Last Monday, a three-judge Minnesota state panel declared Al Franken the winner of a protracted U.S. Senate race. After five months filled with litigation and recounts since the Nov. 4 election, the final tally showed Franken, the Democratic candidate, beating Norm Coleman, the incumbent Republican, by a mere 312 votes.
Minnesotans, however, will still have to wait for their second senator for a number of weeks. Immediately following the ruling, Coleman submitted an appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court, claiming that 4,000 contested absentee ballots were not counted and dragging out an already prolonged process. If Coleman loses the state decision, he will likely take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Minnesota may have to wait until the summer recess of Congress for a decision.
Minnesota’s Senate race is just one in a string of close electoral battles since the presidential election in 2000. This past election season, Georgia resorted to a runoff where Saxby Chambliss defeated the Democratic candidate, Jim Martin. In 2006, Montana’s race saw Jon Tester defeat Conrad Burns by around 3,000 votes. The difference between Jim Webb and George Allen in Virginia was less than 0.5 percent of votes cast. The list of close races goes on. While Minnesotans are undoubtedly frustrated that the race has been so prolonged, the contest is a testament to the continued power of the American electoral system. In all likelihood, Franken should have been sworn into office in mid-January following the first decision by the Minnesota State canvassing board, but nonetheless, Coleman’s opposition has been justifiable. That the appeal system is functioning correctly—at least for political candidates—is heartening. The judicial process, however, has taken far too long. A recount undoubtedly takes extensive effort and time; high-profile cases should not be rushed to trial. Regardless, the possibility that the Senate race will extend into June or July is absurd and is the fault of both Coleman’s obstinacy and the cumbersome procedures of the courts.
Beyond continuing the pattern of tight elections, the Franken-Coleman race also highlights the pattern of electing entertainers-turned-politicians. Before dipping into the formal political arena, Franken was a writer and performer for Saturday Night Live and the host of a syndicated talk show on Air America Radio. Minnesota has a history of non-traditional politicians. From 1998 to 2003, independent Jesse “The Body” Ventura, a retired professional wrestler, served as the state’s governor. Wheelock Whitney, the man responsible for organizing the Minnesota Twins baseball franchise, ran unsuccessfully for the U.S Senate in 1964 and for state governor in 1982. Minnesota, however, is hardly alone. California too seems to mix Hollywood with politics. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a seven-time Mr. Olympia and former Hollywood action film star, is currently the California state governor. A radio announcer for the Chicago Cubs and career ‘B film’ actor, Ronald Reagan was also governor of California before becoming president.
That Hollywood film stars are adequately prepared to run states, much less the country, is bewildering. That a satirist is politically adept is less so. Franken, throughout his career, has parodied politics on air and in writing. Originally titled The O’Franken Factor, Franken’s talk show attempted to counter syndicated conservative talk radio. His 1999 book, Why Not Me?, detailed his mock campaign for the 2000 presidency. In a similar vein, Stephen Colbert’s I Am America: And So Can You! satirized American society from the ground up, reserving special criticism for the politics and policies of the Bush administration. If American politics is to continue to blend Hollywood with Washington, I am much more comfortable with voices already critical of the status quo rather than those working as spokespeople for big business (cough, Reagan).
Sadly, disenchanted liberals are increasingly more willing to accept satirists as politicians. Traditional politicians seem often to lack the vibrancy needed to shake the system—enter Obama. The senatorial influence of Hollywood accentuates the already gaping divide between Republicans and Democrats. Reagan, Ventura, and Schwarzenegger all represent lower forms of entertainment: B-list cinema, ‘professional’ wrestling, and cheap action films. Franken, if elected, will be the stalwart Democrat representing the entertainment business via the more sophisticated realms of political satire. Obviously, this sample size is limited but I still believe the difference reflects the brand of politics favored by each party. In future elections, we can expect that the election of a Stone Cold Steve Austin or Sylvester Stallone will signal a shift towards conservatism while the victory of a Jon Stewart will portend a drift towards liberalism. Seeing the wreckage of Reaganomics and the oft ill-guided policies of the Governator, I can only hope our future Hollywood-ticians will trend toward the Left.