Authenticity Through Time
Authenticity in politics has become a leaden term, used so often it’s practically meaningless. Some use it as shorthand for describing a politician as young and cool. Others use it interchangeably with likeable. Its opposite, inauthentic, is unfortunately how many disguise their ageism or sexism in plain sight. Being called authentic, and actually being authentic (not always the same thing) is good politics–it’s how politicians say, “Look, I’m just like you! Vote for me.”
The digital age has changed the practice of demonstrating one’s authenticity, as it has given us instant access to our favorite politicians. Think about it. You probably know all about your favorite politician’s family, pets, favorite restaurant, and hobbies. Maybe you’ve even seen inside their home.
But though digital has given us unprecedented access to our candidates, authenticity is not a new concept in politics. From whistle-stop train tours to connect with the public to FDR’s innovative use of the radio for his fireside chats, skilled politicians have always used technology to their own benefit.
In a time when, “Americans were grappling with with a perceived sense of inauthenticity in politics,” presidential debates were televised, giving Americans a new level of access to their presidential candidates. The results of the first televised presidential debate, Kennedy v. Nixon, are legendary. Though the long-held belief that the winner of the debate depended on how the debate was consumed (TV v. radio) is just a myth, Kennedy’s use of television to display authenticity was still groundbreaking. He used the medium to show off his youth and good looks, and display a presidential air…even giving a documentary filmmaker close-up access to the campaign.
Kennedy wasn’t the only candidate to use television to his benefit. When President George H.W. Bush came up against then-candidate Bill Clinton in their debate in ‘92, he checked his watch in the middle of an audience member asking him an emotional question, making him look cold and uninterested. It was a quick moment (probably subtle enough that folks in the audience missed it), yet it became a game changer for Bush once it was viewed by millions on TV. Clinton, true to form, turned it into a folksy moment, becoming a warm and empathetic foil to Bush.
Digital consumption overtook television consumption in 2013, but candidates were harnessing the power of digital long before that. Obama’s creative use of digital is well-known and made him the “first social media president” , but the media was calling Obama authentic before he was even elected President. Obama and John McCain were seen as authentic, especially compared to their respective opponents, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney. McCain, “tells it like it is,” says one pundit, and, “is not afraid to go up against popular positions or the Republican hierarchy…”. Obama, says the same pundit, “talks openly” about his struggles, but is confident and “good in his skin” . Obama’s unique voice and experiment with new digital platforms and technology helped him break through the noise and connect with voters in new ways.
Digital campaigning was fully utilized in the recent midterm elections. Beto’s skateboarding and road trips on Facebook Live, cinematic campaign ads like MJ Hegar’s, Jahana Hayes’s, and Amy McGrath’s, and stunning debate moments that went viral online from Andrew Gillum and Abigail Spanberger all demonstrate how to show authenticity in the digital age. These candidates didn’t force the moment or feign authenticity; instead, they harnessed the power of new technology to connect with voters in new ways.
As digital continues to evolve, we’ll continue to see candidates use cutting edge technology to connect with voters. No matter what, though, voter desire to see a candidate’s “true self” will always remain a key piece of modern campaigning.