When I expressed dismay to a Democratic friend, he assured me it was just “Bernie being Bernie.” At least Sanders, the argument goes, speaks his mind. He is not scripted. He is true to himself. He may not play by the normal political rules, but he is the kind of outsider who will shake up the establishment.
This is further evidence of the disorienting, deja vu quality of our politics. In 2016, I was told by Republican friends that, at least, Donald Trump speaks his mind. He isn’t scripted. He is true to himself. He doesn’t play by the normal political rules, but he is the kind of outsider who will shake up the establishment.
I’m not contending that the moral character of the two men is comparable. Sanders’s is clearly superior, though this is clearing only an ankle-high bar. But both men have benefited from a certain definition of political authenticity that allows them — no, encourages them — to be unpleasant, ill-mannered loudmouths. The identification of authenticity with incivility and spontaneity is one of my pet peeves. And now my pet peeve has blossomed into a crisis of democratic values.
It is worth noting, first, that speaking your mind without filters is not a sign of political authenticity; it usually indicates a basic lack of respect for others. In almost any human interaction other than politics, Sanders’s outbursts on the debate stage would be taken as a sign of general jerkness. For Trump, such gracelessness is a lifestyle. Filtering out the worst of ourselves — demeaning language, crude insults, pushy interruptions — does not hide who we really are. It shows the kind of human beings we want to be.
There is a type of communication that seeks to change minds or clarify important differences. And there is a type of communication intended to establish dominance. The former is essential to self-government. The latter is more appropriate to professional wrestling matches and Trump campaign rallies (but I repeat myself). This is not merely a matter of style. Attempting to persuade someone — even when the source of disagreement is deep — involves the affirmation that they are worth persuading. Shouting someone down is the denial of their dignity.
Second, being unscripted in politics is not a reliable sign of authenticity. It generally comes from the arrogant and lazy belief that anything that pops in your head is worthy of public utterance. Authentic beliefs in politics emerge from reflection and craft. Ideas and policies are refined through the careful choice of arguments and words. Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address was an authentic piece of communication because it displayed deep thought, embodied in beautiful language. The collective tweets of President Trump will be a testament to impulse and ignorance. Only well-constructed rhetoric is capable of carrying complex ideas.
Third, it is foolish to equate authenticity with dogged consistency. When Sanders recently praised the “massive literacy” of Cuba under Fidel Castro, some defenders explained that this was nothing new. He had said similar things before. But finding the bright side of brutal authoritarian rule is not the kind of judgment that improves with age. One would have hoped that an early infatuation might have given way to more mature discernment. In the case of both Sanders and Trump, being true to themselves seems to preclude important learning.
Finally, it is dangerous to identify authenticity with being a disruptive outsider. Trump’s lack of governing experience did not provide him with fresh perspective; it led to governing incompetence. His disrespect for institutions led to an assault on essential institutions, including the FBI, the Justice Department and the intelligence services. The promise by a politician to burn down the house is visceral and emotional. That does not make institutional arsonists more sincere or wise. It is possible to authentically love American institutions while seeking their renovation.
In the upside-down world of American politics, Sanders and Trump are given credit by their followers for vices that corrupt democracy. Meanwhile, grace, careful rhetoric, learning and governing skill have few practitioners and few defenders.