The Perils and Promise of Authenticity

Being an elections analyst is characterized by bursts of frenzied activity, followed by periods of calm. One of the things I like to do to occupy myself during that “downtime” is listen to old political speeches, many of which are available on YouTube.

One of the things that stands out most to me is how decidedly highbrow the rhetoric was. Take for example Sen. Everett Dirksen’s speech on the floor of the 1952 convention. You can listen to it here (and I strongly recommend listening in at the 16 minute mark, if only to see how little the actual arguments among party factions have changed), but let’s just say this: it is not a Donald Trump speech.

What changed? How did we go from Dirksen to The Donald in such a short time? This is the question lurking in the corner of Dr. Kuran’s thought-provoking essay. Authenticity was not something that we particularly demanded of our political leaders in, as Dirksen would have put it, “nineteen hundred and fifty-twooooo.” As another example, Franklin Roosevelt was much beloved, yet there is little doubt that his patrician air bled through into his speeches, and that this was also part of his appeal. Yet today, someone who spoke with the mannerisms of a Roosevelt or a Dirksen would be accused of inauthenticity or, worse, elitism.

Dr. Kuran digs down to root causes and suggests that our inauthentic politics merely reflects our inauthentic polity, and that our increased movement toward populism is an attempt to close a gap that we ourselves have created. To quote Pogo, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

But even this leaves an unanswered question: Why now? After all, you can’t explain change with a constant, so if our inauthenticity lies at the heart of our turn to populism, then we must have a reason to believe that our own “authenticity level” has changed.

This can be explored further in follow-up essays; for now I would like to explore two changes that can help explain the shift. The first factor is the democratization of knowledge and of “the press” brought about by the Internet.

Consider: In 2000, the political world was shocked when George W. Bush raised the now-quaint sum of $10,000,000 in a quarter. Much of this money was raised online, the first time a campaign had really tried this out. At the same time, 2000 saw the rise of John McCain, who made waves with his “Straight Talk Express.”

A succession of “authentic” candidates followed. Howard Dean blew past Bush’s fundraising record in 2004, running a campaign that soared, then stumbled, on the candidate’s willingness to speak his mind. In 2008, there were two such candidates: Barack Obama and Ron Paul. Obama in particular was able to use the Internet to bypass traditional media outlets and reach supporters directly—something that his personality was uniquely suited for. He was also able to shatter fundraising records through small donations. Paul was back again in 2012—and very nearly swiped a win in the Iowa caucuses—and we’ve since been treated to the Trump and Sanders phenomena in 2016.

The point is, I don’t think the fact that the democratization of knowledge and fundraising via cyberspace has been accompanied by a rise in “authentic” candidates is accidental. Just as television probably put an end to oratory of the type Dirksen was utilizing, so too the Internet has put an end to the reserved, patrician politician. The Internet has also created a new donor class, and like every donor class, they expect something in return. In this case, it is a feeling that the candidate “is one of us.” So voters expect candidates to dance with Ellen, communicate over iPhones, and interview with GloZell Green.

At the same time, the Internet makes it easier to ferret out inauthenticity among candidates. Consider: FDR used to campaign in the South by referring to Reconstruction as the darkest time in the country’s history, before wooing the black vote in the North. In an era where candidates are followed around by YouTube videographers, this would not fly. Instead, when Hillary Clinton puts on a southern accent, it is instantly broadcast around the country.

This is, in my view, to the good. But there is another factor at work: The wreckage of the Great Recession, and the widening gap between elite experience and what we might call “everyday experience.” One manifestation of this is economic. This is hardly a novel thought, but the recovery that has followed the collapse, to the extent that there has been any recovery, has not been felt evenly from top to bottom. It has been concentrated, not just within the top 1 percent, but among the urban, college-educated class in general.

This has manifested most directly in the candidacy of Bernie Sanders on the left. But the same type of gap also drives the candidacy of Donald Trump. To be clear, racism and racial resentment clearly play a role in the Trump candidacy. But to write it off as a mostly racial phenomenon, as many on the left seem to do, is a mistake.

If you look at where Trump’s electoral strength has been concentrated, it has, in fact, been in areas with high concentrations of African-Americans. This is consistent with the “racial threat” hypothesis that political scientists have commented on since the 1940s, and more generally with the liberal interpretation of his candidacy.

But Trump’s support is also concentrated in counties with high levels of unemployment, high numbers of voters with a high school diploma and nothing more, and low housing values. These are the people that globalization left behind, who fifty years ago would have had decent paying jobs in factories or even performing manual labor, and who could hope that their children would have the same. Instead they see their towns characterized by vacant buildings, drug problems, and government dependence.

But it goes well beyond economic issues. What drives this quest for “authentic” candidates is also cultural.  I would ask my readers to consider: How many people who staunchly oppose gay marriage do you know? How many people who are “pure” creationists – who believe that God created the world largely “as-is” – are in your circle of friends?

I would guess that for a large number of readers, the answer is quite close to “none.” Yet these are not obscure viewpoints; in fact, the “pure” evolutionary viewpoint is a minority view in America. The odds of having no one with these views in your circle of friends are, literally, astronomically small. We’ve self-segregated as a society, and people who adhere to what we might call a cosmopolitan worldview or morality system increasingly fail to interact with people who view the world differently. As a result, cultural traditionalists have been otherized.

Cosmopolitans also happen to occupy the commanding heights of American culture, and they’ve become increasingly aggressive in promoting what one of my friends called a “sneering disdain” for traditionalists—an attitude I myself sometimes struggle to keep in check.  So it is unsurprising that when the RAND Corporation recently polled candidates’ supporters, “people like me don’t have any say” was the strongest indicator of support for Trump, beyond education, beyond income, and beyond antipathy toward Muslims and Hispanics.

To bring this back around to populism, when people see the genteel politician in a crisp suit talking about the long term economic benefits of immigration and trade, they look around their neighborhoods and see a detachment from reality. They also – and I would say this is of equal importance – see someone who likely looks down his nose at them and believes he is better than them.

So when people look at Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, with their heavy accents and awkward hairstyles, they see themselves (sure Donald Trump was born wealthy, but he has a distinct nouveau riche affect; he can hardly be described as patrician). And when people mock them for their hair or their straightforward manner of speech, it channels every cultural slight these voters have faced in the past decade. Sadly, this is unlikely to get better before it gets worse; this growing cultural divide shows no signs of abating.

In case you can’t tell, I’m deeply ambivalent about our outburst of populism. I don’t particularly care for either populist candidate, and I certainly don’t share either of their worldviews. But I also know that I operate from a position of relative privilege here; I’m by-and-large on the winning side of the culture wars, my job is in little danger of being outsourced, and a relatively large cohort of people (for some reason) listen to what I say. You could say that I have a fair amount of empathy for the devil. Which in the end, may be all the devil really wants.

I look forward to the discussion.

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.