March 2016

There can be a fine line between compromise and lying. Democratic politics certainly requires the former - and it may require the latter, too. Building coalitions in a diverse electorate means emphasizing different aspects of one’s program, and sometimes those aspects will not be entirely compatible. And yet assembling a winning coalition may require precisely this form of inauthenticity. The result is that politicians win elections - while leaving electoral majorities unhappy. 

At times outsider candidates promise to break down politics as usual, and to speak and act with greater authenticity. Can they deliver? And would we be happier if they did? Would our governance be better? In his lead essay, Professor Timur Kuran argues that we aren’t necessarily worse off from inauthenticity in politics per se. But to make politics permanently better, those who pose as exceptionally authentic - and who commonly take extreme positions on vairous issues - need to acknowledge that compromise does not indicate deception; it is, rather, an inherent part of the political process in a representative government. 

Is he right? This month we’ve invited a distinguished panel of experts on American politics to discuss the questions of truth, lies, an authenticity in democratic governance. Professor Paul Starr of Princeton University, Professor Bradley J. Birzer of Hillsdale College, and Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics will each contribute a response essay. The four participants will then discuss through the end of the month. Readers’ comments are welcome as well, and we look forward to a stimulating and thought-provoking discussion.

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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.

The Conversation

Coming Up

Conversation through the end of the month.

Related at Cato

Book: The Struggle to Limit Government: A Modern Political History by John Samples

Cato UnboundBrain, Belief, and Politics” featuring Michael Shermer, September 2011

Cato UnboundAn Appreciation of Partisanship” featuring Nancy Rosenblum, February 2009

Opinion: Trump and Sanders: True Populists?” by Michael Tanner, National Review Online, January 2016