By Jennifer Keohane
While the heat and humidity have made those in DC lethargic and prone to staying inside and binging on Netflix, on Twitter, it’s always a perfect 75 degrees with conditions ripe for character assassination.
My case today comes from the recent wave of primary elections ahead of November’s midterms. In New York’s 14th Congressional district, the Democratic primary pitted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez against Joe Crowley, who had been in office for 19 years. As you probably know, Ocasio, a Democratic Socialist, roundly defeated Crowley. A harbinger of the so-called “blue wave,” perhaps, demonstrating parts of the Democratic Party moving leftward. But the case is also interesting because it provides the opportunity to reflect on a key tactic of character assassination.
This Tweet, posted by conservative political commentator John Cardillo on July 1st, drew my attention.
The main idea of the Tweet is obvious: that Ocasio is not an authentic representative of her district and that stories about working-class struggle that she told on the campaign trail were disingenuous. It’s worth noting that Cardillo’s tweet also includes factual errors…Ocasio went to Boston University, not the Ivy league Brown.
Why do we care so much about authenticity in U.S. politics? Understanding the answer to that question helps clarify why attacking opponents for not being authentic is a favored tactic of character assassins. In 2016, the New York Times called American politics a “pageant of authenticity.” On one hand, authenticity often means relatability and likeability. Persuading voters of a candidate’s authenticity often takes the form of spectacles like attempting to be an Everyman, and those who don’t appear down to earth often lose. There is, after all, the famous story of Gerald Ford’s 1976 visit to the Alamo, where he bit into a local tamale without removing its corn husk first. This was “above the fold” news. He lost.
On the other hand, we also use authenticity to refer to a core self. A below-the-surface true personality. The idea here is that knowing the core of a politician can stand in for being wholly knowledgeable about their stances on issues. It allows us to trust without verifying. For a breakdown of different types of authenticity in politics, see this article from the Hill. Indeed, President Trump’s campaign style of shooting from the hip and saying things that were not PC was widely perceived as an authentic manifestation of his beliefs.
There are all sorts of other reasons why we might cling to authenticity as a trait we desire for our politicians. But given its importance as a proxy for other issues, it shouldn’t surprise us that character assassins craft attacks that ultimately boil down to assessing a candidate’s authenticity.
It’s easy to see why attacks on authenticity would be effective as character assassination. They’re incredibly hard to defend against! An accusation that the public doesn’t see or know your true self cannot be met with a simple, “But it’s true! I do carry hot sauce in my purse!” Those short answers can be easily dismissed as the work of a strategic politicians. Read: someone who is decidedly inauthentic. The authenticity/pandering divide is a narrow line, indeed. As the New York Times wrote in relation to Hillary Clinton, “To listen to her critics, the real Clinton is a shape-shifter, with any avowals of authenticity dismissed as the expedient work of a conniving opportunist.”
As a final note, I want to plug this essay from Vox that makes the case for moving away from the nebulous authenticity as a litmus test for successful political candidates. As the authors point out, relying on authenticity reinforces gendered and racial stereotypes putting women and candidates of color at a disadvantage, and it is not linked to a candidate’s ability to do the work of governing. While I agree with the conclusions here, I suspect that authenticity will remain an important component of campaign rhetoric for the foreseeable future. If I’m right, that also means character assassins will forever launch campaigns against candidates’ authenticity, too.