Ion Grumeza

Author, historian, educator, and philosopher

Vox Populi…Vox Dei

Opinion Page Submission
The Los Angeles Times

Vox Populi…Vox Dei
By Ion Grumeza

The re-election of the California governor engaged 135 candidates to produce one winner, Arnold Schwarzeneggar. The entire political scenario seemed to come from a Hollywood script.

The end of the much-publicized election shows that power is in the numbers. This is what made it possible for an Austrian-born candidate with a thick accent and no political background to be the people’s choice. It shows that all the negative campaigns against him meant little to the voters who decided to trust a “real hero” to restore their confidence and secure their jobs. It shows more than anything else that voters love to look up, not down, to their leaders, and Arnold plentifully offered them just that: a powerful icon of a man seemingly destined for greatness. Ultimately, it shows the power of the American electoral system to deliver what vox populi wants.

When it comes to choosing leaders, very little has changed in the mentality of voters since tribal times, when the strongest, the wisest, or the richest person was entitled to lead the community. Arnold meets all these criteria and many others: he was the undefeated body builder in contests, the terminator on screen, wise enough to marry into the legendary Kennedy family, and the wealthy recipient of movies that generated $5 billion in ticket sales. His undeniable charisma is rooted in the qualities voters love to be a part of.

Reflecting on this, I suggest we take a meditative look backwards in history and compare the re-election in California to election in democratic ancient Rome. Voters in both societies wanted to be taken care of by their leaders. Any Roman who offered more panem et circenses (free bread and circus game holidays) was a better leader. What would happen one year down the road was not important, as long as the system satisfied the immediate needs of the people.

Vox dei gave the inherited monarchies of kings and princes the right to rule, but periodically hungry and disparate vox populi changed the divine rule. During the 1848 revolutions, proletarians and intellectuals screamed, “Liberté, Equalité, and Fraternité,” but ended up installing new monarchies which could provide unity within European nations.

Napoleon was a crowd pleaser, but he quickly betrayed the ideal of the French revolution by silencing vox populi with his cannons and vox dei by dismissing the power of the Pope and coronating himself as an emperor. He then justified his “revolutionary” actions by saying, “I fear insurrection based on lack of bread more than I fear a battlefield of 200,000 men.”

The United States of America was the product of vox populi, who fought for their freedom against the British crown. It was their leader George Washington who refused to become president for life, thus establishing the famous American electoral system of which Arnold is the beneficiary.

As for democratic elections, they do not change in scope and ritual. Candidates compete against each other in promising anything voters want to hear: safer living conditions, job security, tax cuts, better social services, improved schools, and a happier life. In other words, electoral candidates deliver hope for a better future. Concerning that, Bismarck once commented that there are never more lies than after hunting parties or before elections. Indeed, only before elections will a candidate demonstrate that 2 + 2 = 5, while after the elections he or she will prove that 2 + 2 = 3. In Communism or other dictatorships, vox populi will settle for 2 – 2 = 4, while freedom-deprived voters will elect the only candidate written on their ballot.

However, democratic and dictatorial leaders must follow the same Roman concept of feeding the mob and ensure a welfare system that will prevent hungry people from rioting in the streets. Arnold’s new role is to keep California calm and productive, and make its vox populi happy. For that, he has to correct the huge state money deficit and solve social and economic problems that would make any country collapse in an instant.

Somehow, the hope-giver Arnold must use his muscle and brain power to solve all dangerous crises that could contaminate the entire nation. Otherwise, the vox populi of millions who cherished him as a leader can turn against him. Thus far, history teaches that vox populi is indeed vox dei when it comes to what people want: a better life and a brighter future.

© 2003 Ion Grumeza