Politics and the Value of Authenticity

Kevin Drum has a theory about the future of politics:

The internet and 24-hour news networks make it flatly impossible to say different things to different audiences. You can take a slightly different tone with different audiences, but that’s it. And even winking and nodding to insiders is dangerous. There’s simply no tacit agreement to keep this stuff private anymore, so your best bet is maintain iron self-discipline and never give anyone a peek behind the curtain. You stay on your talking points at all times and in all places.

And Barack Obama, whatever else you think about him, seems to have cast iron self-discipline. In that sense, he really does represent the future of politics. You can decide for yourself whether you like that future much.

This seems definitely correct, at least in a descriptive sense. Campaigns seem to be moving more and more to a completely controlled paradigm—where they use Twitter and Facebook to directly communicate with supporters and propagandize, never do interviews with anyone but friendly outlets guaranteed to lob softballs, and keep surrogates strictly on-message. The traditional campaign press is written out of the equation.

This motivation here may be partly frustration at the frantic ADD of the Twitter-driven Washington press these days, but surely another part is contempt for the voting public. It sounds bad, but I think this is an easy conclusion to reach. Ordinary people (especially swing voters) tend to be cataclysmically ignorant about basic political facts, and it’s easy to compile some grim survey results into a book, say, concluding the American voter is so dumb it doesn’t particularly matter what a candidate’s platform is—people aren’t going to bother to figure it out anyway. Assuming most voters are idiots, running a Pravda campaign makes sense.

Romney is much, much farther down this path than Obama. His gaffe-machine mouth notwithstanding, the strategy is total contempt. His team is openly scornful of the press and fact-checkers, he won’t release tax returns from before 2010, his advertisements are filled with race-baiting lies, he flat refuses to even gesture at how his budgets will add up, and his speeches are almost entirely mind-numbing platitudes. (Obama, though he at least has a real budget and gives the occasional real interview, has this tendency in spades as well, as Kevin says. Look at his Twitter feed sometime.)

On the other side we’ve got the speech Bill Clinton gave at the DNC. Everyone’s been calling it a “wonk” speech, but really it was the speech a wonk would write for a general audience. Mostly, it was just explaining the outlines of the major policy issues of the election. It felt like something Neil Degrasse Tyson would write, touched up with some partisan whacks.

Now, of course Clinton has his fair share of dishonesty in the past. But though it had a few flubs and exaggerations here and there, it was mostly accurate on the particulars. (So accurate, in fact, that to get to the prized false equivalence land the AP was forced into b-b-but Lewinsky!) The strength of the speech came from the impression that unlike almost every other national politician, Clinton isn’t BSing you when he’s on TV—because this time at least, he really wasn’t! As Jim Fallows says, the speech succeeded because “Because he treats listeners as if they are smart.”

Or as Ezra Klein says:

What was different about Clinton’s speech — what’s always been different about his speeches — is that Clinton trusts the American people to care about the issues enough to sit and listen to a real, detailed explanation of them. And the American people, in return, trust Clinton to explain those issues to them.

It’s easy to convince yourself that the American people are a bunch of dopes. (Jaywalking, anyone?) But I think people deserve some sympathy. Sure there are a lot of actual idiots out there. But life is tough these days, people are busy, work sucks out your soul, and politics is depressing as hell. And the policy outlines of the election aren’t that complicated. An hour speech should suffice to cover them.

I agree that the Twitter scandal machine is a pain. But consider: a formal speech is very controlled (or can be, anyway). One can use a format like that—a speech, or a blog, or even Twitter itself—without treating it like a propaganda outlet. It just needs to come from a place of respect and sincerity, not cynicism and contempt.

It seems like politicians see Clinton with all his detail and think “How can I imitate his success?” not realizing that the best way to achieve sincerity is to actually be sincere.


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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is national correspondent for the Week, and a former web editor for the Washington Monthly.