“He says it like it is”
The challenge of authenticity in modern politics
Rishi Sunak helpfully filling up someone else’s car.
The perception of authenticity matters in modern politics. To illustrate the point consider the rapid rise and fall of Rishi Sunak. Briefly popular, due to handing out lots of cash during the pandemic, his support cratered after a poorly received budget and a series of stories about his wife’s tax status and their shared wealth. At the heart of this turnaround was a powerful disconnect between the political persona Sunak had tried to create – essentially an ordinary modern Dad – and the reality of his financial situation. This was symbolised by a budget photo op where he filled up a typical family car that turned out not to be his and then appeared to fail to understand how contactless payment worked. Then he flew off to California, to one of his many properties.
Authenticity can seem a frustratingly vague and subjective concept but we can’t ignore it, because people do care about it. “Genuine” and “means what they say” are two of the top four traits British voters say they want in politicians, alongside honesty and trustworthiness. And increasingly political scientists are trying to pin it down into something definable and distinct from “integrity”.
There is agreement amongst the academics who’ve studied it that political “authenticity” is, paradoxically, performative. Politicians who have been tagged as authentic, like Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, and Nigel Farage, all, very obviously, have constructed personas. Much has been written about the contrast between the shy Alexander Johnson and his alter ego “Boris”. And the way, before becoming PM, he staged the same rambling after dinner performance over and over; taking care to mess up his hair before he went on stage. Likewise Trump, with his aggressive hyperbole and boasting, has a brand developed over many years.
The paradox can be resolved, though, if we think of authenticity as a perceived match between the persona and the underlying reality. Johnson is what you might expect a posh Etonian to be like, and Trump an exaggerated version of a deal-obsessed New York property magnate. (One of my favourite pieces on Trump remains Andrew Sabisky’s explanation of how he formed his persona via his regular participation in WWE wrestling). Sunak’s attempt at the ordinary Dad persona, on the other hand, was a failed match.
Digging deeper, Simon Luebke, has helpfully classified four different elements that underpin political authenticity:
Consistency: this can be just sticking to the same position over time, rather than flip flopping in search of popularity; but it can also mean being consistent within your persona. Trump often says contradictory things but as that’s part of his persona it’s accepted as authentic. Gordon Brown appearing to claim in an interview that he listened to Arctic Monkeys did not fit with his persona (he has always maintained he was misquoted).
Ordinariness: again this can come in two forms; actually being ordinary and down to earth, or being flawed in a way that people can relate to. This has led to the rise of deliberately amateurish presentation, in both politics and advertising to reduce the separation between the producer and the viewer. See Johnson’s after dinner speech performances.
Intimacy: this can involve disclosure of personal information by politicians or confessional shows of humanness – “letting their guard down” – and appearing in non-staged contexts.
Immediacy: appearing to respond in the moment or in an unfiltered or spontaneous way is taken an indicator that you are not a robotic or stage managed politician. Theresa May’s calamitous 2017 election campaign was partly undermined by her total inability to respond spontaneously to even the tamest question (reaching a comic low point when she offered running through a field of wheat as her naughtiest moment).
Populism and authenticity
While politicians from all parts of the political spectrum try to tap into these elements of authenticity, they are most readily granted to those with more populist political strategies. On the left Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders both played strongly on consistency – having the same beliefs over their whole careers regardless of popularity – and ordinariness, living modestly and being unfussed by the accoutrements of power. On the right Johnson, Trump and Farage have all relied on consistency of persona, rather than belief, and an amateurish rather than ordinary approach, given that they all come from backgrounds of wealth and privilege. This is a particularly valuable strategy in a modern media landscape where statements can easily be examined against previous ones for consistency of content. Consistency of persona is much easier to sustain.
Centrist, moderate, politicians tend to struggle much more to build authentic personas. Hilary Clinton was, incredibly enough, seen as less honest than Donald Trump by American voters. This was partly due to negative associations with her husband’s Presidency but also a function of her so successfully creating an emotionless persona that actual moments of intimacy (crying in an interview or carrying hot sauce in her bag) were derided as staged. Even electorally successful politicians running as moderates like Tony Blair or David Cameron saw their positions eroded by the perception of being slippery and overly focused on spin and presentation. Years after it happened focus group participants were still bringing up Cameron riding his bicycle to Westminster, to show off his green credentials, while his briefcase followed behind in a car.
