The trap of political authenticity

Democrats want to promote “authentic” candidates. This will be their downfall.

The trap of political authenticity

Democrats want to promote “authentic” candidates. This will be their downfall.

Democratic strategists and commentators have pinned their midterm hopes on a slippery concept: authenticity. “[M]y best advice for candidates in 2018 is: Be yourself,” wrote former Hillary Clinton spokesperson Jesse Ferguson in Time earlier this year. Ask Michael Starr Hopkins, briefly a Senate primary candidate in New Jersey, for his 2018 election game plan, and he’ll point to the congressional and gubernatorial campaigns of Randy “Iron Stache” Bryce, a union ironworker, and Andrew Gillum, current mayor of Tallahassee and the youngest person ever to serve on the Tallahassee City Commission. “The blueprint is already there,” Hopkins argued in The Hill late last year, “It begins with authenticity.” If the 2016 election taught us anything, said St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III in an April appearance on the podcast Lovett or Leave It, it’s that “the American people would elect a total buffoon who they consider authentic over a genius who they consider manufactured.”

Democrats’ renewed fixation on authenticity is nothing if not predictable. To claim that Clinton was incapable of authenticity — not just a “phony,” but a “phony phony,” in journalist David Maraniss’s words — makes a coherent narrative of her vulnerability not only to President Donald Trump, but also to Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has been described as a “humorless aging hippie peacenik Socialist from Brooklyn” with a reputation for “no-nonsense authenticity.”

But in our reactionary political sphere, the life-or-death imperative that Democrats “be authentic” overlooks the very different ways in which a politician can serve up, and be served by, authenticity. Can authenticity offer Democrats the same benefits that it did Trump? Can anyone who is considered “authentic” compellingly advance a leftist platform? Who gets to be authentic, and why? Contrary to popular advice, the thirst for authenticity has not only put Democratic candidates at a disadvantage, it has also functioned as a pervasive tool of sexism. Even if the “blue wave” comes in 2018, Democrats’ obsession with reclaiming populist authenticity from Trump will undermine their chances at retaining power.

What is “authenticity,” exactly? As the literary scholar Lionel Trilling wrote in his 1972 book Sincerity and Authenticity, the authentic individual demonstrates a mode of being in which there “is no within and without.” Whereas a sincere person faithfully conveys the personality and beliefs they hold inside, authenticity obliterates the divide between intention and expression. Authenticity and sincerity are not mutually exclusive, however. As Trilling explained, the authentic individual can be both “sincere and authentic, sincere because authentic” — meaning that if you can only present who you actually are, you’ll tend to say what you actually think.

Authenticity thus functions in Republican circles as permission to embrace overtly racist, sexist, or xenophobic rhetoric; “saying what he means” authorizes Trump to say anything at all, however reprehensible. Perhaps the most remarkable and frustrating quality of Trump, noted the feminist writer Jessica Valenti in The Guardian, is that his capacity to be “lauded for ‘telling it like it is’” is matched only by his capacity for telling untruths. But don’t take it from me; here’s what Shania Twain said this spring:

I would have voted for him because, even though he was offensive, he seemed honest. Do you want straight or polite? Not that you shouldn’t be able to have both. If I were voting, I just don’t want bullshit. I would have voted for a feeling that it was transparent. And politics has a reputation of not being that, right?

Authenticity is a concept without content: a way of being in the world that demands no specific personality trait. So when the Republican Party claims, however disingenuously, that the key to social prosperity is economic self-interest, a broad spectrum of people can synchronize that ideology with their personalities. Faith in the sanctity of free markets and the rising tide that flows from competition is what makes compatible the boy scout persona of Paul Ryan, whose anti-poverty platform rests on slashing taxes, and the ruthless grifting of Trump.

While the open-ended morality of authenticity is a boon for the Right, it makes far less sense for a political party that grounds its ambitions in altruism. It is all but impossible to imagine a politician in the Trumpian mold advancing a message of collective responsibility — and it’s no walk in the park for career Democrats, either. What the Left’s call for authenticity overlooks is that deception remains an essential political tool, and that what begins as careful facade can become part of a politician’s infrastructure.

