Desperately seeking the authentic president
With little meat in the US elections, voters are looking longingly into the eyes of the candidates hoping to glimpse the 'real' person within.
Authenticity rules in this year’s US presidential elections. The candidates who are up are believed to have it, while those who are down or out do not.
When Mitt Romney dropped out of the race after Super Tuesday, the media agreed as to why: ‘In the end, his campaign foundered for one basic reason: he lacked authenticity’ (Boston Globe); ‘Romney failed the “authentic” test’ (Los Angeles Times); ‘Mr Romney’s advisers…conceded that they had failed to overcome doubts about Mr Romney’s authenticity as they sought to position him as the most electable conservative in the race’ (New York Times) (1).
In contrast, fellow Republican Mike Huckabee is said to be resilient because he is a bass-playing, folksy guy to whom people (especially Southern evangelicals) can relate. And the leader of the Republican pack, John McCain, is said to be oozing authenticity. McCain is the so-called ‘straight talk’ candidate, the maverick who’s not afraid to buck the Republican consensus and risk unpopularity among the party’s hardcore. And, as his supporters do not fail to add, McCain’s experience as a prisoner during the Vietnam War demonstrates exceptional courage.
The Democratic Party contest is even more obsessed with authenticity: it is said to be an epic battle between the inauthentic Hillary Clinton and the authentic Barack Obama. And as Obama starts to pull ahead in the delegate count, it seems his easy style has given him the edge. As the pundit Michael Medved put it, Clinton’s presentations are ‘robotic, stilted’, while Obama’s ‘other-worldly cool seems almost supernaturally natural’ (2). In polls and focus groups, Obama supporters say the reason they back him is he is authentic. And the only times that Hillary has seemed to stir up public support are when she appears to let her guard down – like her tearing-up before the New Hampshire primary – to project vulnerability, and thus authenticity.
In one sense, it is not surprising that voters care about the personal qualities of the candidates. A discussion of the individuals’ features has always been part of a presidential race. You can go as far back as the election of 1828, when Andrew Jackson ran as a populist frontiersman, to see an emphasis on character. In more recent decades, the politics of personality – or lack of personality – in US elections has been widely commented upon.
But this year’s focus on authenticity is different. More than before, authenticity has been elevated to a key criterion to assess candidates. Past elections have seen a search for someone who appears ‘presidential’; while this may have been superficial, at least it was focused on the job. Today, however, the quest for the authentic politician highlights abstract individual qualities – such as being relaxed, smart or trustworthy. These are primarily about the person himself or herself, and only secondarily reflect on the specific role. Above all, Americans seem to want to discover the soul of the candidate.
Why is this? Why are voters more likely to evaluate candidates according to the standard of authenticity? And why are politicians basing their appeals to the public on the basis of having truly authentic personalities?
There are, in fact, many contributing factors, both political and social. The first is the lack of stirring ideas. In the 1930s, Americans did not ask whether Franklin Delano Roosevelt was authentic; they were interested in whether his New Deal would stop the Depression (and if they had considered it, the patrician and politically manipulative FDR would have been found inauthentic). Today, both Obama and Clinton, in contrast, admit that they have few policy differences between them, and those shared policies do not come close to adding up to something as big as a New Deal. When a contest is not a battle of ideas, the choice of candidate seems to have nothing left to it but personality. The Pew Research Center’s review of the Democratic primaries found ‘there is no correlation in the exit polls so far between the issues people think are important and the candidates they vote for. It’s about the qualities of the person.’ (3) Likewise, many of the Republicans and independents who want to pull out of Iraq immediately have voted for McCain, who reportedly contemplates keeping troops in the country for another 100 years.
More immediately, however, the search for authenticity represents a rejection of the recent period in American politics. Bill Clinton and George W Bush were ultimately disappointments, especially to their own supporters. By the end of his two terms, Clinton – ‘the man from Hope’ – was viewed as a poll-driven triangulator, a parser of the truth and, to some, a morally-deficient intern abuser. Bush, who promoted himself as the ‘you know where I stand’ candidate, is now widely seen as having hoodwinked Americans about WMDs in Iraq. Many conservatives believe he betrayed his promises to introduce reforms; one Reaganite wrote a book calling Bush an ‘impostor’ (4). Beyond the presidencies, there has been a number of corruption cases involving members of both parties. The political class as a whole is held in low esteem.
