By Kevin Starr
Kevin Starr is University Professor of History at USC and California state librarian emeritus. His most recent book is “Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003.”
Less than a year and a half after California’s historic recall election, Sacramento’s wastelands are littered with the bleached bones of legislators and pundits who, unable to move beyond a cliche-ridden dismissal of a bodybuilder-movie-star-turned-governor, have underestimated the raw intelligence and honed intellect of the Austrian immigrant at California’s helm.
To examine the intellect of Arnold Schwarzenegger is to seek to discern the influences that have shaped — and continue to shape, however obliquely — his thinking, which is to say his mind. Let’s begin with a necessary distinction between intelligence and intellect.
Intelligence is a biologically based ability to understand, to get it. Intellect (and here I guide myself by sources as diverse as Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Barzun) is the formation of intelligence by culture, society, education and experience. Mind is intellect aware of itself.
Those who know Schwarzenegger — and I know him a bit — can attest to the man’s complexity. He might play Conan the Barbarian and the Terminator, and these roles, properly probed, might very well reveal aspects of his subconscious. But his resemblance to Conan or the Terminator in real life is skin-deep. The inner Schwarzenegger is a complex, highly intelligent and intuitive Euro-American with a sense of history and an informed taste for late medieval Austrian woodcarvings and 20th century Mexican art, as well as motorcycles and fine cigars.
As I see it, four basic forces shaped Schwarzenegger’s mind:
(1) A commitment to self-instruction, linked to confidence in an individual’s capacity to discern for himself and suspicion of received wisdom and business as usual.
(2) A preference for direct democracy (even if it takes celebrity status to energize that democracy).
(3) The idea of reform, as linked to history, destiny and the ideal of “the champion.”
(4) A paradoxical blend of free-market economics with a residual Euro-Catholic respect for government as social democracy and safety net.
In the novel “Moby Dick,” Ishmael tells us that a whaling ship was his Harvard and his Yale. Schwarzenegger might say the same thing about Gold’s Gym. Like so many notable Americans in fiction, fact and fusions thereof, Schwarzenegger is a product of self-invention, springing like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby from a Platonic conception of himself.
There he stood, 40-plus years ago, in the gymnasium of a second-tier Austrian town, barely a teenager, pumping iron and dreaming of a better life, a better identity, whose outlines he could hardly discern. Even upon being elected governor of a nation-state with the fifth-largest economy on the planet, he remarked that had he never achieved more than he did as a bodybuilder, it would have been enough, or at least better than what he had known previously.
This kind of man — so improbable in his origins and his rise to influence — runs the risk of being intimidated by tradition and the establishment. Schwarzenegger isn’t. He secured a bachelor’s degree in international marketing of fitness and business administration through correspondence from the University of Wisconsin-Superior during his days as a bodybuilder. But he remains fundamentally an autodidact and a product of experience, unintimidated by the establishment — especially the political establishment — and suspicious of received wisdom.
The most American part of Schwarzenegger’s Euro-American makeup is the experimental pragmatism that philosopher William James called one of this nation’s most enduring intellectual traits. Having made an end run to office during an opportune confluence of political forces, Schwarzenegger — for all his friendliness to legislators during cozy sessions in the smoking tent — remains in a permanent state of tension with the legislative establishment, even with the majority of his own party, given his vaguely libertarian positions on lifestyle choices.
Hence the governor’s preference for the direct democracy made possible by the reforms of the early 20th century, specifically legislation by popular initiative. Without the provision for recall, passed by the voters in October 1911, Schwarzenegger would not be governor. His celebrity status, moreover, born of his movie career, has given him a connection with millions of voters who cumulatively constitute a majority that crosses party lines.
The governor likes to visit Californians amid the settings of their daily lives — vocational classes, car lots and shopping malls. They call him by his first name, and not only because Schwarzenegger is a mouthful. Arnold may be the sort of star name preferred by Hollywood megalomaniacs, but it is also an Average Joe name reflecting the modest background from which this star arose.
When he was young and a comparative nobody, the governor galvanized himself through the pursuit of championship. He lifted weights and built his body to become a champion. Champions are solitary figures who achieve a bond with their audiences, individually and en masse. Champions also stand for things — the capacity of the human body for a Michelangelo-esque re-sculpting, for example — and are expected to exercise their championship on behalf of their admirers. Champions are by definition competitive, or they would never get to be champions in the first place.
