The Authenticity Deficit in Modern Politics

In many democracies, established parties have been losing ground to populist, anti-establishment movements on the right or the left. Greece, France, and Austria offer a few examples. In the United States, the successes of outsider candidates in the 2016 presidential contest fit the same mold. The appeal of these outsider movements, like those of of Syriza in Greece, the National Front in France, and Austria’s Freedom Party, rests partly on their claims to authenticity. Supposedly they speak from the heart, say what they see, and voice the concerns of the masses. Their positions are their own, not those of lobbies bankrolling their campaigns. As power passes to them, politics is supposed to become more open and more honest. It will serve the oppressed majority, not privileged minorities.

That politics in even the most democratic countries is fraught with dishonesty and deceit is incontrovertible. It does not follow, though, that the current crop of populists have discovered a magic key to make politics more authentic. Let us review some of the flaws of the democratic political process and evaluate how the populists aim to correct them. The backdrop will be the United States, but the argument applies equally well to other democracies.


Politics as Usual

If random individuals were asked to describe the typical politician, they would speak of an elected official who is smooth with words, knows how to please disparate audiences, and who tries to be all things, if not to all people, at least to a spectrum of constituents broad enough to make the candidate electable. Succesful politicians manage to give people hope through agendas that they know they cannot achieve. Able to change colors unconspicuously to match the tastes of their audiences, they can champion many causes at once. They can disarm skeptics by speaking endlessly without answering questions. They are masters at spinning failure into exemplary success, or into evidence of their opposition’s evil designs.

Admirable or not, the skills in question are indispensable to democratic governance. The diversity of human preferences makes it impossible to pursue a program suitable in its entirety to every member of a meaningful coalition. Having multiple narratives in favor of a given program serves to make coalition members focus on different components. Consider a bill to improve the schools in low-income neighborhoods. It will appeal to some people out of a sense of fairness, to others because the labor force will become more productive, or to still others because crime will fall. By the same token, the program might seem too costly to one subgroup and poorly designed to another. In highlighting the program’s pros and cons selectively and withholding information strategically, the politician constructs a coalition that could not possibly form if every potential member was privy to all relevant facts. In switching colors depending on the audience, the politician effectively achieves compromises essential to successful collective action.

To be sure, the political skills that are necessary for consensus building and group mobilization do not necessarily serve broad coalitions. Politicians filter information not just to serve the masses but also to benefit narrow interests. Nothing requires them to be truthful about their motives. Nothing limits them to compromises beneficial to their voters. Nothing forces them to publicize information that is fundamental to social welfare. Politicians epitomize deceit because they can put their own interests above those of their constituents while appearing to be motivated only by lofty principles and the common good.

High on all politicians’ agendas is electability. To gain and retain power, they must satisfy the demands of organized interests, or lobbies, capable of funding their campaigns. Success requires tailoring their speeches to the needs of lobbies. It requires them to suppress their own preferences in the interest of appearing acceptable to their funders. They must embrace distorted versions of reality. They must bend over backwards to convince their constituents that the goals of their funders are compatible with the common good.

Individual voters cannot always separate truth from fiction, or sincere advocacy from contrived pleading. They cannot identify what specific facts politicians are hiding, which of their preferences are inauthentic, where they are exaggerating for the sake of pleasing their funders. But they understand the role that money plays in campaigning, the pressures that induce politicians to falsify their knowledge and preferences, and the impossibility of succeeding as a politician while staying true to oneself.


Outsiders to the Rescue?

The frustrations rooted in the dishonesty of politics have fueled the popularity of outsiders in the ongoing U.S. Democratic and Republican presidential primary contests. In unprecedented numbers voters have embraced candidates who refuse to play by the established rules of American politics. Insisting that they will not be “bought,” Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have eschewed donations from corporate lobbies. They have made a point of saying things that are unusually bold for a serious presidential candidate. Thus Trump voices anti-immigrant sentiments directly and unapologetically. Disavowing political correctness, he insults individuals and groups that politicians tend to treat with affection and respect, if not deference. He uses vulgar language, both to distinguish himself from career politicians and to shock the political establishment. For his part, Sanders blames “Wall Street” for the stagnation of middle-class incomes, vows to break up big banks, and refuses to take contributions from the financial sector. He criticizes the Affordable Care Act, the defining achievement of the incumbent Democratic president, as grossly inadequate. Trump and Sanders are both critical of the party they seek to represent in the presidential election. They take positions that their party leaders consider harmful to electability, which makes them appear refreshingly honest. Their unexpected resonance has led their opponents to recalibrate their positions. Trump’s Republican opponents have embraced his call for toughness on illegal immigrants. Hillary Clinton, Sanders’s opponent, has heightened her rhetoric in favor of redistribution.

