The ability to project “authenticity” is hugely overrated as an electoral skill.

Catch of the Day: Inauthentic Presidents

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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A Catch to Richard Skinner, who wrote against "authenticity." Here's a taste:

I don't see any evidence that "authenticity" is a good quality in a president. George Washington was always conscious of playing the role of a heroic statesman, which required holding in check his ambition and anger. Abraham Lincoln was a shrewd longtime politician who, by the time he reached the White House had become a prosperous lawyer and well-connected backroom operator. As president, he was frequently cagey about the most important issues of his era, including the postwar reconstruction of the South. And yet he played the role of the humble backwoodsman (despite having gotten out of that milieu as fast as he could). Both Washington and Lincoln loved the theater, which explains a lot about them.

He's right.. The reality is that 300 million people are never going to know the "real" politician behind the stage-managed version. We just don't know what Barack Obama, or George W. Bush, or for that matter Alex Rodriguez or Beyonce is really like. What counts in politics is what we see on the outside, not what's going on inside. It's fun to speculate, but it's just speculation.

Moreover, the ability to project "authenticity" is hugely overrated as an electoral skill. It's true that in nomination politics people must choose among a lot of similar candidates and may not be able to rely on policy differences to make their choice, but there's no particular reason to think that authenticity (real or perceived) is a particularly important consideration.

For general elections, no personal trait of a candidate is going to matter very much. Partisanship dominates, and conditions such as the economy and war and peace matter; everything else -- issue positions and electioneering and candidate skills and the rest -- can matter, but only at the margins.

So "authenticity" doesn't, and shouldn't, matter, and we can't really identify it anyway.

Oh, and it's absolutely not true that I'm giving Richard the Catch because he illustrated his post with one of my favorite U.S. politics paintings, "Parson Weems' Fable," by Grant Wood. Not at all. But: Nice Catch!

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