Entries in politics (7)


How the world works

*Comments are open for this post*

Nature matters more than nurture

Sex matters more than gender

Friends matter more than parents

Situation matters more than character

Norms matter more than laws

Institutions matter more than culture

Economics matters more than morality

Family matters more than state

Narrative matters more than truth

Identity matters more than rationality

Cohort matters more than generation

Class matters more than income

Status matters more than well-being

Race matters



Why Rob Ford is the Amy Winehouse of Canadian politics

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said 'no, no, no' — singer Amy Winehouse, before dying of alcohol poisoning.

"Everything's going fine" — Toronto mayor Rob Ford, last week, after a bunch more staffers resigned. 

By now it is pretty clear that whatever else he may be, Toronto mayor Rob Ford is a very sick man. He suffers from any number of pathological cravings, obsessions, and addictions, from food to sex to booze to whatever else. And like all addicts, he has more than his share of enablers — people who helpfully pave his road to self-destruction even as they pretend to be acting in his best interests.

I’m talking about the innumerable pundits and reporters and fly-by-night political commentators who have spent the better part of the last three years telling everyone who would listen that Rob Ford’s vices are actually virtues, that his addictions are features, not bugs, and that the Unique Selling Proposition that the mayor uses to keep Ford Nation barking at the moon is the fact that he’s “authentic”.

What is authenticity, and why does it matter to politics? That’s a tough question to answer in a short space — I wrote an entire book about the subject and don’t think I even really got to the heart of the matter. But like a lot of bad ideas, the cult of authenticity seems to have entered our political vernacular from the United States, where there has been, over the past decade, a growing conviction that the biggest problem with politics these days is that our leaders are not authentic enough.

The argument goes something like this: modern politics has become dominated by large political parties and their shiny, prefab leaders who are about image not substance, who speak only in sound bites and talking points, govern with both eyes on the overnight tracking poll, and who delight in breaking their promises while pretending they never made them in the first place and demonizing their opponents while purporting to take the high road. Modern politics is mass-marketed phoniness, and it is no surprise the electorate is completely alienated.

What we crave (to continue the story) is authenticity.  The American writer Joe Klein signposted the search for the authentic in his 2006 book Politics Lost, an essay about the decline of authenticity in presidential politics. Klein took his inspiration from what he called Harry Truman's "Turnip Day" speech at the Democratic convention in 1948 that confirmed his nomination for president. Coming on stage after midnight, speaking plainly, simply, and without notes, Truman challenged the "do-nothing Congress" to act upon those views they claim to endorse, and get back to work.

Klein thinks we need more Turnip Day moments, more politicians like Truman. He argued politicians need to "figure out new ways to engage and inspire us — or maybe just some simple old ways, like saying what they think as plainly as possible."

It’s a good anecdote. The problem is now every authenticity-mongering pundit wants their own Turnip Day homily with which to beat the audience into submission. The most famous variation is David Brooks’ throw-away line about how Americans always vote for the presidential candidate they would most like to have a beer with. (A principle which, if true, would see Joe Biden elected president-for-life.)

A year and a half ago, the Canadian pundit Allan Gregg delivered a lecture to the Public Policy Forum called "On Authenticity: How the Truth can Restore Faith in Politics and Government” in which he claimed that our leaders' most systematic failure is that "they have not picked up on the electorate's craving for authenticity nor adjusted their behaviour to conform to this new reality."

Gregg had his own Turnip Day homily to explain just what he's getting at. He tells a story about the night he went to see a band in a club in Manhattan when the guitar player's electric pickup broke. Instead of stopping the show to fix the guitar, the band unplugged their instruments, moved closer to one another, and performed an intimate number. "As the last chord was struck, the room literally exploded with rapturous cheering, hooting."

Gregg saw a lesson in this for our politicians. What they need to do, he suggested, is unplug from the way they've always done things and try to reconnect with the electorate. They must drop the prefab talking points designed to "conceal meaning." They need to stop claiming to be the only island of virtue in a sea of knaves. They should cancel all political advertising, and talk straight to the people, saying what they mean and meaning what they say.

