Sunday, May 27, 2007

Is Authenticity Possible?

A passage from TNR Open University's Michael Kazin:

Is it possible for a serious candidate for the White House to be an authentic personality? Or does the pervasive, unending scrutiny of contemporary politics insure that there will always be a large gap between public image and private reality?

To most Americans, the question would probably sound naïve. Of course, all politicians are phonies. But this was not the norm throughout most of our history. So far as we know, in private, such celebrated presidents as Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Truman rarely spoke and acted in ways that directly contradicted how they represented themselves to the world.

Well, that's not quite the case. Lincoln had a somewhat different message on slavery for voters in Massachusetts than Kentucky, but YouTube wasn't there to catch it.

Roosevelt's views on progressive reform changed substantially between leaving office and running as a third-party candidate in 1912, many would argue as a reaction against the conservatism of President Taft. Actually, Roosevelt was arguably the most leftist candidate in the 1912 race outside of socialist Eugene Debs (see for example 1912). How many flip-flops would we have cataloged?

And Truman certainly bit his tongue plenty in public, his famous temper usually vented through letters he never sent (see Truman).

Candidates today may be worse. But let's keep in mind that we have a two-party system, and an electorate that will always have a lot more than two sets of views. Even ideologues don't often agree with each other, though they often convince themselves otherwise. But within this system, a candidate must convince more than half the voters that they'd be truly represented in his or her administration.

As Kazin mentions, today we know far too much about our candidates and what they say for this to work well. Our dissatisfaction with the political process, which shows up in continually lower voter turnout, I think is more the result of improved communication technology than anything. The more we know about our candidates, the more we don't like them. And the more we desire non-compromised third-party candidates.

Given our system, I expect a certain amount of shifting, especially since the elected responsibility of the job entails representing everyone.
That said, the problems of Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney (and perhaps John Edwards) are not just caused by technology. Their positions go beyond even the lowered standards we have set for ourselves to accommodate the times, and that has stopped the former from being able to lock up her nomination race, and the latter from gaining as much traction as one would expect.

I believe we have many good candidates running for president, and two or three with the character and authenticity to possibly even stand with some of America's best presidents. I hope one of them is given the opportunity.

1 comment:

redbarb said...

I must paraphrase my old high school drama teacher, we all have numerous masks we wear. All of us use different masks to fit the situation we find ourselves. My professor mask for a large, lecture class is much more formal and performance centered than my professor mask for a small upper-division class with a more interactive teaching style. My mask for news media interviews is different from the one I use with other political scientists speaking on the same topic.
Presidential candidates from the pre-TV era had a completely different form of campaigning. The party promoted their image to fit the voters in the state(s) in which they were working. Image does influence voters. There is substantial evidence that voters will attach issue positions to a candidate they like to fit their own views. That presidential candidates today spend substantial time and effort to find and project the image they believe will attract voters is simply sound campaign practice.
What is interesting to me is the difference in the images between the Republican and Democratic candidates. The Republican candidates appear to seek to promote the image that they are the tough guy who will take it to the bad guys with the most vigor. The Democrats appear to be emphasizing how they represent "change" to an electorate almost desperate for the end of W's term.
I don't expect to know the "real person." I try more to figure out who this person will be in the role of president. Getting past the mask of the campaign and see the strengths and flaws that the office will reveal.