U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Use Are the Politics of Authenticity?

(Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Not much argues Rich Yeselson over at Crooked Timber in a long post about Mitt Romney that’s getting a fair bit of attention on the interwebs today.

It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here are the highlights.  Yeselson suggests that “authenticity” is a mirage, both because people don’t have single, “real” selves and because, even if they did, there is simply no way for others to judge who a person is in his or her heart of hearts.

Citing the work of Erving Goffman (be still my 20th-century USIH heart!), Yeselson argues that far from presenting (or failing to present) one’s authentic self, a person’s life necessarily involves the presentation of an array of selves:

Romney, like all of us, performs the roles he must within the public institutions he inhabits and the different dramas which he plays a part in enacting.  There are reasons why he performs on the stages he does—he’ll never be any kind of liberal—but he doesn’t just play the same character every time. Each of those institutions will have a different set of observers with which the individual engages. The audience, venue and dramatic script shape and constrain our public performances.  To perform the wrong script at the wrong time is entirely possible—and a contradiction between verbal and non-verbal cues often occurs—but significant social costs will then accrue to the performer. Even famously “conviction” driven politicians like Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush or Paul Wellstone behaved in a manner that could only be socially interpreted—once an individual’s “inner direction” engages in a variety of externalized, relationally-defined episodes, the protocols and rules systems of those episodes channel the behavior of even the most willful actors.

Yeselson further suggests that the key to understanding Romney is the fact that he referred to the opposing political party as “the Demoratic Party” on one occasion several weeks ago and as “the Democrat Party” on a more recent occasion.*  Neither Democrat Party-referring nor Democratic Party-referring Romney is the authentic candidate. What we learn from his performance, instead, is that, like that of all the rest of us, his behavior is determined by its context. Which leads Yeselson to conclude:

We will probably never find out who the real Romney is, just like we haven’t found out who the real Obama or the real Lincoln is. And it won’t matter what he is not telling us about his Mormonism or how many nightmares he’s had about that terrible day in Beaulanc, France in 1968.  But who controls Congress will matter a lot as to whether we see the Romney who basically agrees with Obama about health care, but just wants to figure out a way not to tax his own class to pay for it, or the Romney who will abolish Obama’s health care reform bill, defund the EPA and the NLRB, and redistribute money from the elderly and the poor to the rich. That is a play we should never want to see performed. I can’t make it any more real for you than that.**

But can the importance of the idea of authenticity be so easily dismissed?

Let me begin by agreeing with Yeselson about the ontological and epistemological problems with attempts to gauge a politician’s authentic self.  Like Yeselson, I tend to think that we do not possess such selves, and that it is not possible for us to gain full access to the inner lives of others.

But despite these problems, the discourse of authenticity is a vital one in our culture and politics. The fact that its objects may be largely imaginary no more allows us to wave it away as politically irrelevant than an atheist’s non-belief in God allows her to deny the importance of religion in American life.  Instead, the empirical problems and paradoxes of the discourse of authenticity simply make it more difficult to pin down and analyze.  Since the idea of authenticity does not in any simple sense pick out a fact about the world, making sense of authenticity talk requires more, not less, attention.

Even Yeselson, who argues that Romney is like “‘conviction’-driven politicians” and, in fact, “all of us” in performing himself, admits that Mitt seems particularly bad at this activity: 

People are what they do, and part of what presidential candidates must do is project a fully integrated depth of being before multiple audiences. Romney’s political problem—his poor job performance as a professional politician—is that he has an almost poignant difficulty in managing to do that. His inability to merely fake the “realness” that people hunger for reminds me of what was once said about former Texas Governor, and Democrat turned Republican John Connally:  he is the only man in the world whose real hair makes people think he’s wearing a toupee.

This admission on Yeselson’s part is fairly significant.  Though his account of Romney’s failure here is different from one that might be given by someone who buys the myth of authenticity–who might have said that Romney “doesn’t know who he really is” or “can’t communicate who he really is”–Yeselson seems perfectly capable of distinguishing Romney from other, more successful, politicians in a way that makes some sense of that authenticity talk. 

But for Yeselson this doesn’t–or at least shoudn’t–matter. Politics should be about policy outcomes, which are, in turn, more determined by presidential circumstances than by Presidents.  Sure some act the part better than others, but this is–or should be–of little consequence once we see that they are all, in a sense, acting.

The problem is that’s not how politics work.  Authenticity as it’s invoked in our political talk may be an empirically lousy concept, a buzzword borrowed from existentialism, shorn of any intellectual depth it might once have had.  But authenticity talk actually makes a political difference, as all those who rightly complain about the way the media treated Gore and Bush in 2000 would acknowledge.

In fact, I think authenticity talk has political significance beyond the crude levels of character assassination and political hagiography. Among its other functions:

• It’s a way of discussing how much one can trust what a particular politician says.