The successes of these two outsiders (and to some extent those of two other Republicans, Cruz and Carson) are widely viewed as a the triumph of authenticity over politics as usual, made possible by their independence from party establishments. That independence, it is said, allows them to report what they see and to speak their minds. In fact, their successes rest also on the very campaign tactics responsible for making the political class seem so dishonest and inauthentic. Demonizing immigrants, Muslims, Wall Street, the trade partners of the United States, pharmaceutical companies, or the top one percent serves to oversimplify realities and to make intricate problems involving many complex constituencies appear to have easy and widely acceptable solutions. It proclaims that Americans can solve huge problems at no cost to themselves, simply by having others shoulder the costs. Neither Trump nor Sanders goes into specifics, mentions tradeoffs, or brings up the inevitable disruptions that their programs would cause. Trump conceals that expelling 11 million immigrants would harm a subset of his followers who depend on immigrant labor, and that it would destroy certain sectors of the American economy. Sanders disguises that making college free for everyone would transfer huge resources to the upper middle class, whose children attend college disproportionately. Neither mentions the economic risks of protectionism, or those of restricting the mobility of American capital. They speak as though the United States has the power to reset the rules of international engagement unilaterally, as if other countries would stand still as their vital interests were challenged.               

As of this writing, it appears unlikely that either Sanders or Trump will become President. But if one of them does make it to the White House, many of his campaign promises will come to nought. He will undoubtedly attribute any implementation failures to vested interests. It is just as certain that some of his supporters will feel manipulated. With the benefit of hindsight, and absent the excitement of the campaign, they will see authenticity as just a clever mask that their candidate wore to outsmart his opponents.

Might the wrong people have risen to the challenge of closing the authenticity deficit in American politics? Anyone who goes looking for answers will find confirmations in abundance.  How could Sanders have escaped the corrosiveness of Washington politics in over a quarter-century of service in Congress? How could his legislative service have been free of the sorts of compromises that look like pandering, weakness, or corruption when exercised by other politicians? He could not have been elected to the Congress in the first place without playing by the rules of ordinary politics. For his part, Trump is a showman whose trademark has been bluster, exaggeration, and egocentrism. Besides, he has already demonstrated a lack of political principles by making campaign donations to candidates all across the American political spectrum. Future pundits may propose that truly authentic candidates must follow the path opened up by the outsiders of 2016. More suitable candidates should rise to the challenge to fulfill the American voter’s yearning for authenticity. Presumably they will be citizens lacking electoral experience and outside of show business.


The Wellspring of Inathenticity

Finding genuinely authentic candidates for office would be a viable strategy for making the American political system more honest if the problem was caused by political servants alone. But in fact, politicians operate within a society that discourages truthfulness. They are surrounded by innumerable lobbies, each prepared to pulverize any candidate who strays from its orthodoxy. Although some of these lobbies represent billionaires, most draw their resources from large groups. The donors of these lobbies, large and small, are complicit in how their contributions are spent and in the tactics used on their behalf. Ultimately, therefore, the members of America’s colorful mosaic of politically active private organizations bears heavy responsibility for the social pressures that make it hazardous for politicians to speak their minds.

At least in the abstract, Americans have long believed in freedom of organization and  freedom of speech. By the same token, wide majorities will make exceptions when faced with a clear and present danger. Thus, during the Cold War most Americans were ready to deny suspected communists the right to teach; and today most favor the surveillance, if not the incarceration or expulsion, of Islamists. Rights cherished as the essence of the American way of life are denied to people who would extinguish those rights.

There is a difference though, between the 1950s and the 2010s. Now, the logic of denying rights to groups that endanger the American social system has been extended, by subcommunities, to anyone perceived as a threat to particular lifestyles, identities, and interests. Consider any one of the many controversies that divide Americans: abortion, gay marriage, Israel and the Palestinians, social security, taxation, guns, racial inequality, or immigration, to name a few. On each of these issues, there are activists who consider their opponents illegitimate. In the belief that their own pet issue—owning a gun, racial affirmative action, the sanctity of Roe v. Wade, no new taxes—is fundamental to being a true American, they would like to shut down relevant debates. Treating their opponents as beyond the pale, they will demonize them, regardless of the merits of their thoughts and positions on the vast range of other issues. Both sides of the abortion issue are filled with activists for whom the slightest deviation from their own orthodoxy amounts to treason.         