And the avatar of this movement, according to Gregg, is Rob Ford, whom he describes as  "a leather-lunged, no necked, know-nothing." And in case you think that’s an insult, Gregg goes on: "In Rob Ford’s instance, his very crudeness and unrefined nature made him seem ‘real’ and signalled he was not trying to hide anything from voters." That is to say, Rob Ford won the race for mayor of Toronto because he’s authentic.

Allan Gregg is far, far, far, from the only person to have made this argument. The "Rob Ford is popular because he’s authentic" line started during the 2010 election and continues even as he fights to keep his job over allegations that he’s a crackhead. Here are some selected examples:

We've got some fascinating artifacts of authenticity on our political stage today, some good, some troubling. When Rob Ford was first elected, I stood in a public square listening to him speak, thinking, uh oh, this man is trouble for all who oppose him. Why? Because the mayor says what he means, and he doesn't give a flying fig what opponents think of him. — Judith Timson, Toronto Star, April 2013

Ford, who won by running as an unrefined, yet garishly authentic, outsider, is an outsider once more. His war against the downtown establishment - they of bike lanes and gravy trains - can now continue with renewed relish, and perhaps even success; if Ford runs again, he may well win. — Adam Goldenberg, Ottawa Citizen, November 27 2012

Christie Blatchford has written a number of columns lauding Ford for his "authenticity", and while she has made a point of saying that she regrets voting for him, she also makes a point of reminding readers why she voted for him in the first place. The key for Blatchford is not who Rob Ford is, it is who he is not: He wasn’t a part of what she calls "that soft-left ruling class” that likes to think they run Toronto. And so we get to:

Mr. Ford is surely deeply flawed. Well, so are most of us, me anyway. But, to use a modern term, he is also authentic. — Christie Blatchford, National Post, November 26 2012.

I could pile up the examples like cordwood — just Google “Rob Ford” and “authentic” and your evening will be shot — but you get the picture. The question is, what are we to make of it? How can we get any critical traction on Rob Ford when we are told, over and over again, that what looks to all the world like a serious problem with his character is actually his greatest asset?

It is tempting to rehearse, yet again, the arguments for why the desire for authenticity in politics is self-defeating, and prone to catalyzing the very problems it purports to solve. But instead I’ll try a different approach and suggest that what is being pitched as “authenticity” is actually something far more dangerous, for both the electorate and for the leader who cloaks himself in its embrace.

For starters, Ford’s supporters consistently mistake populism for authenticity. Authenticity, at its purest, represents a perfect alignment between the inner self and its outer manifestation. It describes someone who is self-contained but transparent to the world, innocent without being naive, and sincere without being cloying. Such a person, if he or she ever existed, would make an absolutely atrocious politician.

Rob Ford is not authentic. Instead, he’s just another populist. And in the current climate of North American politics, populism is just another put-on, a mask, a front, that some politicians adopt in order to seem like one of the people. In America, populists thump bibles and kiss babies and warn against commies and talk about craw fishin’ or huntin’ and talk about the Heartland and Families and the Family Farmer. In Canada, populists write books about hockey and hold press conferences at Tim Hortons and warn against commies and talk about hockey and warn about crime and defend the Family Farm and give medals to hockey players.

Again, populism is not authenticity. It’s a pose, a marketing position, a brand. And it is just as phony as any other political posture out there. Sometimes it works, as it did for Rob Ford. And sometimes it flames out spectacularly, as it did for that moose huntin' maverick mom, Sarah Palin. 

But it isn’t clear that Rob Ford is even much of a populist. About the only truly populist kite he’s ever flown is the whole stop-the-gravy-train thing, which some people thought meant he was committed to lowering taxes. As it turned out, he actually thought there was a literal gravy train at City Hall and that stopping it would fix Toronto’s finances. He’s also a bigot and pretty obviously hates the gays, and if you want to call him a populist on those grounds, you’re welcome to the term and the baggage it brings with it.