The lesson many have taken from these years is that you can’t trust politicians. This conclusion is, at best, simplistic, as it underestimates the more fundamental exhaustion of US political life; at worst, this view is deeply cynical. But without any other guidance to make sense of what has occurred, many have interpreted the disarray of American politics as rooted in a lack of personal authenticity among politicians. In this year’s election, they are giving more time to those who seem to be a break from the past and who are able to present themselves as genuine. Something as trivial as youthful drug-taking becomes a significant marker for Obama in his attempt to distinguish himself from the past: when he admits in his autobiography to using ‘maybe a little blow when you could afford it’, its principal effect is to make him appear more authentic than Bill ‘I did not inhale’ Clinton.
Another dynamic at work in politics that leads to a focus on authenticity is the demise of political parties and other institutions. In the past, the electorate may never have got up close and personal with the candidates, but their assessment of them would have been mediated by a shared set of assumptions about political beliefs. They would also have been more likely than today to belong to an organisation that would provide some perspective on the party and its candidate. Today, however, there is a lack of such mediations. Given the distance between the sole voter and the lone candidate, voters have less confidence in their choice. Some appear to have concluded that the only way to pick is to observe closely and try to discern whether the candidate seems truly sincere.
At the same time, the candidates in both parties tend to run without any real ties to their party’s erstwhile grassroots, preferring instead to appeal over their heads, directly to the electorate. Again, the distance between candidate and voter is so wide that the politicians feel they must reassure voters by demonstrating that they are real people they can trust. However, this attempt to connect directly with the public at large is a challenging and fraught process.
Beyond these political factors, there are also broader trends in society that encourage many to view politics through the lens of authenticity. One is the more generalised anxiety about being duped. In the late nineteenth century, Herman Melville’s novel, The Confidence Man, told about the devil taking different guises on a steamboat down the Mississippi River. This under-appreciated book reflected, among other things, society’s unease about trustworthiness. Today, we also appear to be in such a frame of mind. From an apparent increase in art forgeries to James Frey’s lies about his identity in A Million Little Pieces, and from paedophile priests to internet liaisons gone bad, American popular culture seems full of questions about ascertaining what is real and what isn’t. In the political realm, this expresses itself as a suspicion that a politician will not prove to be who he or she said they would be.
Another important social trend is the blurring of the distinction between the public and the private. More to the point, it seems that the only way to understand the public sphere is by way of the private. So, the way to comprehend where a politician is coming from is to divine their personal motivation, their thirst for power perhaps, rather than analyse their publicly-stated political stances.
A belief at large is that the more closely you observe a candidate, the more likely you will gain an insight into who they really are. But this supposed intimacy is an illusion. The ‘real’ candidate is, ironically, something carefully manufactured. Many go to great lengths to try to appear natural and personable. It is notable that Obama was for many years known by the run-of-the-mill name Barry; using his given-at-birth, ethnic-sounding name Barack upon entering public life was no doubt a conscious move. To paraphrase the American cigar-chomping comedian George Burns, authenticity is everything; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
At the same time, voters do not truly know the personal side of politicians (nor should we want to). In our celebrity culture, many believe they ‘know’ celebrities – and even suffer grief when the likes of Princess Diana or Heath Ledger die – but this, of course, is just fantasy.
The appearance of authenticity is also shallow and tenuous. The candidates are closely watched, and one little slip might lead to them losing the authentic tag. This almost happened to Obama: when in the pre-New Hampshire debate he said ‘You’re likeable enough, Hillary’, some wondered if we peeked into the real, nasty Obama underneath. Luckily for him, that incident did not derail his candidacy. Authenticity also appears to be in the eye of the beholder. In another time, Obama might have been seen as too slick. He certainly doesn’t appear to be the vulnerable victim-type which has in recent years been seen as a precondition for being seen as in touch with one’s feelings.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with desiring political leaders with firm convictions and strong qualities. Compelling ideas and personal commitment is a powerful combination. But, for the most part, today’s search for authenticity rests on negative political and social trends. And no matter how long and hard you stare deeply into the eyes of Obama and McCain on TV, hoping to catch a glimpse of their souls, I’m afraid you still won’t find true political substance.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.
Sean Collins asked if Obama will change American politics? and looked at was different about ‘Super Tuesday’. Guy Rundle joined the search for a feelgood president. John Browne characterised Obama as the candidate of white America. After ‘Super Tuesday’ Mick Hume argued that now we knwo what US voters don’t want. Helen Searls looked at the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s fluctuating fortunes. Or read more at spiked issues USA and White House 2008.
(1) All quotes cited in ‘The Real Deal’, CBS News, 8 February 2008
(2) Michael Medved, ‘The Authenticity Election’, Townhall.com, 6 February 2008
(3) Gerald F. Seib, ‘Issues Recede in ’08 Contest As Voters Focus on Character’, Wall Street Journal, 5 February 2008
(4) Bruce Bartlett, Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, 2006
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