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Mellman: Authenticity in politics (Part I)

Greg Nash

Just after Virginia’s election, my friend Jesse Ferguson explained in these pages that one of Gov.-elect Ralph Northam’s greatest assets was his authenticity.

Studies reveal that consumers will pay more for products they deem authentic. “Authentic” Asian restaurants in San Francisco command higher ratings than clean ones, according to one careful analysis.

A Saudi prince recently purchased a Da Vinci for an astounding $450 million. Had it not been an “authentic” Da Vinci — had the master’s first cousin or his best friend’s son created the work — it may not have fetched even $400.

{mosads}Authenticity pays. Or, at least, it seems to.

I can assure you, had the painting been an authentic “Mellman,” it would not have brought even 40 cents to the auction house.

And so, we begin to see that authenticity, as valuable as it certainly can be, is not such a simple subject.

Allan Sherman, a rarely referenced comic song writer of the early ’60s, captured a bit of the complexity in a parody exhorting shoppers to “grab those bargains off the rack.” At one point, a store patron suddenly exclaims (in song), “Just what I’ve been looking for—a genuINE copy of a fake Dior.”

Echoes of Sherman’s lyric were heard when both John McCain and Donald Trump attempted to borrow some working-class authenticity from a character dubbed “Joe the Plumber,” who was, it turns out, neither a plumber, nor named Joe.

In common parlance, people use the word “authenticity” to encapsulate a number of desirable traits: being credible, original, sincere, natural, genuine or “real.”

On the one hand, being a genuine Mellman is worth approximately nothing. By contrast, the sparks of authenticity contained in a “genuine copy of a fake Dior,” or in Sam (his real name), the non-plumber, may carry some value. The “real thing” can be worth a lot.

In politics, we tend to think about authenticity as meaning simply “just being who you are.”

Most people “are who they are” and get no special credit for it. It certainly doesn’t catapult them to high public office.

It’s more complicated than that.

Scholars have identified several distinct types of authenticity. Nominal authenticity is based on knowable facts — did Da Vinci paint the canvass, or did someone else?

Other forms of authenticity rely on beliefs, perceptions and judgments, not mere facts.

Type authenticity is something true to its genre. An authentic Chinese restaurant is a good thing in this meaning; an authentic politician — one typical of the type in the public mind — is not so appealing.

Craft authenticity is less relevant to our concerns (but of great moment to today’s popular beer brewers and liquor distillers), while idiosyncratic authenticity refers to a commonly recognized quirky uniqueness.

Moral authenticity refers to the sincerity of the values-driven choices a person or organization makes. Put differently, those regarded as authentic are guided by intrinsic motivations, not extrinsic rewards.

One scholar produced data suggesting that baseball fans sought out “authentic” style ball parks as free agency made players seem increasingly focused on extrinsic benefits, i.e., money, not just the intrinsic love of the game.

Moral authenticity is also conveyed by a willingness to suffer in some way for one’s convictions. Mother Teressa, John Lewis and Galileo all exhibited this form of authenticity.

Data also demonstrate a singular focus makes it easier to be perceived as authentic. A restaurant that serves Chinese, Indian and burgers is less likely to be perceived as authentic than one offering just Thai cuisine.

Right or wrong, fair or unfair, in 2016, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were both perceived as authentic, while Hillary Clinton encountered serious difficulties on this dimension.

Next week we’ll explore why, and what we can learn from the uses and abuses of this concept in those contests.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. Senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.

Tags authenticity Bernie Sanders campaign Donald Trump Hillary Clinton John Lewis John McCain

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