No, there’s something more basic to Rob Ford’s personality, and there’s nothing that appealing, about it: the man has zero self-control. Whether it is reading while driving himself to work, drinking at official functions, going to KFC while on a much-publicized diet, or allegedly smoking crack and hanging out with drug dealers, it is clear that Rob Ford is simply incapable of resisting temptation, delaying gratification, or otherwise acting in a manner that is in anything other than his short-term interest.

And — it is crazy that this needs pointing out — there is nothing politically or morally praiseworthy about this. In the Republic, Plato hailed rational self-mastery of the passions as the key to both personal well-being and the proper functioning of the city. A few thousand years later, Freud suggested that the control of the id by the super-ego, moderated by the ego, was the key to being a properly formed adult, and the lynchpin of civilisation. In between and since, no one has seriously made the case that rule by the passions, the id, the animal instincts, whatever you want to call it, is a viable way to run a polity of any size. More to the point, no one has credibly argued that this is any way for a grownup to behave. 

Except, that is, Rob Ford’s enablers, whose greatest fear is that Rob Ford will go to rehab and expose their ongoing support for what it really is: a dangerous and foolish egging-on of a very sick man. Which is what makes Rob Ford into less of a buffoon and more of a tragic figure. It turns Rob Ford into the Amy Winehouse of Canada.

Remember the first time you heard Winehouse singing “Rehab”? I do. I loved it.  The casual defiance, the stick-it-to-the-man refusal to go along with square society’s medicalization of boozing.  Which is weird, because I actually co-wrote a book critizing that very attitude – the studied rebellion that treats every institution, from grade school to the hospital, as part of the great conformist system of mass society.

But love it I did. We all did, for mostly the same reasons. Why should Amy Winehouse go to rehab? After all, weren’t her problems – her drinking, the drugs, the depression and the self-harming – the very font of her art, her creativity, and her soul?  “Rehab” became a rallying cry for barflies everywhere. It also showed that, despite decades of public education on this issue, we still don’t take seriously the proposition that alcoholism, drug abuse, and even depression, are actual illnesses.

Imagine if, instead of being an alcoholic, Amy Winehouse had cancer. And imagine she wrote a song called “Chemo” with the lyrics “they tried to make me go to chemo, I said ‘no, no, no’”.  Or if she had an infection, and she sang “they tried to give me antibiotics, and I said ‘no, no, no.” It would be a joke. But deep down, most of us don’t quite accept that alcoholism or drug addiction are diseases like any other. It’s self-destructive, sure, but there’s also something romantic about it.  These are not new observations: the celebration of fucked-up artists is one of the defining features of our culture. When Amy Winehouse recorded “Rehab,” she was telling the world that she didn’t buy into the notion that her drinking was an illness that needed treatment. When we bought the record by the millions and gave her a Grammy for it, we told her we agreed.

Did this popular support play a role in her subsequent death? When she sang about not going to rehab and we cheered and called her authentic, did she internalise the value system we were pushing on her?  That is, I wonder if Winehouse, like others before her and since, bought into her self-image as a messed-up singer of the blues, which made it that much harder for her to get clean.

I'm not suggesting she was simply playing a role, or that she killed herself in the name of cred, but there is a powerful looping effect in all of our identities. All identities are social constructs which get their power from being recognized by others. As a result, there is a feedback loop in our identity construction, where we internalise the norms that govern our chosen (or assigned) identities. When the norms of a given identity contain a built-in mechanism for both radicalisation and self-destruction (as they do for an identity like "messed-up singer of the blues"), it is not hard to see how it could become literally inescapable.

So then imagine you one day find yourself the mayor of one of the biggest cities in North America. You aren’t without your charms, and the people around you aren’t without political savvy. But you also have serious personal problems, which play havoc with your health, your personal life, and threaten your ability to do even the most minimal parts of your job. Yet the worse things get, the more you spiral down, the more your so-called supporters cheer you on.