Now Schwarzenegger wants to become a champion governor. That’s the way his competitive mind works, always seeking the best strategy for attaining clearly set goals. So, in his first months in office, he privately pondered the question: Who were the champion governors of California in times past, and what did they do to get that way?
Tom McEnery, the former mayor of San Jose, shared with Schwarzenegger the historians’ notion that Hiram Johnson, who reigned from 1911 to 1917, was California’s first champion governor. McEnery (a Democrat and a published historian) added to the catalog Earl Warren, Goodwin Knight and Pat Brown — each cut from instinctive centrist mold — and Ronald Reagan, considered in his own category as a reforming conservative capable of cutting a deal with Democrats.
The governor came to view Johnson, a reforming Progressive known for taking his case to the people, as all-time champion — the Mr. Universe of California government. And he was determined to emulate this champ’s approach. But Johnson’s progressive politics are not a natural fit with another keystone of the new governor’s self-made intellect. As Schwarzenegger has noted in a PBS series, economist Milton Friedman’s free-market theories helped spur his rise to wealth and Americanization. Friedman’s recasting of Adam Smith dovetails with those parts the Austrian mind already embedded with the conservative theories of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and the other economists of the respected Austrian School. These thinkers produced some of the 20th century’s most formidable theoretical resistance to socialist ideology, and set the stage for today’s free marketeers.
Not only was the governor born and raised in Austria, he remains an Austrian citizen, with his picture on an Austrian stamp. He is also a Catholic, as a matter of overall belief and cultural identity. And if Hiram Johnson-style progressivism is at all palatable to the laissez-faire-leaning Schwarzenegger, it may be because of a paradoxical aspect of the Austrian intellectual landscape: social democracy in the style of Western Europe as reinforced by Roman Catholic social thought. These traditions, including the Catholic emphasis on the public sector and commitment to distributive justice — the “safety net” in American — shaped young Schwarzenegger.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that Schwarzenegger spends his leisure hours conning Jacques Maritain’s “Christianity and Democracy,” “Man and the State,” or “The Person and the Common Good.” Nor is it likely that these tomes’ social democratic ideas are what he and his motorcycle buddies chat about over their two-way radios during road trips.
But by coming of age as a Roman Catholic in Western Europe, he couldn’t help but absorb a measure of social democracy, an orientation no doubt strengthened by his marriage to Maria Shriver, an informed and articulate Democrat of impeccable social democratic lineage, with whom the governor shares a powerful intellectual connection.
And so we have the oddity of a free-market-oriented governor — a self-made capitalist known to hobnob with such alter egos as Milton Friedman, George Shultz and Warren Buffett — who is possessed simultaneously of an almost instinctive respect for the public sector and its safety nets.
In the fiscal crisis that brought him into power and continues through his administration, Schwarzenegger has never made explicit war on the public sector. Had he done so, given his popularity, the battle lines would have been drawn for Armageddon.
Faced with two budget years of revenue shortfalls, Schwarzenegger has been forced to cut, to borrow money through a bond issue and to make imprudent deals (with teachers, for example) that he cannot make good on. But he has never blatantly attacked the premise of supporting schools, parks, clean water, fire protection and public safety, the preservation of the environment, the transportation infrastructure and the like. Yes, a tax revolt the majority of Californians support forced him to cut. But he has never joined other Republicans in suggesting that government’s responsibility to the poor, the abandoned, the sick or the disabled be off-loaded to the private sector.
Schwarzenegger’s instinctive understanding of the power of money allows him to understand his state’s tax rebellion. He knows that, given a choice between cutting programs and raising taxes, the majority of Californians would come down on the side of cutting.
Figures including state Treasurer Phil Angelides and writer Joan Didion have rebuked this majority for what they believe to be its shortsighted, anti-public sector recalcitrance. The governor, however, sees this resistance to further taxes as a controlling force in current state politics. For the time being — and at least until the private and public sectors redefine themselves in a way that makes sense to the majority of tax-paying Californians — raising taxes to sustain programs initiated in a more affluent and free-spending era would defy the will of the majority. And that would be asking for a one-way ticket to political oblivion — hardly a destination for champions.
Each human is a complex interaction of multiple traits, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is more than the sum of his ideas and orientations. Still, it behooves us as Californians to think about the notions, however obliquely expressed, that guide the governor. Most of us, after all, seem to be thinking along similar lines.