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The politics of authenticity: The struggle to be like you

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Authenticity is a quality valued above all others in politics. To seem in touch with people, to be seen to be caring and connected to them and not to seem like the political establishment. Now more than ever it seems that being ‘authentic’ is prized above all other political virtues.

Take the 2016 Presidential election. Donald Trump won, in large part, because millions of Americans saw him as authentic. His proclamation to the people of Pennsylvania that he was going to bring back coal seemed to ring true to many residents of that state. They wanted someone who seemed like a buddy who would bring back their old coal jobs. Trump presented himself as an authentic American patriot, the sort that watches Fox News and is a member of the NRA. 

When Clinton attempted to appear authentic she unwittingly made herself look more manufactured. It didn’t matter that Clinton’s policies were better or that she had far more experience. No, what mattered was that she didn’t click with Joe Sixpack (to borrow a phrase from Sarah Palin) –  the guy who wanted a president who connected with him, who seemed outside the Washington elite.

Authenticity overruled logic. It seemed better to trust a guy who looked like he’d come down and have a drink with you at the bar rather than a woman who could run the country effectively.

A similar phenomenon can be seen in Britain. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour Party was down to him being perceived as anti-establishment. It didn’t matter whether Corbyn’s policies or ideas conflicted with what had been agreed by the Labour Party. Being an authentic voice of the people mattered above all else. That Corbyn’s politics represented many elements of regressive left didn’t matter. Being authentic was, for many, Corbyn’s main charm. 

This isn’t to say that authenticity hasn’t been used by past politicians. Far from it. Ronald Reagan’s entire 1980 presidential campaign was cemented in his authenticity – he seemed to embody middle-class America and for many seemed to be the sheriff America needed.

Similarly, in the 1960s, Harold Wilson played up his image as a down-to-earth working-class fellah who would smoke his pipe, wear his raincoat and be happy to go down to the pub for a pint.

Both were merely superficial images. Reagan was a media-savvy former governor whose openness was seized upon by lobbying firms like Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly to mould American government into a vision of a capitalist utopia. Similarly, Wilson was a middle-class technocrat who played up an image of himself as a “down to earth Yorkshireman” whilst being one of the brightest graduates of Jesus College, Oxford. 

Authenticity is the most valuable asset a modern politician can posses. Everything, from appearance to policy, must follow an authentic image. When you are considered authentic, people will vote for you in the belief that you’re one of them. Authenticity  can be a good thing but when used for a purely political purpose but must be used wisely.

Will Barber Taylor is a political writer and member of the Labour Party.

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