convention speech, speaking of his first experiences in this country in 1968, Arnold recounts how, in America, he found a conservatism that resonated with his own innate value system:
But then I heard Nixon speak. He was talking about free enterprise, getting government off your back, lowering taxes and strengthening the military. Listening to Nixon speak sounded more like a breath of fresh air.
I said to my friend, “What party is he?” My friend said, “He’s a Republican.” I said, “Then I am a Republican!”
Gamely, Arnold frames Republicanism as an issue of “freedom” both for society and for the individual:
My fellow immigrants, my fellow Americans, how do you know if you are a Republican? Well I’ll tell you how.
If you believe that government should be accountable to the people, not the people to the government… then you are a Republican! If you believe that a person should be treated as an individual, not a member of an interest group… then you are a Republican! If you believe that your family knows how to spend your money better than the government does… then you are a Republican! If you believe our educational system should be held accountable for the progress of our children… then you are a Republican! If you believe that this country, not the United Nations, is the best hope of democracy in the world… then you are a Republican! And, ladies and gentlemen… if you believe we must be fierce and relentless and terminate terrorism… then you are a Republican!
There is another way you can tell you’re a Republican. You have faith in free enterprise, faith in the resourcefulness of the American people… and faith in the U.S. economy. And to those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: “Don’t be economic girlie men!”
In his passion for domestic matters, Arnold might appear to be moving in the other direction. Certainly, his litmus test for masculinity does not include the official Republican talking points. Just this week, he announced support of a state initiative on government sponsored stem cell research, apparently unconcerned about any embarrassment to President Bush. This paragon of stoic self-reliance has also signed a bouquet of bills noxious to hardline conservatives, including a ban on .50 caliber rifles, a strengthened hate crime legislation to include trans-gendered people, a bill sponsored by Planned Parenthood that protects the privacy of reproductive health workers and one requiring insurance companies to give the same benefits to domestic partners as they do to married couples.
Despite all this and more, conservatives need not lose faith; properly nurtured, the Schwarzenegger ascendancy can become the American welfare state’s worst nightmare. Though they may appear at first blush to be a strategic separate peace with his Hollywood friends and Kennedy family, Arnold’s social programs have the inherent potential to eviscerate the liberal orthodoxy’s posture of moral superiority and its claim to exclusivity in managing social problems.
LIKE MANY OF ARNOLD’S cinematic opponents, the American Welfare State is both cocky and long in the tooth. Soaked in a sense of entitlement and a quasi-religious commitment to ignore the consequences of personal moral behavior, the wheezing Government/Union/Teachers complex has reached its institutional reductio ad absurdum. Gone is the communitarianism that was the cornerstone of past generations of American social welfare — the currency empowering today juggernaut is a consensus that this country is structurally unfair on its good days and exploitive on all the rest.
Whether he is discussing national defense or social welfare, Arnold describes a fundamentally different vision of America. Rather than anger or entitlement, he begins with a sense of obligation between man and state. This was Bismarck’s innovation; to acknowledge that, as a predicate for demanding a citizen’s obligation to the state, so the state had an obligation to the citizen. As he wrote in the early 1880s:
That state must take the matter into its own hands, […] not as alms-giving, but as the right that men have to be taken care of when, with the best will imaginable, they become unfit for work. Why should the regular soldier, disabled by war, or the official, have a right to be pensioned in his old age, and not the soldier of labour?
Arnold’s policies largely target exactly the kind of people Bismarck highlights: those who, for reasons not their own, need help. It is no accident that his first foray into politics two years ago was an initiative for at-risk children. Essentially, his programs are designed to disintermediate the recipient from the povertician power structure. A classic example would be workman’s comp reforms, delivering aid to the victims while at the same time de-funding the attorney/physician cartel that has made so much money off of the program.
In polar opposition to his predecessor, Arnold does not yoke government aid to government growth. Rather, much like a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, he sees government as a leveraging wedge. Arnold’s ambitious plan for an eco-friendly “Hydrogen Highway” will cost California at least $100 million, but he is convinced that the government must be the catalyst. To both supporters and skeptics, he says: “Your government will lead by example.”
Conservatives might grumble that Schwarzenegger’s third way of republicanism is only “half a loaf.” But, that dissatisfaction would be premature. This “half loaf” of social welfare yoked to personal responsibility is really a loaf of unbaked dough. And just as dough can expand to fill an entire bread pan, so can a populace that recognizes a sense of personal obligation grow into a more centered, conservative society.
As the left increasingly understands the mortal threat to its power base, it will take a man truly of political blood and iron to press the charge. If Arnold can lead the way in renegotiating the great American contract, moving from a sense of entitlement to a sense of obligation, then even dozens of his possibly harebrained new programs will turn out to essentially cost chump change. They will be a small price to pay for a morally, socially, and economically healthier country.