What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you turn to for advice? In such circumstances, I think you would hope you could rely on someone who has known you all your life, who loves you for who you are but who knows that who you are involves habits and appetites that, unchecked, might get you and even others killed. That is, you would hope there was someone close to you who loved you like a brother.

Does Rob Ford have such a person near him? I honestly hope he does. His life almost certainly depends on it. 


Politics: The Naïve and Cynical


1. Here is a naïve view of how politics works.

Politics is about policy. Groups of like-minded people coalesce around a set of ideas about how the world should work. This group is called a party. The party puts forth a platform of policies that will put those ideas into action. The role of the party then is to serve as the interface, or point of friction, where ideas become policies. To gain power, the party promotes and sells these policies to the public as better than those of their opponents.

Thus, the adversarial nature of politics is essentially a debate between objectively superior policies. An election campaign is when the marketplace of ideas is open for business. It is like a graduate seminar in philosophy, where ideas are freely debated, the principle of charity is in full operation, and the best ideas win, whatever their source. 

The goal of this public debate is truth: Truth regarding the demands of justice, the requirements of redistribution, and the scope and character of the public goods that state should offer.  The more people have input into the process, the closer we will be to the truth.

When the party with the best ideas wins, and the better policies are thereby implemented, the country as a whole is better off. As John Stuart Mill taught us, truth is both partial and non-rival -- that is, everyone can share in the truth without it being minimised or depleted.

The crucial trait of a successful politician is that he or she be intelligent. Political leaders should be smart people. Better: they should be policy wonks, charismatic academics, philosopher kings who will rule in the better interest of all. The model naïve politician is someone like Pierre Trudeau, or Jack Layton.

2. Here is a cynical view of how politics works.

Politics has nothing to do with policy, it is about power. Joining a political party is not like joining a faculty club, and is more like joining a tribe or a gang. Their overriding function is to gain power and relative status for their group at the expense of people of other tribes and gangs.

Therefore, a party platform is not a list of policies seen as being in the objective interest of the country. Rather, it is a statement of brand affiliation, or, more simply, identity. The function of the party is to sell its brand or identity as more appealing than that of their opponents. Policies are implemented because of how they appeal to the group and buttress its identity.

Elections are basically popularity contests, not much different from the process of voting for class presidents (read Robin Hanson on this point.) So the point of an election is to make one tribe’s leader seem more appealing than that of the other tribe. The ultimate goal of the exercise is to win power for one tribe. If that requires demonizing the other parties as bad patriots, or bad people, so be it.

For cynics, to govern is to choose between competing interests. There will be winners and losers, with some groups inevitably rising and dropping in status. This is because power is indivisible and rival. One group can only hold it at the expense of others. 

The best politicians are charismatic figures, or gang leaders. They are polarizing figures, ruthless at pursuing the interests of their tribe at the expense of others. Loved, or at least greatly admired by their followers, they are loathed by their opponents.

The successful cynical politician is not necessarily intelligent. What matters is that he is authentic. The relevant question is not “does he have good ideas” but rather “is he a proper representative of my tribe?” The model cynical politicians are men like Jean Chrétien, or George W. Bush.


As used here, the terms "naïve" and "cynical" are not intended invidiously. Instead, they are intended to describe the two extremes of a continuum. Different countries might have different political cultures: some might tend to be more naïve in practice, while others might be more cynical. Citizens of different countries might prefer to be at different points on the spectrum. Some institutions might be more conducive to one form over another.

Yet there is an obvious normative quality to this continuum. Not only can it be used to describe how politics does work, it can also be used as a language in support of reform (or in support of the status quo): we may think that politics ought to be more cynical, or ought to be more naïve.

In fact, the most significant political divide in Canada, and perhaps other polities, is not between left and right, but between those who are cynical and those who are naïve about politics. It informs almost all other opinions about how our political machinery -- including Parliament, the courts, the party system, the electoral system, the media -- should function.

