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What authenticity really means in politics

Scott Eisen/Getty Images

The subject of "authenticity" is a standard fixture of presidential election coverage. To political scientists, it represents the worst of conventional media wisdom: candidate-centric, hard to define, and almost certainly an impossible standard. It also possesses very little relevance for winning the party nomination, much less for governing.

Others have written at length about the false promise of authenticity, here and elsewhere. Within the Mischiefs' ranks, Richard Skinner and Seth Masket have done a nice job explaining why understanding a candidate's true feelings on a subject isn't a substitute for enlightenment or competence. The topic has appeared in other venues this week. Marc Ambinder writes that "there's no objective measure for authenticity," and Brendan Nyhan offers a persuasive argument that it's a label that's arbitrarily applied. While authenticity is difficult to measure, and the way it's applied to candidates defies clear patterns, our apparent national obsession with authenticity reveals how we think about the presidency. The concept may be devoid of direct meaning, telling us very little about the candidates and how genuine they are. Its meaning, instead, is in what it shows about our anxieties as we select someone to lead the executive branch.

Authenticity taps into the "Green Lantern" presidency

When we ask candidates to be authentic, we are asking them to perform what Nyhan has smartly called the Green Lantern presidency. This idea of presidential leadership essentially calls for the president to rule through the sheer force of his personality. The implicit argument is that by virtue of the realness of their personalities and convictions, "authentic" politicians like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders will be able to change the political system. Their intolerance for nonsense and pretension will strip away the obstacles of a Madisonian system and produce results!

This is absurd, of course. But it suggests that when people talk about authenticity, they're articulating a theory about how the presidency works.

Authenticity enforces gender and race boundaries

Authenticity can also act like a code word. This way of thinking about the presidency has some pretty significant gender implications: It's all about power and dominance. It's hard to test this empirically because there have been so few mainstream women presidential candidates, but it makes sense when we think about the double bind that Clinton has found herself in with regard to authenticity: It's like her critics want her to be grittier and more forceful, but then that's unfeminine and thus abrasive, so that won't work either. We can find an instructive contrast in the early days of Sarah Palin's vice presidential candidacy. She was praised for her authenticity — she was feminine, maternal, and folksy — but ultimately these qualities were held up as incompatible with the pursuit of higher office.

There's a race link, too. The times when Hillary Clinton has earned high marks for authenticity in the press have been when she was running against Barack Obama in 2008 and "connected" with working-class white constituencies in places like Indiana and West Virginia — sometimes with whiskey shots! The racial undertones of the authenticity argument are especially transparent in the idea that Donald Trump "says what others are thinking," and doesn't shrink from the political correctness police. When someone talks about a candidate who "tells it like it is and isn't worried about offending people," there's a decent chance that the potential targets for offense include historically marginalized groups about whom derogatory language used to be acceptable.

Authenticity, then, can work in a complex way for nonwhite candidates just as it does for women. When Obama was running, there were persistent comments about whether he was "authentically" black. Obama's relationship with the African-American community as he entered politics is certainly an interesting and rich topic. But questions aimed at race and authenticity — just like questions about authentic womanhood — ultimately serve to reduce both the candidate and the community in question to a narrow set of stereotypical characteristics.

Oddly, for a brief moment in 2008, a line of commentary emerged that identified Obama with the "neutral" school of the presidency and race —by virtue of having one white and one black parent, he could embody an image of "authentic" colorblind America. Obviously, this didn't last very long. But it had a connection with Obama's efforts to discuss race during the primary. One example of this was his April 2008 speech in which he spoke about mutual distrust among white and black Americans. Although the policy substance is very different, there's a connection with the response to Trump's eschewal of "political correctness" — a demand for unvarnished truths about difficult issues, particularly taboo topics like race and group identity.

In this way — again, tough to test given the small number of relevant observations — authenticity sets up a kind of a trap for candidates who challenge the conventional demographic boundaries of the presidency. By asking that they prove authentic womanhood or blackness, we're not just asking them to embrace unfair clichés. We're also calling for them to depict themselves in ways that are at odds with the traits we associate with effective presidential leadership.

Authenticity represents the democratic side of the presidency, too

The evil genius of the authenticity question is that it doesn't just point to presidential power through the brute force of personality. It also refers to the notion of the president as a small-d democratic actor. Requests for authenticity call for blunt talk — and also for a performance that casts the candidate in the role of "ordinary American" (a term that is, of course, laden with race and class baggage). We're asking the president to be a strong, uncompromising, and unwavering actor — in language that begs him or, more to the point, her to prove she's just like us. Questions about Clinton's authenticity may have no relevance to her ability to govern. But they reveal some key points about presidential politics. It's regrettable, but not entirely surprising, that there would be anxiety about opening the nation's highest office to the types of people who, until recently, would never be seriously considered. Presidential leadership also has a dual nature, with expectations that the president will be powerful and decisive while also remaining accessible and ordinary. And there's the sense that the public side of politics is scripted, while the important decisions are made out of sight. That's a fair concern — but efforts to sell authenticity to the public are as scripted as anything in politics.

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