Mellman: On Political Authenticity (Part 2)

Mellman: On Political Authenticity (Part 2)
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Last week, we explored the complexity of authenticity and noted that scholars had identified three categories relevant to politics:

Type authenticity — something true to its genre.

Idiosyncratic authenticity — a commonly recognized quirky uniqueness.

Moral authenticity — the sincerity of the moral and values-driven choices a person makes.

We also saw that a singular focus (the Thai restaurant vs. the Chinese-Indian-burger joint) and willingness to pay a price for one’s convictions, contribute to perceptions of authenticity.

Right or wrong, fair or unfair, in 2016, Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersAvenatti ‘still considering’ presidential run despite domestic violence arrest Sanders rolls out bill aimed at getting Walmart to raise wages Left wants a vote on single-payer bill in new Congress MORE (I-Vt.) and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAvenatti ‘still considering’ presidential run despite domestic violence arrest Mulvaney positioning himself to be Commerce Secretary: report Kasich: Wouldn’t want presidential run to ‘diminish my voice’ MORE were both seen as authentic, while Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrat Katie Porter unseats GOP's Mimi Walters Former Facebook security chief: 'I failed to prepare my employer' on Russian disinformation Rand Paul: Facebook must 'convince conservatives they're not the enemy' MORE encountered serious difficulties on this dimension.

Sanders, I believe, struck each of these three chords of authenticity.

He was true to type — a Brooklyn, Jewish, Democratic socialist of an earlier era. Those same characteristics, along with his economy flights, the absence of a staff entourage, his accent, rumpled suits and unkempt hair also marked him as idiosyncratic and quirky.

Perhaps most important though, his consistent values, his willingness to identify as a socialist and say what he thought, even when it brought derision from party insiders, imbued Sanders with a sense of moral authenticity.

Additionally, Sanders was laser-focused and that singlemindedness communicated authenticity.

Despite his fundamental immorality, Trump also communicated this kind of moral authenticity.

By saying things his constituency believed, but other politicians were unwilling to say, and by suffering the opprobrium of the establishment for his consistently unseemly remarks, Trump came to be seen as the authentic champion of those who felt unrepresented.

(Trump failed to understand, however, that presidents are evaluated on different criteria than candidates, but that’s grist for another column.)

As I noted last week, those regarded as morally authentic appear to be driven by intrinsic motivations, not extrinsic rewards.

Trump’s willingness to endure the hostility of the establishment only reinforced the sense that he was driven by his beliefs, not by his desire for status.

Moreover, he benefited from a billionaire bounce: his supporters assumed he had all the money anyone could want and concluded, therefore, that his focus was not on the rewards of office.

Comparing Air Force One unfavorably to his plane and the White House to his homes bolstered the perception that he was not in it for the rewards, but rather to do what he thought was right.

In material terms, being president was a step down for him, not the step up it is for most other occupants of the Oval Office.

It’s now easier to see why Clinton had (unfair) difficultly with authenticity.

While her opponents maintained singular foci, she was more like the Chinese-Indian-burger joint, equally attentive to a grab bag of (critically important) issues. How many times was it said that she had a plan for every problem and sometimes for problems that didn’t yet exist?

More important, merely by achieving front-runner status, twice, she caused others to wonder whether she had ulterior rather than intrinsic motivations — part of a broader phenomenon labeled the “denigration of heroes” by Professors Oliver Hall and Ezra Zuckerman.

Success, especially success without apparent sacrifice, led people to wonder whether she was in it for them, or for herself.

Questions (however unfair) about “secret” Wall Street speeches and the Clinton Foundation reinforced doubts about her motives.

Ascriptions of authenticity, whether justified or not, can yield big dividends as it does for some products and politicians. But, as I’ve also made clear, it’s an awfully difficult standing for politicians to achieve.

Is it a prerequisite for victory?

Consider: It was Clinton who won primary voters by a landslide, as well as the popular vote in November.

And those authentic craft beers I alluded to last week — add them all together and their combined market share is less than Bud Light, which, whatever its virtues, is the antithesis of craft authenticity.

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.