Some examples:

  • The naïve will be in favour of coalition or minority governments and proportional representation. The cynical will prefer majority governments and first past the post.
  • The naïve will have faith in a deliberative approach to democracy. The cynical will rest content with more Schumpeterian forms.
  • The naïve will desire more power for individual MPs or representatives, calling for more free votes in particular. The cynic sees the party as paramount, with party discipline the basis of all political engagement.
  • The naïve will curse the growing reliance on negative advertising as antithetical to the truth-seeking essence of politics. The cynical will see such framing, and the resulting culture of "truthiness," as useful to the in-group/out-group definition that is at the core of political engagement.   

Most arguments between pundits and academics consist of disguised disagreements over which mode of politics is better, the naïve or the cynical. Indeed, most apparently partisan disagreements are, if you scratch the surface, differences of opinion between cynics and naïfs.

To decide whether one is cynical or naïve is the most important meta-political decision one has to make. It is unfortunate that we spend so much time arguing about our partisan biases, and pay so little attention to our meta-political commitments. Whether that itself suggests that we are all, deep down, cynics (or perhaps meta-cynics) is an important question.



How politics escaped the clutches of reason

In a new essay I wrote with Joseph Heath, we try to explain how our politics came to be dominated by "truthiness", bullshit, and the rejection of facts. On the story we tell, our descent into unreason began with the confluence of two crucial events: The election of Ronald Reagan, the Great Confabulator, and the launch of CNN, which inaugurated the 24hr news cycle. Here's a snippet from the conclusion:

Reason is not neutral between civilization and barbarism, and neither is intuition. Some things can be “framed” more easily than others. Tax resistance can be framed in a number of highly intuitive ways -- “They’re taking your hard-earned money!” being the most obvious. The case for paying taxes, on the other hand, is difficult to frame in an intuitive way. This is not an accident. The logic of taxation — the reason why markets fail to provide public goods, so that the state must intervene — is slightly counterintuitive. It’s not beyond the capacity of the average citizen to grasp, but it takes at least five minutes to explain — a lot longer than the current environment tends to allow.



Why authenticity is bad politics, and bad for politics

(This post is an expansion of a column I wrote for the Ottawa Citizen.  I wrote this post because the limitations of a column length didn't allow me to properly address the various arguments made by Allan Gregg in his recent lecture on authenticity, to which this is mostly a reply. I still don't think I've adequately answered all of Gregg's arguments, but hopefully at least suggests the direction a proper reply might take).

 1. The Desire for Dave

The 1993 movie Dave is about a loveable everyman who happens to bear a remarkable similarity to the president, named Bill Mitchell. Dave is hired to impersonate the president at a public event for what he's told are security reasons, but it's really to serve as a stand-in while the president carries on an extramarital affair. Except the president has a stroke during the liaison and goes into a deep coma, so there is nothing for it but for Dave to continue to act as the president under the control of the president's chief of staff and director of comms. 

The President wasn't super popular and his wife hates him, and Dave's innocent enthusiasm is a fresh change from the cynical operator that Mitchell was. Mitchell's popularity starts to climb as President Dave visits a homeless shelter, takes on other feel-good projects, and generally acts as the anti-Mitchell. There's not need to explain the rest of the plot, the key point is this: "Dave" is the embodiment of one of the deepest desires in our culture for a leader who looks just like the current president, except he is selfless instead of calculating, innocent instead of cynical, and honest instead of deceitful. Bonus: it is even implied that Dave has a bigger penis than the actual president. 

Our culture is completely captivated by the desire for Dave, and it goes by the term "authenticity". 

2. Authenticity lost

The desire for Dave, or what we can call the search for authenticity, has been around for as long as there's been politics, which means it has probably been around forever. But over the last half decade or so, it has been elevated from a legitimate regulative ideal that serves as a check on some of the nastier tendencies of our political culture. It is now held up as the defining virtue of the political leader and the cure for all that ails the body politic. Authenticity, goes the argument, is both good politics (that is, a winning electoral strategy) and good for politics (that is, a way of regaining the trust of the public and its faith in the power of government to work for the common good). 