One problem for centrists is that moderate personas just seem less convincing; and it’s low trust voters who are particularly keen on authenticity. One US study found that more aggressive language led voters to believe politicians were more authentic. This worked both for conservatives – using the word “illegals” – and for liberals – using “white trash”. Indeed the emotive intensity of language is more important in assessing authenticity than whether statements are true or not. As Clayton Fordahl puts it “Even a crude or hateful violation of an empirical truth will appear authentic if an audience believes that same truth has been previously used for inauthentic manipulation.”
Centrist politicians also tend to struggle with ordinariness. Politicians are rarely ordinary, and attempts to appear to be so tend to fall flat. I used to sit next to the person responsible for putting together David Cameron’s ordinariness “cheat sheet” – updated weekly to reflect the cost of a pint of milk and a loaf of bread as well as the results for the football team he supposedly supported, Aston Villa. But it didn’t work. He still got Villa mixed up with West Ham, who have the same club colours. Sunak has run into similar problems. When he got the “cost of bread” question he got into a muddle (after answering it correctly) by trying to run through all the different breads purchased by his household.
Of course Trump and Johnson aren’t remotely ordinary either, but they are amateurish, a route not open to politicians whose personas are built around professionalism rather than being apparent outsiders. The team around Johnson have pursued this theory to the extent of using deliberately bad graphic design and crappy videos “as a way of tapping into a more authentic, grass roots voice.”
Of course authenticity isn’t enough by itself to sustain electoral success indefinitely. Partygate has hammered Johnson’s approval ratings, though not because it was inconsistent with his persona but rather because it highlights its flaws. Trump’s response to Covid was so poor that even his fervid fanbase couldn’t save him in 2020. But unless moderates can find a way to appear authentic their risk of losing remains higher than it should be. Keir Starmer has failed to make much of a connection with the public which makes Labour overly reliant on Johnson’s failings. The Democrats are struggling to find anyone to run against Trump in 2024 if Biden is unable to (and he has poor ratings anyway).
Is there a way for moderates to appear authentic?
One possible route to authenticity for moderate politicians might be immediacy. Social media has completely transformed the possibilities here. Ian Leslie has compellingly argued that politicians should stay away from twitter:
“Tweeting with the handbrake off is said to be an essential political skill, since what voters want from politicians is, above all, low impulse-control. Sorry, I mean authenticity…..[but] Twitter hasn’t brought us closer to our rulers in any sense except one: we now consider them just as petty, shallow, self-obsessed and attention-seeking as the rest of us. We might notice certain individuals more than we did before, and we may even like some of them more, but we never respect them more for tweeting. Allow me to propose a law of Twitter: it can increase a person’s fame but never their authority. Those with low fame have the most to gain; those with high authority, the most to lose.”
But I think this is the point. It’s not designed to increase authority; there are other ways for politicians to get that. It does however make them seem like the rest of us, and that’s a strength not a weakness. The reason politically incorrect language is seen as more authentic is that it’s non-strategic – it’s inherently disavowing any claim to authority and high-mindedness. A recent German study showed that people who read social posts of politicians do consider them more authentic.
There is of course a trade-off here – immediacy for authority. It is one, though, that moderate politicians need to be more prepared to make if they want to challenge the perceived authenticity of populists. One UK moderate who did it very well was former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, who was extremely skilled at presenting a persona that offered immediacy, intimacy, and a form of down to earth ordinariness. She transformed the Tory position in Scotland (and it’s reverting back to the mean now she’s gone). Contrast her success with the painfully stilted tweets that come from Starmer’s account that are obviously not written by him.
It's not just about twitter of course. It is an important platform because it was widely used by opinion-forming elites and political obsessives who are the backbone of any campaigning effort. But Facebook and now Telegram can be effective ways of reaching non-obsessives. It has been a critical element of the rise of populism in places as disparate as the Philippines, Myanmar, and Brazil. Duerte, and Bolsonaro used social media to effectively by-pass traditional media altogether.
It's possible to win without worrying about social media and the direct connection it offers with voters. Biden did it (just). But as it becomes a more and more important part of the way we understand the world around us it will become increasingly difficult to do so. I worry that if moderates loftily stick to TV appearances and op-eds the contrast will hurt them more and more. “Genuine” matters more than “authoritative” now.
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