As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in 1971: “the more successful a liar is, the more people he has convinced, the more likely it is that he will end by believing his own lies.” So given, as Arendt argues, that “secrecy [...] and deception, the deliberate falsehood and the outright lie used as legitimate means to achieve political ends, have been with us since the beginning of recorded history,” then authenticity seems the last thing we should want from established politicians. To ask those already involved in politics for authenticity is also to neglect the important question Paulette Perhach raised on this website last April: “How much power can a single human tolerate, before the very possession of that power turns the person bad?”

And who are those people, anyway, who receive the blessings of “authenticity”? The issue isn’t that “authentic” tends to be synonymous with “working class,” “political outsider,” or “unfiltered” (the Bryces, Sanderses, and Trumps of the world). It’s that when authenticity means only those things, a swath of qualified, effective, and otherwise authentic people are left in the dust: women, in particular, and especially those in leadership positions.

Authenticity is a concept without content.

Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, for example, has been branded by Republicans as the very image of the Washington establishment. The Right’s portrait of a bureaucratic, manipulative, and inauthentic Pelosi has made her such an electoral liability that in November 2016 roughly a third of house Democrats voted to depose her as minority leader. Little does it matter, as Peter Beinart wrote in the The Atlantic this spring, that Pelosi has been perhaps the most effectual party boss in recent history. The more successful Pelosi’s politicking, the greater her stigma of inauthenticity.

But what makes Pelosi inauthentic? What sort of costume did Pelosi put on to reach her station? The disguise of a commanding leader? Arguments against Pelosi’s authenticity ignore that her 30-year story, from start to finish, is one of a wildly effective and committed politician — a commanding leader is who she is, authentically. The same can be said, as the journalist Jeff Greenfield wrote in Politico, about Clinton. According to Greenfield’s hypothesis:

...the person we’ve seen over the past quarter-century, and the person we watched seek the presidency twice, is the authentic Hillary [...] a very smart, deeply engaged self-described “policy wonk,” who is consumed by the need to conquer problems with an army of data-driven policies, and whose instinctive resistance to visionary politics proved to be one of her biggest handicaps in her (presumably) last run.

More accurate than calling Clinton or Pelosi inauthentic, of course, would be to call them unlikable — and, in doing so, to grapple with the ugly reality of sexism in politics.

A July 2016 CNN poll, for instance, found that only 30 percent of voters considered Clinton honest and trustworthy, compared to the 43 percent who somehow ascribed that label to Trump. This poll is less telling, as Valenti argued in The Guardian, about the candidates themselves than it is the more pervasive “notion that women are fundamentally untrustworthy snakes through almost every area of our lives.”

More accurate than calling Clinton or Pelosi inauthentic would be to call them unlikable.

It is unsurprising, then, that 59 percent of Republican voters hope to never see a female U.S. president in their lifetime. This exposes the paradox at the heart of authenticity. As Beinart argued, for “women politicians to succeed, they must defeat and outmaneuver men. Yet the better at it they are, the more detested they become.” Pelosi’s major difficulty is that, like Clinton, she “has made her ambition visible” — and a woman’s authentic ambition is something for which the U.S. electorate has little appetite. When the only kind of authenticity available for elected women is in the confirmation of traditional, conservative roles — think the hockey-mom-ness of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or the religiosity of former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann — what identity is left for ambitious, Democrat women to occupy “authentically”?

As a primary challenger, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s viral campaign video was a masterclass in authenticity. Depicting Ocasio-Cortez’s day-to-day life in community organizing — fixing coffee in an unremarkable apartment, interviewing voters, speaking at a neighborhood church, and riding the same ramshackle subway as the rest of us — it made a visual and narrative confirmation that she is in fact the community-invested, working-class everywoman she claimed to be. It was by way of authenticity that Ocasio-Cortez accomplished what to the Democratic establishment was unfathomable: the unseating of 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley. But how long will that authenticity last if she assumes office? How long until the claims begin that she is more D.C. than Bronx?

Authenticity and its benefits are fleeting; it is an empty concept that represents nothing more than our present political desires: a vengeful anti-establishmentism colored by long-standing sexism. A senator like Bernie Sanders is the exception, not the rule. If Democrats are to retain power, they’ll need to develop reelection strategies that anticipate the stench of inauthenticity that follows, inevitably, from any political service. Democrats will need to sell not just their personas, but the work they do in office — the work of legislating and the work of resistance — as meaningful and authentically motivated in its own right.

Aaron Colton will be in August a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Tech's School of Literature, Media, and Communication. He last wrote for The Outline about wave pools.