• It’s a way of describing the cultural fit (or, more skeptically, the imaginary cultural fit) between a politician and his or her potential (primary or general) electorate.

• It’s a shorthand for a host of questions about character (another important concept whose concrete existence is hard to pin down).

The empirical dodginess of authenticity talk makes it an imperfect tool for all of these things. And one might more generally deplore the importance of some of them in our political culture.   Why should it matter, for example, that a candidate is an appropriate cultural “fit”?

But what one can’t do is pretend that these things don’t matter simply on the basis of the fact that they shouldn’t.
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* Yeselson correctly notes that the latter usage is a standard right-wing slur. A surprising amount of space in comments is taken up by folks naively suggesting that “Democrat Party” may just be an unfortunate malapropism.   Eat your history, kids!

** I’m going to focus on Yeselson’s treatment of the idea of authenticity in my post. But I wanted to point out in passing how much his argument is framed by the idea that a President’s behavior is largely determined by political circumstance. It’s really quite remarkable how common this trope has become in public discourse since Obama became President.  If people–especially on the left, but to a certain extent on the right, too–tended to overrate how great a departure from past practice and how unilateral and even authoritarian the George W. Bush presidency was at the time, the presidency is now often described in terms that renders it almost entirely the hostage of circumstance.  I tend to think that both these portraits are exaggerations.  But the latter view–that presidential behavior says more about the political constraints within which a president operates than anything about the president him or herself–fits very nicely with the view of self that Yeselson outlines.  The idea of the circumstantially restrained presidency is useful to rally those somewhat disappointed with Barack Obama’s performance to the cause of the President’s reelection. Not surprisingly that turns out ultimately to be the point of Yeselson’s post.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Very interesting post. Two (probably) unrelated questions/thoughts.

    1. Yeselson writes, “People are what they do, and part of what presidential candidates must do is project a fully integrated depth of being before multiple audiences.” I think I see Goffman here. But what puzzles me about the whole notion of the dramaturgical self is this sense that a “fully integrated depth of being” — something like a basic “identity”? — is something that is projected/performed but not somehow “real.” (Or, maybe, that it becomes “real” or takes on existence only in performance?)

    IOW, presidential candidates need to be really good at acting like they have a consistent and unified self? But aren’t those who are really good at performing that “self” in effect those who actually are such a self? Basically, what I can’t figure out about Goffman et. al. is whether there’s any sense of a single actor — a self — behind these multiple masks. When the performance is over, is anyone there?

    2. The idea of “fit.” As I understand it, this is a concept — or, I guess, a criterion — that plays a big role in academic job searches (and, of course, in many other job searches as well). Whether the “candidate” in question is someone running for POTUS or someone interviewing for a TT position in a history department, the decision among similarly qualified people might (does?) come down to “fit.”

    So, per Goffman (or Ben Alpers), where does “fit” fit in with the dramaturgical self? Is “fit” other people’s basic sense that the person in question would be good at the kind of improv that the job inevitably requires?

    • Sorry to have to blow my own horn here, however all this and more is discussed in an 8000-word essay at my namesake website — put a hyphen between philosophical and ron.

      To summarize this part of my material very briefly, all human persons create and distribute the data of the science of psychology in their every thought and action: the creation and distribution of personalities and personality structures. (I would have to go another 1000 words to make my argument about how our mammalian bodies may be neurochemical factories, yet we do not experience our lives as X chemical affecting our pituitary and Y chemical affecting our left forebrain — we experience our lives as selves.) So in every thought and action,in every second of our lives, we are creating and borrowing personality structures from other human beings in our experience — and yes, for 99.9% of us, there are recognizable personalities left when, as you put it, “the performance is over” of all the minor personality structures playing out their roles of tradition and rebellion in all the million-and-one roles that we encounter in our lives. These personalities are probably, I would guess, recognizable both subjectively by the individual human herself, and objectively by other persons in her population group.

  2. I had never seen that New Yorker article making (or noting) the “Democrat” v. “Democratic” distinction. And I had never personally heard “rat” when the Bush 43 used the term Democrat. Boy do I feel like a loser. And this comes from someone who knows a fair amount about right-wing slurs via some experience with the Rush Limbaugh show.

    But, returning to a larger point in this post, it’s interesting how it tracks with Andrew’s USIH writing for today. In essence you’re saying that authenticity matters because it matters in our culture, relating to fit and electorate. Compare that to Andrew’s statement today about the Culture Wars:

    “What does it mean to be a modern American? When this question is answered—or, when people quit projecting their notion of normative Americanism onto the public sphere—the culture wars will finally, at long last, wither and die. In other words, not in our lifetimes.”

    Authenticity, then, is about identity which is about living and adjusting to modern America. So this post on Romney is _just another Culture Wars post_ (that should be one of our tags, btw). – TL

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