Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


What Makes Us Politic

bush-charleston

George W. Bush in Charleston, West VIrginia. (Photo: Amanda Haddox/Shutterstock)

The Bankruptcy of Authenticity

• June 30, 2014 • 6:00 AM

George W. Bush in Charleston, West VIrginia. (Photo: Amanda Haddox/Shutterstock)

Every presidential candidate is essentially playing some sort of role. That doesn’t mean that they’re lying.

One of the more tiresome discussions in American politics concerns the need for candidates to be “authentic.” Voters allegedly rally toward candidates they find “real” and turn against the phonies and the out-of-touch elites. In the words of The West Wing, voters prefer their candidates to be more Neil Young and less Neil Diamond. Or so Michael Gerson argues in his post-mortem of several recent Republican primaries.

Authenticity is more likely a way we rationalize election outcomes afterwards. It helps create a narrative to easily digest a very complicated national election.

Richard Skinner pushes back smartly against this trope in a recent Mischiefs of Faction post, arguing that presidential candidates’ authenticity tends to be rather inauthentic. Washington and Lincoln, Skinner notes, were famously playing roles; they advanced through the ranks in part by portraying certain personas that made them appear to be above politics, even though they were deeply political creatures. And yet we consider these men the archetypes of authentic statesmen today.

The whole concept of authenticity in politics is frustrating, in large part because the concept is essentially meaningless. Every presidential candidate is essentially playing some sort of role. That doesn’t mean that they’re lying; any time we interview for a job, we’re portraying certain qualities in ourselves that we want others to see, and maybe not advertising the fact that we want money, we like beer, we have bad track records with relationships, etc. This is especially acute among politicians simply because Americans are predisposed to distrust politicians. So they go out of their way to convince us that despite spending a lifetime pursuing political office, they’d rather be tilling soil.

Jon Stewart pretty much nailed this in his book America in this passage describing President George W. Bush:

This Connecticut-born, Yale- and Harvard-educated multi-millionaire son of a former president ran as an outsider in 2000. Many experts still wonder how the fuck he pulled that off.

Really, there are few better indicators of the meaninglessness of the authenticity concept than the 2000 presidential race. The two candidates were both very privileged, white Ivy Leaguers, sons of prominent national politicians, who spoke in thick Southern accents. Yet Bush was considered authentic while Gore was a phony. Why? Because Bush cleared brush on his ranch in jeans?

And it’s kind of sad to see candidates going out of their way to prove their authenticity. This is what led Barack Obama to bowl (poorly) in Pennsylvania and drove Hillary Clinton to drink shots of Crown Royal in Indiana in 2008.

7-hillary-drinking-beer-in-indianaAuthenticity is additionally meaningless because we expect candidates to portray some qualities that have little or nothing to do with the responsibilities of holding office. Was brush-clearing a skill Bush needed during his presidency? Does Obama need to bowl much? Whiskey drinking may have briefly helped Hillary Clinton after losing the nomination in 2008, but is it a skill she would require as president?

Luckily, there is little evidence that voters actually care about authenticity. Oh, they may claim it’s important in some surveys, but that doesn’t mean they actually evaluate candidates’ authenticity when they vote. Indeed, authenticity is more likely a way we rationalize election outcomes afterwards. It helps create a narrative to easily digest a very complicated national election. But for a few hundred voters in Florida in 2000, we might be speculating that Bush lost that election because his brush-clearing activities appeared inauthentic or his Texas accent seemed phony.

In fairness, it’s hard to test whether voters actually care about authenticity when they vote. Could we go back and look at past presidential elections and decide in a neutral way who was the more authentic candidate? Well, we could try, but chances are we’ll find that the winner was the authentic one—not because authentic candidates tend to win, but because winners tend to look better in hindsight. More realistically, given what we know about the influence of the economy and other features of the political environment on the vote, there just isn’t much room for authenticity to have much of an impact.

And that, frankly, is a good thing.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.