In a departure from typical political discussions along party lines, the USC Schwarzenegger Institute Inaugural Symposium kicked off the center’s first semester with a bipartisan look forward into political change.
A morning panel, which featured high-profile politicians such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), covered topics ranging from campaign spending to political corruption. When the symposium reconvened in the afternoon, the focus turned to the role of Hollywood in society as a panel of media executives delved into their industry.
Changing partisan boundaries
“To use a very scholarly phrase, meaningful change takes balls,” the institute’s namesake, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said to a packed house of 750 on Monday.
Change and the courage to incite change was the focus of the two-hour morning event, which featured a welcome address from USC President C. L. Max Nikias, among others.
“Like USC, Governor Schwarzenegger knows nothing is impossible when it is possible to come together beyond the poisonous atmosphere of partisanship,” Nikias said.
Veteran political journalist Cokie Roberts delved into the politics of partisan government while moderating a panel of political experts including Charlie Crist, former governor of Florida; Tom Daschle, former senator and senate majority leader; Tom Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania; Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico; and McCain.
Though the panel touched on issues such as the Citizens United ruling and the fiscal cliff, the discussion focused on finding a better way for government to handle these issues.
The speakers acknowledged that most politicians see party divides as a necessary evil of the system and that they tend to stick to their own talking points rather than spend time working with their opponents.
“It’s much easier to be an ideologue than it is to be someone who drives compromise,” Ridge said. “The easiest vote in Washington is ‘no.’”
But McCain analyzed the deepening party divide as something more serious: He referred to it as the source of the next national downfall.
“The history of this country has been corruption, reform, corruption, reform,” McCain said. “There are going to be major scandals because too many millions of dollars are washing around in political campaigns.”
Corruption, especially because of donations from interest groups to political campaigns, also increases party differences, Daschle said.
“What’s happening is that the grassroots politics have taken over the parties,” Daschle said. “You add grassroots politics, where the interest groups become stronger and stronger at the expense of the party, and blend into that money and media, and you’ve got an entirely different dynamic where people don’t understand what it really takes to work with the legislative process.”
Even when there is collaboration between legislators and executives from opposing parties, however, Schwarzenegger said the culture of divide can remain.
“Whenever you worked with Democrats, the Republicans hated you, and whenever you worked with the Republicans, the Democrats hated you,” Schwarzenegger said. “It’s not to win a popularity contest. That is not why you go to Sacramento or Washington.”
Though Schwarzenegger said he experienced the political divide during his tenure as governor of California, Richardson said states are often better off than the nation as a whole. Richardson cited his experience cooperating with a republican legislature during his term as a democratic governor of New Mexico as evidence that bipartisan cooperation is possible.
Perhaps the largest problem in partisan politics that many panelists touched on was the lack of respect opposite parties have for one another. Crist said he experienced this personally when he was vilified by fellow Republicans after hugging President Barack Obama.
“The idea that some in my former party would so disdain that act of decency, and I can understand the political ramifications and why they would see it that way, but being nice to somebody, and being decent, and being chastised for it is exactly what we need to stop doing,” Crist said.
Breaking out of the habit of working against the other party and instead working with them might be a shift for many politicians, but as Schwarzenegger said, “Political courage is not political suicide.”
Entertainment and social change
The event wasn’t entirely focused on the partisan divide, though. The afternoon session of the symposium, titled “The Power of People and Innovation — Perspectives of Media and Hollywood Leaders,” hosted a discussion on the role that the entertainment industry plays when it comes to innovation and social change.
Entertainment executives as well as students from the Sol Price School of Public Policy, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Gould School of Law and School of Cinematic Arts participated in the event.
The panel was moderated by Ben Smith, editor in chief of BuzzFeed.com, and took place in the Tutor Campus Center ballroom.
At the panel, Schwarzenegger emphasized the important role that the entertainment industry plays in shaping society’s collective social conscience.
“The power of films and television is enormous,” Schwarzenegger said. “I think it is much more powerful than politicians will ever be.”
The panel also touched on the interaction between entertainment and technology and the resulting innovation. Participants noted that one of their biggest concerns in this realm is in regards to piracy.
“Piracy is a giant, giant problem for us as an industry,” said Rob Friedman, co-chairman of Lionsgate Motion Picture Group. “We absolutely learned from the music industry.”
One of those lessons lies in how to best harness customers, according to panelists.
“Anyone who’s licensing, buying our product is a friend,” said Brian Grazer, Chairman of Imagine Entertainment. “The important part is we’re getting paid for it.”
Though the industry has maintained a way to generate profit, executives said they have not yet found a perfect answer.
“Piracy is of course the major issue. We are all of course looking for a solution for it,” said Ron Meyer, president and chief operating officer of Universal Studios and NBCUniversal.
Another important topic the panel discussed was the influence the entertainment industry has on culture. Many of the panelists spoke of the role that they believe studios and entertainment executives have in shaping culture as well as societal perception.
“We have the chance as an industry … to tell a story that can make an impact on society and change the way people think and feel,” Meyer said. “We [as filmmakers] have an obligation — an opportunity — to tell those stories.”
Grazer, who won the 2001 Academy Award for best picture for his work on A Beautiful Mind, talked about what he sees as his personal role in the entertainment industry.
“If there’s any way to elevate people’s point of view culturally or artistically, I want to be on the forefront of that,” Grazer said. “[In the entertainment industry] you get to help de-stigmatize mental disability and empower kids and their parents.”
Empowering their viewers, many panelists said, is what they hope to achieve in their industry.
“We continue to try to educate, to inform and to change attitudes,” Friedman said.