On the eve of Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses, the Democratic presidential primary has been dominated by the candidates' quest to prove they possess an elusive quality: authenticity. In the past few months, we have seen John Kerry announce that the new theme of his campaign is the "Real Deal," while John Edwards has consistently portrayed himself as having been brought up with the unvarnished American values of his mill-worker father. One of Wesley Clark's principal campaign premises has been that he does not act, talk or think like a calculating politician. Joe Lieberman claims he's motivated by the inalterable principles of his religious beliefs. Dick Gephardt cites his authentic working-class roots as the basis for his appeal. And, of course, Howard Dean has held aloft "Straight Talk" as the banner of his campaign.

When Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) endorsed Dean, he said, "There is a powerful authenticity to Howard Dean. With that authentic demeanor, his toughness, his progressive beliefs, and his plain-speaking, he is the Harry Truman of our time."

We Americans watch this contest -- who's the most authentic? -- the way we watch reality TV shows. After all, the Democratic contest so far even looks like reality TV, with its shaky, hand-held cameras, internecine squabbles, quickly evolving plot and, most importantly, a ridiculous premise: that one performer can somehow be more authentic than the others in a scripted setting. The truth is that there has never been anything authentic about authenticity in politics. And while it's convenient to blame politicians, their audience -- the American public -- is just as much at fault for this charade.

We have always craved authenticity in politics, equating it with trust and truth. And we tend to view those candidates who seem most like us as the most authentic. Suspicious of elites, we want our leaders to be guided by the folk wisdom of Everyman. In an effort to appeal to that sentiment, candidates have been packaging themselves as authentically like us for nearly two centuries, going back to campaigns such as William Henry Harrison's "log cabin" candidacy and "Honest Abe" Lincoln's use in 1860 of images of himself as a rugged rail splitter from Macon County, Ill., rather than a polished railroad lawyer.

The rise of television, which magnifies every twitch and gesture, has further emphasized the ability to project an aura of authenticity. That aptitude -- rather than substance -- is what distinguished the seminal moments in early political television: Richard Nixon's Checkers speech in 1952 and John F. Kennedy's debate performances in 1960.

The politics of authenticity took on another dimension around 1975, when a sandy-haired, drawling Washington outsider named Jimmy Carter told an American people weary of Watergate-era dissembling that he would never lie to them. His strategy, suited to the times, worked like a charm.

The notion of cutting through falsehoods also fueled the candidacy of Ross Perot, who became a political force in 1991 on the strength of his self-proclaimed reputation for straight talk and relentless attacks on Washington groupthink. In later years, politicians such as Jesse Ventura, Ralph Nader and John McCain mimicked Perot's strategy, with varying degrees of success. None of them would ever be called "slick."

But the authenticity strategy, at first such a boon, ultimately undermined all their candidacies. It became clear that the flip side of "straight talk" was often intemperateness, eccentricity and political inexperience -- no substitutes for the steady-handed political techniques of less authentic but more effective politicians. Authenticity can, in the end, be a bit tiresome or unsettling, or just bad politics. In 2004, the question is whether the cycle will repeat itself.

Last week's polls suggest that the very qualities that have made Dean the party's front-runner could also lead to his undoing. Some of the opposition to Dean stems from his tendency to equate authenticity with a license to make mistakes. He once explained to NBC's "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert, "If I insult somebody by mistake and it's my fault, I'm very happy to say so. I'm not afraid of that. I will not be the scripted candidate who is going to do all the things that their handlers tell them to do." While Dean seems to be the most authentic of all the current candidates, people are now asking whether his irrepressibility will become instead irresponsibility. They have a right to wonder.

So what are we really looking for? The answer lies in our postmodern culture, which is dominated by the sense that too many things are fabricated, that too few can be trusted and that authenticity should be embraced, even if we know it's only an image rather than the real thing. Every year, Americans yearn more and more for intense, "real-life" experiences, whether in movies, television or politics. About a decade ago, for example, many young Americans felt that too much of what they saw and heard had been scripted by condescending elites. MTV recognized this trend, and the soap opera documentary "The Real World" was born. The new show, in which seven mutual strangers were picked to live in a loft and have their experiences continuously taped, rebelled against sit-coms with laugh-tracks, stock characters and poll-tested plot lines, setting the standard for a generation of "reality TV."

