Saturday, December 29, 2007

If You Can Fake Authenticity, You've Got It Made

In this post, in which Pastor Dan comments on Rod Dreher's take on Mike Huckabee, we are faced with the whole issue of authenticity in politics. Essentially, PD seems to be making the argument summed up in this post title. I think he is both wrong and right. I think Huckabee's mostly phony, aw-shucks-just-plain-folks, Baptist preacher persona resonates with a certain segment of the Republican primary voting bloc. For the most part, however, I think most people, judging by the horror of the Republican establishment at Huckabee's sudden surge, recognize phony when it smacks them in the face (this same phenomenon behind Mitt Romney's crash - most people recognize he has remade himself into something he is not).

Where PD is right is in this:
That means the voters' yearning for authenticity and community will continue to go unsated. That's as it should be: politics can't solve everything. But to the extent that politics can provide solutions - an ability Americans tend to cynically under-estimate - I believe that our role is to keep pushing for the authentic and the truly communal. Don't let the candidates off with half-truths and glib remarks. Make them be real (and take a meat ax to the media when they won't allow it). Make them suggest real, helpful alternatives.

Interesting enough, however, I think that the words "authenticity" and "community" are empty words, filled in by whoever hears them. To some, there is little that is authentic about Rudy Giuliania, even as he has a record that jibes pretty well with his rather sociopathic rhetoric. For others, it is Sen. Clinton who is the big phony, even as she runs a cautious, careful campaign, refusing to commit herself to more than health care reform. For some reason, keeping herself open, and refusing to commit herself beforehand to any particular policy proposal is a sign of inauthenticity. On the other hand, Obama seems to have the Democratic corner on authenticity, even as he tries to make himself post-political, which is about as real an option as committing the nation to a Mars landing by next October. Dodd and Kucinich and Edwards, in many ways the most "authentic" candidates on the Democratic side (to the extent that their campaigns center on certain themes and rarely stray from these themes), get little press coverage, unless one counts the nonsensical haircut crap about Edwards.

There will always be a measure of artifice about political campaigns. There is no way around this. Yet, the discussions of "authenticity" that fail to note how consistent the candidates have been - even the inauthentic ones (Romney is perhaps the worst offender) - are more the problem than the candidates themselves. The most honest assessment comes from Chip Reid of CBS News, who is covering the Edwards' campaign:
I’m a bit unhappy with John Edwards. I’ve been covering his campaign for 10 days and he hasn't made a lot of news. Let’s face it – a lot of what political reporters report on is mistakes. The campaign trail is one long minefield, covered with Iowa cow pies, and when they step in one – we leap.

I’ve done very little leaping – and I blame Edwards. While other candidates misspeak, over-speak, and double-speak, Edwards (at least in these 10 days) has made so few mistakes that I end up being transported -- newsless -- from town to town like a sack of Iowa corn .

He has a remarkable ability to stay on message. Not just in “the speech,” but even in Q and A. Nothing throws him off. He turns nearly every question into another opportunity to repeat his central theme. Global warming? We need to fight big oil. Health care? Fight the big drug and insurance companies. Iowa farmers’ problems? Blame those monster farm conglomerates. And the Iowa populists eat it up.

In other words, what Edwards' says, and the reception he receives isn't nearly as interesting as the fact that his is a disciplined campaign, staying on message.

It isn't inauthentic politicians that are the problem. It is stupid, bored journalists who would rather write about haircuts and gaffes than serious policy issues.

Virtual Tin Cup

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