The Politics of Authenticity

By: Claire Yorke


Are we ready for our politicians to really be themselves? 

Authenticity is a rare commodity in politics but one that is in high demand. The Labour leadership election last week provided a telling case in point. Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran backbencher and political outsider of the party, rose in the polls from the underdog who wanted to just shake up the debate, to the new leader of the party with an unprecedented majority of 59.5%. Though his politics have divided opinion even in his own party, few dispute that it is his sincerity and authenticity that contribute to his appeal. Over a thirty-two year political career he has been unwavering in his vision of a fairer and more equal society. He is a long-term socialist who has campaigned consistently for peace, including supporting the ban of nuclear weapons and end to the arms trade. His refusal to conform to the slick mainstream images of many politicians, and his ability to speak his mind is endearing and attractive in an age of familiar sound bites and 140 character statements crafted by a team of communications experts.

A further case this week came from the United States and a heart-wrenching interview between Stephen Colbert and Vice President Joe Biden. Many will have been struck by the candour and sincerity of Biden as he shared his grief over the loss of his son Beau to brain cancer in May of this year. Colbert praised him for his authenticity, and his ability to avoid the falseness of politics. When people see Biden, he said, they feel they are seeing the real man rather than someone with a façade designed to manipulate them. For Vice President Biden it seemed so natural that that was how he was: “why in the world would you want the job if you couldn’t say what you believe?” Seeing a politician clearly struggling with emotion and opening up about their personal life and the roots of their conviction is uncommon, and arguably would not work for everyone, yet genuine expressions of character makes them appear more human and begs the question: what does it take for a politician to be authentic? Or at least to appear to be so?

It is hard to tell if someone is being sincere when you have little to no personal knowledge of them, so it becomes a judgement mediated through the media and their campaign messages. Authenticity is an ineffable quality of being oneself, of not compromising with what other’s expect of you, and of playing the game to one’s own rules according to one’s own convictions. Rather than being something quantifiable, it might fit best with the definition that you know it when you see it.

Authenticity is, of course, subjective. Part of the appeal of former UKIP leader Nigel Farage lay in his perceived authenticity. During the electoral campaign earlier this year some people welcomed his manner. He was willing to say what he thought, even if he was perceived as not politically correct. His image is one of the average man you might meet share a pint with at the pub. Yet he was equally a product of the establishment he criticised: a wealthy, former city trader, who had benefitted from the system of European politics (and its expenses) that he challenged.

Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump could also be considered, in his own way, as authentic. He is unapologetic in his depiction of himself and his strident convictions and is frank about playing the game his way, regardless of what one thinks of him. Despite being a divisive character who has prompted much criticism for his views and bombast, he still holds the lead in the Republican race.

There is a power in authenticity, not least because it enables politicians to connect with people. It is an asset in a more empathetic form of politics. People in politics and the public relations industry have recognised this power, and its role in reaching out to the electorate. Contrast Jeremy Corbyn and Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton, whose campaign team last week announced the new plan for her to be more spontaneous and authentic. Yet when orchestrated as part of the machinations of politics in this fashion it is quickly transparent and will no doubt miss its desired effect: as when prominent figures cite their love of popular bands or TV shows that are discordant with both their demographic or how they are perceived of by the population. Few imagine a Prime Minister genuinely listens to electro-funk.

However, whilst we crave authenticity, are we, the electorate, ready for natural performances from all our political leaders and not just the rare few? Authenticity is not synonymous with charisma – that inalienable ability commands a room and lights up televisions – and not all who are genuine are necessarily charming, nor should they be. Are we prepared to see unpolished but sincere debates without the rehearsed pacing of the stage and the hand gestures and inflections of speech that have become part of political training? Or is it the public’s and media’s need for high gloss and entertainment that has pushed our politicians to conform to type?

Authenticity is special because it is so rare. Yet, if it is the secret to connecting to the public, then it will require much greater tolerance on our part for political leaders who are flawed and who cannot always have all the answers or say the right thing. Cultivating authenticity will require a more forgiving political system while not sacrificing the need for accountability and transparency in politics. Indeed, it might make for more honest debates that are less concerned with toeing the line of what politicians think and what they feel is expected of them. For a better, more inclusive, and more engaging politics it should be encouraged.

Claire Yorke is a PhD Candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London where her research looks at the role empathy in diplomacy. She is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, Washington D.C. Before joining King’s, Claire was the Programme Manager of the International Security Research Department at Chatham House. She began her career as a Researcher to a frontbench Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons. You can follow her on Twitter @ClaireYorke

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