But in our love affair with so-called reality entertainment, we don't dwell on the fact that the "reality" in reality TV is really just an affectation, and the shows are theatrical productions like any other. Melanie, a cast member of the British version of "Big Brother," once said of that show: "We were manipulated into stereotypes. That wasn't me, it was a caricature of me. . . . The power of the production is incredible. It's not real. Don't be fooled!" The current season of "The Real World" features a group of almost impossibly good-looking people in the same house with copious amounts of alcohol, a hot tub and little to do other than flirt.

If this were reality, most of us would have no use for dreaming.

The fans of "The Real World" are similar to many of those who have rallied to Dean's presidential campaign. Young, educated and previously apathetic, these Deaniacs are looking for the new new thing. They are attracted to Dean because he seems to behave the same way whether or not a camera is rolling. His grumpiness, irrepressible humor and indifference to the risk of committing gaffes mark him as the most authentic politician since McCain.

But like reality TV, political authenticity is an oxymoron. In their bones, politicians -- even those as seemingly genuine as McCain and Dean -- are strategically savvy actors who frequently hide the real reasons driving their political decisions. By contrast, authenticity means acting without premeditation, pretense or secrecy. The political theorist Hannah Arendt once described the paradox involved: "[T]he search for motives, the demand that everybody display in public his innermost motivation, since it actually demands the impossible, transforms all actors into hypocrites; the moment the display of motives begins, hypocrisy begins to poison all human relations."

That's when we begin to see authenticity as just another tool used to manipulate the public. It's how we now see Nixon's Checkers speech, which was crafted with the help of an advertising agency. It's how we see contemporary candidates and their high-priced consultants. As Time magazine's Jay Carney once told a Washington Post media correspondent writing about McCain's 2000 campaign, "You get the sense you're being manipulated by candor, rather than manipulated by subterfuge and deception, but it is a strategy."

That we could be manipulated with authenticity should hardly come as a surprise. In 1513, Machiavelli wrote, "[I]t is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious, and also to be so; but you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful to be otherwise you may be able to change to the opposite qualities." He meant that those virtues are for display, and political leaders can discard them when necessary.

There are other risks associated with the politics of authenticity. First, it makes politics even more about people and feelings and less about issues and positions, and feelings are harder to pin down than positions. George W. Bush won the White House, in part, by campaigning on the politics of authenticity. In February 2000, Bush told a California audience, "I believe that when we change hearts, we change America." He offered compassion, and many believed it to be genuine. Yet Bush's critics argue that, once in office, he governed in ways inconsistent with "compassionate conservatism."

Second, an over-reliance on authenticity can get politicians into trouble both abroad and at home. Diplomats, for example, often avoid plain speaking to steer clear of needless provocation of foes or alienation of allies. And presidents should hardly channel the unmediated impulses of their inner selves to the general public, especially in times of war. When Bush met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in June 2001 and said, "I was able to get a sense of his soul," it may have been genuine but it appeared naive. Putin was a trained KGB spy; inauthenticity was at the heart of his trade. In relating to Putin in this way, Bush looked silly for ignoring the hard realities of Putin's background, his policy in Chechnya and his shaky commitment to human rights in Russia.

Despite its flaws, the politics of authenticity does hold one promise: a more inclusive, robust democracy. Even if you think Dean's presentation of himself is fake, or tailored to the moment, there's no doubting that he and candidates like him can breathe life into modern politics.

Going back to Tom Paine, Daniel Shays and Andrew Jackson, America's democracy has always been shaken awake by rough and ready political figures. In this tradition, the politics of authenticity represents a challenge to risk-averse party regulars and can bring issues such as campaign finance reform to the fore. As with McCain and Perot, Dean's greatest contribution will never be his unabashed personality. It will instead be the hundreds of thousands of non-voters he hopes to bring back into the democratic fold with his rebellious approach to issues. Much of reality TV is simply unwatchable, but the revitalization of our democracy would be one show worth watching.

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Michael Signer, a law student at the University of Virginia, holds a doctorate in political science from the University of California, Berkeley.