The American writer Joe Klein signposted the trend in his 2006 book Politics Lost, an essay about the decline of authenticity in presidential politics. Klein took his inspiration from what he called Harry Truman's "Turnip Day" speech at the Democratic convention in 1948 that confirmed his nomination for president. Coming on stage after midnight, speaking plainly, simply, and without notes, Truman challenged the "do-nothing Congress" to act upon those views they claim to endorse, and get back to work. Klein thinks we need more Turnip Day moments, more politicians like Truman. He argued that politicians need to "figure out new ways to engage and inspire us - or maybe just some simple old ways, like saying what they think as plainly as possible."

By the time the 2008 election rolled around, the authenticity meme had completely taken hold. For the most part, that election was framed as a battle between competing authenticities: Barack Obama's post-partisan and post-racial authenticity against John McCain's Straight Talk Express. Paired on the VP tickets were Joe Biden's "authentic" tendency to speak first and think later, up against Sarah Palin's moose-hunting mavericky small-town heartland authenticity. 

Four years later, the question of the supposed authenticity of  the various  Republican candidates for the nomination is once again a big issue - and it's something the candidates themselves seem happy to embrace. Here's John Huntsman in a recent NYT profile:

“I think what’s going to drive this election, really, are two things — authenticity and the economy,” Huntsman told me. “I think people have become so disillusioned by the professional nature of politics — the organizations around politicians, the way that politicians approach problem-solving, the way in which they go about their daily business. There has been very little in the way of authenticity in politics in recent years.”

My argument is that Huntsman has it wrong. The problem with politics today is not that there is not enough authenticity in our politics, it is it that there is far too much of it. The push for more authenticity fundamentally misunderstands the nature of mass politics, and contributes to the very problems it is supposed to solve.

3. Politics Unplugged

Like most bad ideas that come North from the United States, the authenticity craze has reached Canada in a somewhat bleached form. It doesn't dominate our political discourse the way it does in the US, but in late November, Allan Gregg -- a man with one of the most interesting CVs in Canadian public life -- delivered a lecture to the Public Policy Forum called "On Authenticity: How the Truth can Restore Faith in Politics and Government." Gregg's claim is that there is a profound disconnect between what we want from our politicians, and what we are getting. Our leaders' most systematic failure, Gregg says, is that "they have not picked up on the electorate's craving for authenticity nor adjusted their behaviour to conform to this new reality."

Gregg even has his own Turnip Day homily to explain just what he's getting at. He tells a story about the night he went to see a folk-rock band in a club in Manhattan when the guitar player's electric pickup broke. Instead of stopping the show to fix the guitar, the band unplugged their instruments, moved closer to one another, and performed an intimate number, with the two singers at one point singing directly to one another in stunning harmony. Says Gregg: "As the last chord was struck, the room literally exploded with rapturous cheering, hooting."

Gregg thinks there's a lesson in this for our politicians. What they need to do, he suggests, is unplug from the way they've always done things and try to reconnect with the electorate. They must drop the prefab talking points designed to "conceal meaning." They need to stop claiming to be the only island of virtue in a sea of knaves. They should cancel all political advertising, and talk straight to the people, saying what they mean and meaning what they say.

How would the electorate respond to a politician who took this approach? Extremely well, Gregg believes. As evidence, he cites a poll showing that three quarters of Canadians would vote for a politician who promised to be truthful 100 per cent of the time, regardless of their party affiliation. "Speaking the truth," he concludes, "is not bad politics." Even better, such an approach would be good politics, and good for politics. "For government to have the  capacity and legitimacy to make the kind of decisions necessary to deal with situations that go seriously wrong, requires trust, " he says in his concluding remarks. And he thinks authenticity is the means to that end. 

