‘Authenticity’ in the 2016 Campaign

September 19, 2015

‘Authenticity’ in the 2016 Campaign
Wall Street Journal, Sept. 19, 2015 (PDF)

In Wednesday’s debate of Republican presidential candidates, one word kept coming up as a yardstick: ‘authenticity.’ Where does the word come from, and when did it enter politics?

As observers sized up the Republican presidential candidates at Wednesday’s debate in the Reagan Presidential Library, one word kept coming up as a kind of a yardstick for their performances: Were they “authentic”?

On Twitter, the word often appeared in the running commentary of debate-viewers. “Whoa, first authentic moment of emotion from Jeb Bush in the entire campaign: ‘My brother kept us safe,’” tweeted Steven Mazie, Supreme Court correspondent for the Economist.

Meanwhile, Aaron Gardner, a communications consultant and former managing editor of conservative blog RedState.com, was concerned about Sen. Ted Cruz: “I don’t know what it is, maybe he is too prepared, but Cruz doesn’t sound authentic,” Mr. Gardner noted.

Going into the debate, pundits spoke of an “authenticity” gap on such venues as CBS’s “Face the Nation”: Outsiders Donald Trump and Ben Carson had it, while the professional politicians lagging in the polls seemed to lack it. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has had her own struggles to appear “authentic”—especially compared to her main rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, as well as Vice President Joe Biden, who may be considering a presidential run.

“Authenticity” has become a major buzzword of the campaign season, representing the culmination of a decadeslong political trend. “Before the latter half of the 20th century, the question of whether a candidate was ‘authentic’ was rarely raised,” wrote Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman in their 2004 book, “The Press Effect.”

That all started to change with the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter, who had campaigned as a genuine, average guy, according to Erica J. Seifert, author of “The Politics of Authenticity in Presidential Campaigns.” “By 2008, it was a dominant theme in political television and print media,” she writes.

Along the way, such politicians as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush scored major “authenticity” points. Reagan’s authenticity transcended his background in the world of movies. Even as a Hollywood actor, he was seen as the real deal, since he always seemed to play one role: Ronald Reagan. “Because he acts himself, we know he is authentic,” commented Garry Wills in his 1987 book, “Reagan’s America.”

While we routinely judge politicians to be “authentic” or “inauthentic,” these words have become attached to people rather than to objects relatively recently in their history. The roots of “authentic” lie in the Greek “authentikos,” meaning “original” or “primary,” and in its early use in English, the word described genuine articles rather than false imitations.

But what we call “authentic” underwent a rapid transformation in the 20th century. A hundred years ago the most typical nouns to follow “authentic” were “information” and “history,” according to the Google Books Ngram Viewer, an online tool that tracks word usage patterns based on the texts of millions of digitized books. By the 1980s, “authentic” most often modified “voice” and “self,” as the word became associated with a more human kind of genuineness.

“Authenticity” thus came to stand for the honest expression of one’s “true” inner self—or at least, in the realm of political image-making, the ability to appear emotionally sincere. As the old theatrical saying goes, the main thing is honesty; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

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