On any given issue, no matter how controversial, and however intensely some people feel that that their own absolutes are incontrovertibly justified, most members of society believe that a compromise is possible and necessary. On taxes, for instance, even many supporters of small government recognize that technological change may alter the optimal set of public goods and also that rates should be responsive to the wealth distribution. On abortion, even many supporters of a woman’s right to choose agree that the month of pregnancy at which that right becomes restricted can change as medical advances broaden the possibilities of keeping alive prematurely born babies. But in intolerant social environments individuals with “moderate” views do not speak up. To avoid being harassed, treated as immoral or ignorant, and denied opportunities, people with opinions that fall between clashing extremes falsify their preferences, or else stay silent and hope that no one asks. They also withhold their knowledge about possible compromises, even pretend that they share opinions championed by one or the other extreme camp. In essence, they give up personal  authenticity for the sake of accommodating social pressures. A consequence is that public discourses cease to reflect what people want and know. As I explained in Private Truths, Public Lies two decades ago, members of society collectively destroy their ability to live together harmoniously, to solve problems through give and take, even to fathom the range of possible compromises.  

The politicians of a society composed of inauthentic individuals are certain to be as inauthentic. They cannot reach the pinnacles of power by being themselves, by sharing freely their reservations about established orthodoxies, by articulating grand compromises, or by pointing to trade-offs between freedoms, between rights, and between goals. Successful politicians rise by putting themselves in the service of powerful lobbies. They embrace many orthodoxies, if only for the freedom to modify others at the edges. They oversimplify knowingly and unabashedly. It is unsurprising, then, that Americans consider their political system so deficient in authenticity; or that politicians able to appear authentic through unusual extremism or outlandishness can animate millions of voters; or, finally, that the rhetoric of current champions of authenticity harbors so much simplification, distortion, exaggeration, and demonizing.

The authenticity deficit in American politics is very real. But it is not a product of politicians alone. It is a social ill whose perpetrators are also its victims, and vice versa. People astonished at why Sanders and Trump have resonated with huge blocs should look in the mirror and ask when they themselves last sat down with someone who holds an uncomfortable contrary opinion, for an honest dialogue on finding a middle ground.    

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Democratic politics requires not only compromise, but some degree of incoherence. Politicians naturally strive to create winning coalitions, but sometimes that can mean promising the impossible or simply just the mutually incompatible. We may hate this fact, and yet it is not so clear how to do anything about it. Without a degree of compromise, democratic institutions could actually collapse. Timur Kuran argues, ultimately, that those who are willing to compromise need not be any less authentic than those who promise that they never will.

Response Essays

  • Every social interaction demands a sort of public performance. If we take performance and authenticity to be antithetical, then all of social life is inauthentic. And yet, says Paul Starr, that isn’t so bad. It’s probably for the best that we carefully manage our impulses while out in public, and we perhaps should not complain about politicians who carefully manage their impulses while governing. Modern politics, though, puts the business of image management front and center, with speechwriters, consultants, strategists, and the like all discussing publicly exactly how a candidate should manage his or her image. This may seem problematic, yet, as Starr argues, even the appearance of authenticity requires a good deal of artifice to sustain.

  • Sean Trende compares the measured, thoughtful political speeches of the mid-twentieth century to those of our own era. He finds that politicians like Everett Dirksen, or even Franklin Roosevelt, would fare badly today simply because of their highbrow rhetoric, which is no longer politically acceptable. An affected folksiness is almost a necessity nowadays. And this we call authenticity. In the Internet era, candidates must connect not only with elites, who formerly channeled both funds and votes, but also with non-elites, who are increasingly an essential donor class. Like all other donor classes, this one intends to get its money’s worth.

  • Bradley J. Birzer looks at some key figures from the history of liberty: What did they think of authenticity? What role did it play, for example, in republican Rome? Or at the American founding? He concludes on a pessimistic note: Our Constitution has failed, he writes, and although most people of good will are uninterested in politics, their uninterest does not yield freedom. Perhaps only a handful of politicians throughout history have failed to be corrupt, and among the American founders, not a single one believed, at the end of their lives, that the American experiment has been a success. Authentic or not, politics is concerned with grabbing ever more power, and it’s quite uninterested in anything else.