4. Is authenticity good politics?

Allan Gregg gives two examples to support his thesis that the public will respond to authenticity: The election last year of the socially progressive Muslim Naheed Nenshi as mayor of Calgary, and the election in fall 2010 of Rob Ford -- "a leather-lunged, no necked know-nothing" -- to a landslide victory as mayor of Toronto. Here's how Gregg parses these victories:

The evidence suggests that Ford and Nenshi’s very uniqueness -- and that they were not afraid to hide their uniqueness -- made them seem more authentic and believable – basically, the message these politicians sent the electorate was ... “what you see if what you get”. In Rob Ford’s instance, his very crudeness and unrefined nature made him seem “real” and signalled he was not trying to  hide anything from voters. The fact that their candidacies horrified traditional power brokers also  worked in their favour – basically, if the defenders of the status quo were afraid of them, Nenshi  and Ford must be “for the people”.  

One initial problem with this is that, in the case of Toronto at least, Gregg is ignoring the recent history of the city's politics. Rob Ford is far from the first crude, loudmouthed rightwinger to win a landslide victory as mayor -- Mel Lastman did it twice, in 1997 and 2000. So perhaps this has more to do with the city's post-amalgamation demographic than it does with any strong public craving for "authenticity". At any rate, Gregg's thesis has hardly been convincingly established. 

A more serious problem with Gregg's analysis is that he never actually defines what he means by authenticity. He opens his talk with Polonius' famous "to thine own self be true" line from Hamlet, but he does not seem to grasp the lesson of that passage. Throughout the talk, Gregg insists on treating "authenticity" as a synonym for "truth" or perhaps "honesty". But as Lionel Trilling explains in his book Sincerity and Authenticity, the significance of Polonius and the way we have internalised his message to Laertes is that authenticity has nothing to do with the truth. More precisely, it is about being true to your (idealised) sense of self, not to any external objective facts. 

It is hard to overstate the importance of this. The shift from objective facts to self-actualization marks the shift from reason to the emotions as the foundation of knowledge. The hero of a culture of authenticity is not Descartes, or Bacon, or even Hume, but Oprah Winfrey. 

It is this fundamental confusion over just what it is he's talking about that leads Gregg to confuse populism with authenticity. It's an extremely common mistake, but it's the sort of mistake that leads him to suggest that Rob Ford is a paragon of authenticity. Ford may in fact be acting "true to himself", in that he doesn't seem inclined to do the usual things we expect of politicians such as hide their antideluvian bigotry or show respect for their entire constituency.  But given that Ford is also one of the least honest, and least transparent politicians to appear on the Candian scene in decades, it isn't clear how his brand of authenticity-as-rube-populism is good for anyone, or anything. 

5. Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder

You see what I did there, in that last passage? I took someone that some people might hail as refreshingly authentic, and turned his purported virtues into vices. That is, I just wrote an anti-Rob Ford attack ad. And the reason I could get so personal against Ford is thanks to the jargon of authenticity.

Whatever else it may be, a claim to be authentic is a claim about your character, and if you choose to rest your appeal entirely on who you are -- your sincerity, your honesty, your truthfulness -- then you open yourself up to personal attacks. And why should it be otherwise? When it comes to the politics of authenticity, character assassination becomes a legitimate -- if not completely obligatory -- gambit. That is why, despite what supporters of authentic politics like to argue, the focus on authenticity may end up exacerbating the deeply partisan and negative campaigning that voters claim to find so off-putting. 

It is important to keep in mind that no one goes into public life with the intention of speaking in sound bites, breaking their promises, and demonizing their opponents. So why do they do it? For the most part, it is because they are soon confronted with the challenge of trying to communicate to millions of people under the continuous and hostile gaze of a political opposition and media that will rip them apart at the slightest misstep.The result is, inevitably, a political culture that is almost completely devoid of spontaneity or intimacy.   

What this points to is perhaps the biggest problem with Gregg's thesis, which is the very concept of "politics unplugged." The metaphor of the political sphere as something like a small Manhattan club gets it exactly wrong. National politics is more like an outdoor rock festival with two or three stages, where radically different groups of fans are mixed together to see radically different bands. Pure volume is the only means of survival in such a scenario, and any group that tried to "connect" with the audience by going unplugged would get steamrolled.

