Authenticity and Ancient Virtue

Mixing authenticity and politicians in the same sentence sounds like the beginning of the kind of joke one might have heard around the Knights of Columbus beer hall in Kansas or Nebraska in the mid 1970s. With only the rarest of exceptions, authenticity and politicians simply do not play well together. Timur Kuran has already expressed all of this eloquently in his introductory essay to this discussion.

It’s hard not to be utterly cynical as a citizen in the so-called western democracies of 2016. One is immediately reminded of the great curmudgeon Albert Jay Nock’s condemnation of democratic politics in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man.

Thus my first impression of politics was unfavorable; and my disfavour was heightened by subsequently noticing that the people around me always spoke of politics and politicians in a tone of contempt. This was understandable. If all I had casually seen… was the of the essence of politics, if it was part and parcel of carrying on the country’s government, then obviously a decent person could find no place in politics, not even the place of the ordinary voter, for the forces of ignorance, brutality and indecency would outnumber him ten to one. Nevertheless there was an anomaly here. We were all supposed to respect our government and its laws, yet by all accounts those who were charged with the conduct of government and the making of its laws were most dreadful swine; indeed, the very conditions of their tenure precluded their being anything else.

Granted, Nock had become a firm anarchist by the time he wrote his autobiography, yet this does not and should not negate his point. The actual working of democratic politics is nothing short of profoundly disgusting and corrupt, and it has been since before the Athenians executed Socrates for corrupting the youth. Whatever one might think of Plato’s own preferred form of government, he nailed the essence of democracy after it had murdered his beloved mentor. Democracies, Plato argued in the Republic, will always seek the lowest common denominator, who, as leader, will soon see he is no longer equal. Once that happens, hell breaks loose upon the citizenry.

As children, we are taught the American founding and the Constitution as though they were sacred documents and sacramental events crafted by demigods. If so, our own Twilight of the Gods must have occurred sometime between 1787 and today: Loki has re-emerged and seemingly rules all. Whether murdered or banished, Odin, Thor, and Heimdahl long ago departed our realm.

Did Mr. Smith actually ever make it out of Washington? Maybe Loki got him as well.

None of this should suggest that one could never find an honest man in the politics of a free society. Yet, when one is found, he is most likely the anomaly that proves the rule. Though certainly far from perfect and often deeply flawed, Pericles, Cato the Elder, Cato the Younger, Cicero, Sir Thomas More, Edmund Burke, John Adams, Robert Taft, Justin Amash, and a few others might make the list of those whom we respect. But, really, so very few. And, each of these men had their own failings as well (I exclude Amash from the failings part).

Still, it’s hard not to remember the words of Cato the Elder as immortalized by Plutarch. “Cato, on the contrary, promising no such mildness, but plainly threatening evil lives from the very hustings openly declared himself, and exclaiming that they needed a great and thorough purgation, called upon the people, if they were wise, not to choose the gentlest, but the roughest of physicians.”  While no one reading Cato Unbound in 2016 would want to live under the rule of Cato the Elder, we have no reason to doubt his sincerity and, thus, his utter authenticity.

It is equally an essential part of the tradition of a free people to lament the loss of virtue and the decline of society into decrepitude. The Roman republican Livy set the pattern for this in his own history of Rome:

I invite the reader’s attention to the much more serious consideration of the kind of lives our ancestors lived, of who were the men, and what the means both in politics and war by which Rome’s power was first acquired and subsequently expanded; I would then have him trace the process of our moral decline, to watch, first, the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the rapidly increasing disintegration, then the final collapse of the whole edifice, and the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them. The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see.

Livy’s own understanding of history can be traced back to the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus’s first attempt to explain the logos and the cycles of the seasons and of human beings (birth, middle age, death), the seemingly endless pattern of creation, decay, death, and rebirth. Polybius, a Greek slave living in the Roman republic, would make a similar point in his own histories. St. Augustine would follow, and the pattern of historical cycles would be set for centuries, though a progressive and linear view of history started taking shape in the ancient world as well. Whether either vision of history is true or not, the two visions have stuck.

In his book of the American founding, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood notes soberly that virtually every one of the American founders had come to believe by the time of his death that the Americans had already lost the essence of the republic and had become unworthy of its promise. Wood claims that only Charles Carroll of Carrollton remained optimistic. Here, Wood is wrong: Carroll indeed thought all was lost as well by the time of his death in November 1832.

New England revolutionary and anti-Federalist Mercy Otis Warren had seen the signs of our death as a republic by the end of the eighteenth century. “If this should ever become the deplorable situation of the United States, let some unborn historian in a far distant day, detail the lapse, and hold up the contrast between a simple, virtuous, and free people, and a degenerate, servile race of beings,” she wrote in her three-volume history of the American Revolution, “corrupted by wealth, effeminated by luxury, impoverished by licentiousness, and become the automatons of intoxicated ambition.”

As much sympathy as I have with Warren and other [r]epublicans, I would be lying to claim that the American experiment has lasted into the twenty-first century, contrary to their professed fears. For all intents and purposes, the Constitution is a failed document, and the various institutions established by the Constitution are failed institutions. Rebirth is always possible, but it is, at least as of now, highly improbable. Whatever date one wants to give to the Constitution’s death, it is clear that it has not been functioning in any meaningful way since Franklin Roosevelt controlled the executive branch. He neutered Congress, and neutered—though with a somewhat rabid bite every decade or so—it has remained.

Yet American society has not collapsed. This survival of our society is clearly due to institutions, habits, norms, and mores well beyond those proclaimed and maintained by the Constitution.

This takes us back to Alfred Jay Nock’s point and question. Why would any serious person want to go into a life of politics in the twenty-first century? That is, at what level can authenticity even exist for the honest person? For those of us who love liberty, we just want to be left alone. We want politics to remain politics, and we want family to remain family. Most families are uninterested in politics. Most churches are uninterested in politics. Most businesses are uninterested in politics. Most of civil society is uninterested in politics. Sadly, the reverse is not true. Most politicians and political institutions want desperately to control families, churches, businesses, and voluntary associations. Politics—even in the best of societies—is always and everywhere imperial, expansionist, and brimming with insatiable avarice. It is not content to remain political. It wants all things to be politicized. Authentic or not—left, right, above, below, next to—it wants, seeks, grabs, and holds on to power with an unimaginable fierceness.

A politician, a father, and a minister walk into a bar… .

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.