All social life, not just politics, requires a public performance that is often at odds with our private emotions and impulses. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Were we simply to blurt out our innermost thoughts and act on our impulses, we would wreak havoc in all our relations. Our private thoughts are not always our best thoughts. But going to the opposite extreme is no answer: were we to calibrate our words and actions entirely to suit others, we would lose any sense of self. When we get the balance right, we are properly mindful of others and true to ourselves in the things that ultimately matter most.
Politics is not today and never has been a sphere for the display of the authentic self. There is nothing unusual about modern democratic politics in its requirement that all who seek power show some regard for those in a position to bestow it. Only the most naïve observer would suppose otherwise. But the realities of politics do not mean that the path to leadership lies only through deceit. It is possible to get the balance right—to do what is necessary to play the game successfully, keeping in mind the things that ultimately matter most and being clear about them to others. This is what we should expect of our political leaders.
One thing that has changed in modern politics is that we have all become conscious of political artifice, acutely so in recent decades. With the rise of consulting firms, pollsters, campaign strategists, speechwriters, and other assorted advisers, political persuasion has become an industry. In his new book Republic of Spin, a history of presidential image-making and message craft since the beginning of the twentieth century, David Greenberg describes three responses by journalists and intellectuals to this development: boosters who “celebrated the advances in spin” and argued they would help fulfill the promise of democracy; critics who warned that democracy was being corrupted; and realists “who accepted the new world of spin yet tried to demystify it.” I am a realist, but I am also realistic about demystification: many people will take it as proof of corruption and yearn for authentic leaders.
Authenticity itself, however, is just one of the qualities in a politician that requires a great deal of artifice to sustain. Democratic politics is often a rough business; it demands a thick skin. Politicians who do not wilt under the attacks of opponents and the harsh glare of the media have to mask their emotions and gauge their words carefully, lest they betray weakness or ill temper. If they are able to sustain an image of authenticity under those conditions, it usually reflects not only their own theatrical gifts but also brilliant directing by political advisers. And if they are less successful in performing authenticity, it says nothing about the merits of what they stand for or what they would do in office.
Still, politicians who seem too polished and calculating to be authentic provide the perfect opening for populists on both the right and left. The central claim of populism is that elites have betrayed the people, and one way to make that claim is to personalize it and insinuate that rivals are simply doing the bidding of others. The practiced skills and focus-group-tested words of the “establishment politicians” become counts against them, evidence of a larger betrayal. In contrast, the populist leaders may be so crude (as in the case of Donald Trump) or so earnest (as in the case of Bernie Sanders) as to dispel any worry that they are holding anything back. What you see, they promise, is what you get—seemingly proof by personality of their larger promise to give government back to the people.
Trump’s claim of authenticity may seem especially doubtful. After all, he’s a veteran television performer who has played fast and loose with truth for a long time. But like an oil prospector who has hit a gusher, Trump has tapped into the emotions of aggrieved whites who have long been compelled, at least in national politics, to bottle up their true feelings about immigrants and racial minorities. They remember a time when minorities knew their place and their own fortunes were better, and they want that past back. No doubt these emotions are authentic, but their authenticity does not make Trump’s whipping them up any less dangerous to the nation.
Sanders has also released pent-up, authentic political emotions—anger about the rise of the one percent, the long-term stagnation of middle-class incomes, and declining economic security. I have much more sympathy with these sentiments than with the ones that Trump is playing on. But Sanders is also trying to mobilize resentment without having alternatives that are realistic and well thought out. He has endorsed one proposal after another for new programs without taking account of their total tax implications or subjecting them to careful economic analysis. But to many of his supporters, especially his young followers, Sanders’s personal sincerity seems more important than the content of what he is proposing.The very fact that he disregards practical considerations counts in his favor.
The desire for authenticity is a recurrent aspect of youth politics. The 1960s counterculture and radical movements on the left were all preoccupied with what they saw as the artificiality of American life. As those movements faded, some radicals moved to small towns and rural areas. Sanders’s own journey from Brooklyn to Vermont followed the path that part of his generation took—and now he comes to the national stage, half a century later, as the spirit of radical authenticity reborn.
Democracy suffers from many serious problems today, but an “authenticity deficit” is not one of them. America’s political institutions are increasingly dysfunctional because with all their checks and balances they are ill suited to the current level of partisan and ideological polarization. The more authentic political leaders are, the less likely they will be to de-escalate hostilities. Spare us from authenticity: we need more guile and artifice to get through our fractured era.