But so what? The desire for something else -- for Dave, for Turnip Day, for Politics Unplugged -- is often held up as the stance of noble idealism. It is not. What the pining for authenticity amounts to is just the desire to take the politics out of politics. If this is idealism it is of a very immature sort - there's a reason why Dave is a whimsical Hollywood comedy, not a documentary.

It's an idealism that encourages voter apathy (because "they are all liars", or because "no one speaks to my interests") and obscures this essential truth: We live in an enormous country of 33 million people with any number of deeply incommensurable conceptions of the good.

Canada is not a quaint little village, and the fact that our politicians frequently feel the need to pander to the masses, to change their minds, to break promises, and generally to do what is politically expedient and not govern according to their own idiosyncratic notion of the truth -- this is not a flaw in our system. It is its best feature. 



Politics and Authenticity Week (Win a copy of AH!)

My friends at Samara have been running a "guess who said this" contest this summer, using quotations from the exit interviews they did with former Canadian members of parliament. The prizes are usually classic books in Canadian politics, but this week they're offering a copy of the Authenticity Hoax to the winner. You don't have to be Canadian to enter, though it probably helps. Here's the quote:

In keeping with the theme of the book, this week’s quote comes from a former House Leader, reflecting on one of the less enjoyable elements of his 13 years in politics:

“My favourite saying is that 'I don’t like politicians.' And I don’t think I ever did enjoy politicians’ company. I still don’t that much. Some I do, but a lot I don’t.”

To enter, follow this link.


The Authenticity Hoax infects Australian Politics

On the excellent ABC blog "The Drum", an Australian academic named Jeff Sparrow laments the importation of the discourse of "authenticity" into Australian politics. It seems that the current election campaign has become dominated a competition over which candidate, prime minster Julia Gillard or opposition leader Tony Abbot is "more real", complete with a call for Gillard's handlers to "let Julia be Julia". It's a shame, really.

The first half of Sparrow's piece pretty much tracks the argument in chapter six of The Authenticity Hoax -- he's even kind enough to give me a shoutout. Then he gets to the heart of the matter:

Quite obviously, Julia Gillard's pledge to find herself does not represent a renunciation of politics-as-usual so much as an intensification of it, with her attack on her handlers almost certainly scripted by those handlers themselves, fully aware of the electoral impact of a properly-designed Turnip Day.

The new focus on political character in Australian politics ('what is Julia really like?', 'just what kind of person is Tony?') directly replicates the preoccupations of US campaigning, in which all candidates try for authenticity, all of the time. But why, exactly, have we moved to this presidential style of politics?

Sparrow and I agree that while the temptation is the blame "the media", that's just not good enough. After all, the media is a consumer good like any other, and blaming the media for serving up bad politics is like blaming McDonald's for serving up bad hamburgers. Someone is buying it, the question is why?

Here is where Sparrow and I part company. He blames "market fundamentalism" and the ideology of "neoliberalism":

The neoliberal turn was always about more than pure economics, involving an insistence that notions of individual autonomy, consumerism, efficient markets and transactional thinking should be extended into all social relations, even - or, perhaps, especially - those that had previously been dominated by quite different rules.

I don't quite agree. Think back to the mid-2000s in Canada, where there was so much hand-wringing over "aliented voters" -- the recurring theme then was that none of the parties properly represented the views of individual voters; the need to compromise by supporting a big-tent party was seen as a shameful compromise.

One of the recurring arguments in the book is that the "authentic turn", in politics as elsewhere, is, paradoxically, a consequence of anti-market thinking. And yes, I think Sparrow is right that much of the disaffection of these supposedly "alienated" voters seems to have been a product of their having adopted and internalized the ideology of consumer sovereignty. But we need to be a little more careful: the main ideological motivation for this is not itself pro-market ideology: just the opposite. The desire for the authentic, in politics as elsewhere, is largely a consequence of anti-market thinking, which is just to say that it is the authenticity-seekers who are creating the very conditions for their own exploitation.