Friday, October 11, 2019


I don't completely agree with the thesis of this New York Times news analysis by Thomas Kaplan:
Republicans have tried to brand [Elizabeth Warren] as a socialist, attack her policy ideas and portray her as too left-wing for the American electorate. None of those arguments have diminished her political momentum, robust fund-raising or polling.

But in the past week, conservative news sites have challenged Ms. Warren’s story about how a public school principal forced her out of a teaching job in 1971 because she was “visibly pregnant,” and the Republican National Committee grabbed onto the issue to wage its own attack. In doing so, Republicans employed a tactic — questioning a female candidate’s authenticity — that is at once often a sexist trope in politics and a strategy used against Hillary Clinton in 2016.
I don't agree with it for a couple of reasons. First, I don't see Republicans using forms of the word "authenticity" in reference to Warren -- they say she's being untruthful about being fired for her pregnancy, just as they did when they accused her of inventing a Cherokee ancestor. (They were wrong in both cases.) "Authenticity" seems to be a word Kaplan is introducing to the discussion. And while the charge of inauthenticity is unfairly applied to women in politics, it's also applied to men -- here's Maureen Dowd a few years back applying it to Mitt Romney and George H.W. Bush. Al Gore was deemed inauthentic. So was John Kerry. By contrast, Donald Trump -- the biggest liar on the planet -- is widely believed to be "authentic." Women are frequent targets of the inauthenticity attack, but Sarah Palin was deemed to have "cultural authenticity."

Here's a convoluted explanation of political authenticity, from Jennifer Szalai of the Times in 2016:
In the pageant of authenticity that is the American campaign trail, candidates show us what they eat, and we tell them who they are. Dining like a local might seem a good way to demonstrate that under that Ivy League pedigree is a down-home Everyman worthy of your trust and your vote, but attempts to seem truly ordinary can easily sour into bungled displays of being hopelessly out of touch. Sargent Shriver, the Democratic candidate for the vice presidency in 1972, was talking to steelworkers at a bar in Youngstown, Ohio, when he followed up their orders for more beer with “Make mine a Courvoisier!” (He lost.) Four years later, Gerald Ford, visiting the Alamo, bit awkwardly into a tamale still wrapped in its corn husk, a moment that was entered into the historical record with an above-­the-fold photo on the front page of The New York Times. (He lost, too — and when asked afterward what he learned from the campaign, he answered: “Always shuck your tamales.”)
Here's the thing: Shriver and Ford were being authentic. Shriver was a patrician. Ford was a Midwestern white guy who probably wasn't familiar with Mexican food. That's authentically who they were.
In April, two months after the release of BeyoncĂ©’s “Formation,” with the line “I got hot sauce in my bag,” Hillary Clinton went on “The Breakfast Club,” a radio show on New York’s Power 105.1, and insisted to the show’s black hosts and its many black listeners that she — of course! — carries hot sauce in her bag....

Clinton’s hot sauce looked a lot like pandering — even though, back in 2001, the journalist Michael Tomasky wrote that Clinton was “known to carry around a little bottle of Tabasco sauce on her person.” But Clinton has been dogged for years by what pundits like to call her authenticity problem: She seems forever “at pains,” as a reporter for CNN put it, “to convince Americans that she is a real person,” to prove that she actually means it when she says she regrets her vote on the Iraq war, or when she says she opposes the Trans-­Pacific Partnership and cuts to Social Security. 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.
Of course, Trump lies and changes positions all the time, and he's "real." But Hillary is frequently uncomfortable when she's speaking in public -- as are Gore, Kerry, and Romney. They're not "naturals." Trump (alas) is a natural -- he never seems more comfortable than when he's holding forth, bragging about himself, and slagging his enemies.

For women, of course, just being ambitious in public life is regarded as unnatural. So it's easier to attack them as "inauthentic," because they're going against our stereotypes merely by seeking high office especially when they're not fully at ease as public figures.

But Warren is very much at ease. She's comfortable speaking. She's funnier and more passionate on the stump than Hillary is. That doesn't mean she'd necessarily be a better president than Hillary would have been. But she's more capable of fighting the "inauthenticity" charge. On the other hand, she's clearly ambitious, which, in the view of far too many people, means she's not appropriately female (and that's "inauthentic").

We should stop talking about authenticity in politics. If we think Sargent Shriver would have seemed more authentic by ordering a drink he never ordered, or think Trump is authentic when he's lying (though, in a way, he is), then the concept has no meaning. Let's drop it.

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