About this Issue

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.

Lead Essay

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.    

Response Essays

Spare Us from Authenticity

            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.




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.

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… .

The Conversation

You Can’t Keep a Lid on Discontent Forever

Preference falsification is “not necessarily a bad thing,” observes Paul Starr. Indeed, if we always revealed what we think about the clothing choices of every acquaintance, life would become pretty unpleasant. The art of living together in comfort requires certain differences in taste to remain private. Bradley Birzer reinforces the point in noting that most of us want to be left alone in many contexts and to be free to decide for ourselves without interference. We want to keep politics out of spheres we consider private.

Yet if nothing were politicized, there would be no civilization. Precisely because we live together, there are issues on which policies must be adopted that will affect us all, even if satisfying everyone perfectly is impossible. Examples include national defense, controlling epidemics, and traffic rules. On such matters, finding the best balance among many tradeoffs requires everyone to be open about their knowledge, aspirations, apprehensions, and expectations. Disappointments are easier to accept if everyone has been heard and conflicting agendas have been reconciled through meaningful compromise. When these ideal conditions are met, the imperfections of adopted policies will be viewed as the costs of accommodating diverse constituencies fairly. Even individuals who dislike specific policies will consider the political process legitimate.

Politics loses legitimacy insofar as it excludes from consideration certain preferences and thoughts. When the fear of being ridiculed, belittled, and stigmatized makes certain groups censor themselves, disappointing policies are no longer acceptable. Yes, open conflict may be avoided, at least for a while. It may seem to groups with a voice in the political process that social problems are being solved through the triumph of superior ideas. In certain cases, the apparent harmony might even become genuine over time; absent public support, the concealed preferences may wither away. The American “melting pot” is replete with examples of old-world preferences that gradually lost appeal after disappearing from public view under pressures to appear “American.” To fit in, immigrants grudgingly gave up authenticity; their children would not even contemplate living differently from their native peers. For the second generation, authenticity meant living like an American, not clinging to ancestral customs.

But when core economic and social interests are involved the truncation of public discourse is unlikely to end as happily. Consider jobs, government subsidies, or wealth redistribution. On such matters, preferences are far more resilient, and disappointments are felt far more deeply than on those involving ancestral customs. Because perceived indignities and injustices are relived repeatedly, excluding them from public discourse breeds sustained anger, and political insiders draw growing resentment. Conspiracy theories that demonize some conception of the “establishment” start to circulate more or less clandestinely, usually through media that the politically connected scorn as backward, reactionary, and misinformed. On the surface, politics will seem relatively calm, but this situation cannot last forever. At some point, the frustrations will spew out, like lava from a long-dormant volcano. When that explosion occurs, the elites accustomed to ignoring the masses will be unprepared to counter the populist leaders who emerge to fill the void. The fates of many so-called establishment candidates in the 2016 Republican primary illustrate the point. So does the degree to which establishment candidates in both parties have had to pander to newly energized constituencies.   

As Sean Trende notes, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are not the first American presidential candidates to champion outsider causes. If they have been far more successful than their predecessors, this is partly because they have gone much farther in dissociating themselves from the establishment.

Sanders has taken economic positions that, in a normal presidential election year and against a Republican establishment ticket, would guarantee the Democratic Party a loss unseen since McGovern’s epic defeat in 1972. Bucking the Democratic establishment, he favors fundamental wealth redistribution, not token adjustments to the tax code. In favoring protectionism and military retrenchment, he puts himself at odds with major Democratic funders. He also identifies with the victims of ongoing global economic trends and with young cohorts who feel threatened by outside competition in ways their parents never were.                    

For his part, Trump gives voice to masses that have suffered from particular Republican orthodoxies. By demaning, mocking, and insulting individuals and groups respected by both wings of the political establishment, he signals that under his leadership long-suppressed policy preferences would become legitimate. He gives respectability to feelings and inclinations long delegitimized as signs of bigotry, prejudice, sexism, and racism. None of this means that his goals serve authenticity per se. His hostility to critics indicates that he wantes merely to recompose the establishment, not to make policy debates more open, more honest, more inclusive, or more civil. Under a Trump administration, so it seems, some of today’s policy elites would have to watch what they say.

As I pointed out in my lead essay, there is a difference between legitimizing existing grievances and solving them. Should Sanders or Trump make it to the White House, their followers are bound to be disappointed, because there are no quick-fixes to the problems that account for their frustrations. The proposed unorthodox policies could make them much worse. Whatever the outcome of the race for the White House, the entire American establishment, including career politicians, the super-rich, academia, the press, the high professions, big business, and major civil society organizations, now has fair warning that the stability of the American system of governance requires addressing the problems of groups that have not shared in the fruits of globalization. To dismiss the cries of Trumpists (or of Bernie-fans) merely as expressions of bigotry or prejudice is to be in denial. If statistics compiled by the New York Times are any indication, a sizable share of Trump’s support comes from groups that have never been associated with ethnically or racially charged causes.   

“Why now?” asks Trende. The honest answer is that we will never know exactly why it happened in 2016 rather than 2012 or 2020. Major shifts in public discourse are inherently unpredictable because they involve incentive changes that feed on themselves through processes discussed here, here, and here. The early supporters of this electoral cycle’s “authenticity candidates” encouraged others to join in, and as the responses to the candidates made them bolder still, their support expanded further. Evidently the silent masses had grown enough and were sufficiently angry to enable candidates addressing their concerns credibly to succeed where earlier authenticity candidates failed. Neither Sanders nor Trump could have known that their messages and styles would resonate as they have. They must have been surprised like the rest of us.

The United States is now experiencing a political convulsion that, in certain respects, resembles  recent eruptions elsewhere. The relatively bloodless fall of several communist regimes in quick succession in late 1989 stunned the communist establishments, the participants in the demonstrations that brought them down, the distinguished scholars of Eastern Europe, the CIA, and the KGB. It surprised even East European dissenters who had predicted that some day the Soviet Empire would fall like a house of cards because it was sustained by endemic lying. The revolts known as the “Arab Spring” offer another example. They stunned not only Arab constituencies but all manner of experts. These revolts exposed grievances that had never come into public view. For a while, entrenched bureacracies came under scrutiny. 

These East European and Arab examples reveal that the outcomes of authenticity-promoting revolts are not foreordained. The East Europeans managed to solidify the transformation of their societies by tying themselves to the West while the Soviet Union (and then Russia) remained in shock. By contrast, the Arab Spring turned into a deep winter, except possibly in Tunisia, because the victims of corrupt Arab regimes live in societies with weak civil societies and limited experience with civic organization.

The United States is unlikely to follow the Arab pattern. As we have understood at least since Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the United States has a rich tradition of civic activism. Someone will organize the newly energized American constituencies to give them a permanent place in American politics. They will find voices in both major parties, conceivably even in new parties.