But here's the truth: Authenticity is a red herring, a scam, a trap. It's the last thing you should be worrying about.
There’s a good chance that with more women than ever before running for president — Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California just declared her candidacy — there will be an unusual amount of discussion about authenticity. And nearly all of it will be misguided.
What do we mean when we say a politician is authentic? We use a lot of synonyms (“comfortable in his own skin,” “knows who he is,” “down to earth,” “the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with”), but what we mean is that when they appear in public, they don’t seem to be acting or carefully considering their words. In other words, their public appearances seem from our standpoint not to be a performance at all.
But they are. Every single one of them. Campaigning is about performance, about going out in public where you'll be seen and usually recorded, and then saying things that you hope will make people agree with you or like you. The supposedly authentic politicians — George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan — weren't more “real” than the people they ran against and defeated. They were just better actors.
Consider this portion of a recent U.S. News and World Report story about authenticity in candidates:
Elizabeth Warren's first week as a presidential candidate included a venture onto Instagram live, the streaming function on what's currently the coolest social medium for politicians to play with.But when the Massachusetts senator paused mid-sentence in her kitchen to snag a Michelob Ultra – “I’m gonna get me a beer,” she declared – it stirred up barroom conversations across America: Was she being her true self? Does the real Elizabeth Warren regularly crack open brewskis? Is she ... authentic?
One might ask: Who the hell cares how often Warren has a beer? That’s not to get her off the hook, since the whole point of doing a video like that one with the candidate appearing in her kitchen is so you the voter will say, “Wow, she seems really down to earth and, I don’t know, authentic somehow.” It’s a performance that’s designed not to look like a performance.
But to a great extent, the judgments have already been made. Beto O’Rourke? Authentic. Joe Biden? Authentic. Bernie Sanders? Authentic. Sherrod Brown? Authentic. Cory Booker? Tries too hard to be authentic; therefore not authentic. Elizabeth Warren? Maybe half-authentic. Harris? Possibly authentic, but too early to tell (though Harris’s digital strategy will be run by a firm called Authentic Campaigns).
You might have spotted a pattern here: Female candidates are more likely to be judged inauthentic, just one of the many double standards they’re subjected to and double binds they’re caught in. Since men’s competence is assumed but women’s isn’t, they have to be serious and sober, lest they come off as unprepared; but then they’re humorless scolds. Men are allowed to display the full range of human emotions, including anger, but if a woman does the same, she’s unstable. If a man shouts, he’s emphatic and forceful; if a woman shouts, she’s shrill.
Not that plenty of men aren’t tagged as inauthentic (think Al Gore or Mitt Romney), but since authenticity is so subjective, it can be an easy excuse for dismissing a candidate because of her gender (“I can’t say why I don’t like her, she’s just not . . . authentic”). Few candidates were ever judged as harshly on the authenticity-meter as Hillary Clinton, and once it’s decided that you’re inauthentic, anything you do to prove that judgment wrong is taken as merely more evidence of your lack of authenticity.
But your favorite candidate isn’t displaying their one true self to the voters; it’s just that you find the self they’ve presented to be a pleasing one. It isn’t that there’s no true self to be found or that their personal characters don’t matter; we’ve certainly seen how this president’s personality flaws have affected his presidency. But when they campaign, they’re all performing, whether it seems authentic or not.
That doesn’t mean it’s a rotten lie, since we all perform versions of ourselves all the time. As sociologist Erving Goffman wrote back in the 1950s, we have a front-stage persona we present to the world and a backstage persona reserved for more intimate situations. When you put on a suit to go to work, you’re donning a costume just as much as an actor onstage, and you act and speak in slightly different ways there than you do at home.
I want to return to those social media videos of the kind Warren did, that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is using so well, and that every presidential candidate will be told they have to do in 2020. For many years, what we worried about in presidential politics was that it was too mediated and impersonal, that by watching the whole affair through our TV screens we were turned into an undifferentiated mass audience fed image over substance. Good looks and smooth talking would win the day over things such as competence and experience.
But now, because social media is supposed to differentiate us as individuals and be a place where everyone expresses their own unique self, we expect candidates to talk to us unscripted from their kitchens and send the results to us via our phones. The irony here is that social media is not where people express their true selves, at least not most of the time. It’s where they express an idealized self: the pictures from their fabulous vacations, their wittiest remarks, the news of their children’s accomplishments. Most people don’t go on Facebook and say, “Just had a fight with my spouse; here’s a pic of the cellulite on my thighs."
Even through this new medium, we still want the same things we have always wanted from politicians. They should be smart and accomplished, but modest and friendly. They should be strong and principled, but not too preachy. They should be charming and articulate, but look like they're doing it without trying. In other words, we want them to be just like us, but better — which is what we get on social media all the time.
So it’s important to keep reminding yourself: This is all a performance. That doesn’t mean it isn’t natural and appropriate to be at least somewhat repelled by the artifice of campaigns. But if you think a candidate isn’t authentic enough, ask yourself why exactly you’ve come to that conclusion.