"The Politics Of Authenticity" by Matthew Lee Anderson

In Proud To Be Right’s opening essay, social conservative Matthew Lee Anderson shows us the 2008 GOP primary through the eyes of young, politically active social conservatives — a group that began election supporting Mitt Romney, the most electable seeming candidate, but were ultimately won over by authenticity of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. In Lee’s telling, these young voters, though ardently pro-life, are very much anti-torture, more concerned with the ethics of war than stem cell policy, and motivated by a desire to protect the human rights of immigrants more than the border and culture of the United States.

He ascribes these priorities to the prosperous economic times in which his generation grew up, and especially the travel abroad that it experienced: Once you’ve gone on a church group trip to sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America your outlook changes. What the young people of his acquaintance share with their socially conservative parents, however, is a jaded expectation that politicians will exploit their support during election season, only to betray them on issues of the utmost importance, as so many have done before.

“For most of my friends, the appearance of being ‘authentic’ was more important than the candidate’s actual policy positions,” he wrote. “We want to know whether our leaders are the ‘real deal,’ or whether they are simply pandering.”

With his folksy manner, rhetoric drawn from the bible, and long record in public office, Huckabee won over these young voters at the grassroots level, though “social conservative leaders dithered.” Being a Huckabee supporter was therefore difficult, Anderson recalls, due to the candidate’s poor treatment in conservative media, biblical rhetoric that Anderson deems better suited to a previous age of American oratory, and an inability to expand his appeal beyond the evangelical base. “Those limitations partially explain the phenomenal appeal of the light that eclipsed him, Sarah Palin,” the author writes. “Palin’s personal narrative, ease, and authenticity all made her extremely likable to most Americans, and grounded our faith and trust in her. But unlike Huckabee, Palin introduced the possibility of a conservative with traditional social values who knew how to articulate them without potentially offensive religious overtones.”

There is much to like about Lee’s essay, but what is the reader to make of this turn? Most glaring is the error of fact. Contrary to the author’s assertion, Sarah Palin is not “extremely likable to most Americans.” In fact, she has a zealous fan base that likes her extremely, but polls indicate that roughly half of the country views her unfavorably. At best, she is wildly divisive, far more so than Mike Huckabee. It is curious that an informed observer of American politics so misunderstands the stated opinions of his fellow citizens.

Anderson never completely reveals whether or not he is a fan of former Governor Palin, but his account of her supporters suggests that they’re making a grave error in judgment. If you’re upset about being perennially fooled by slick politicians who always break their promises, it is a strange response indeed to pick future candidates based mostly on an assessment of their authenticity, the very quality you’ve long been unable to correctly identify! What exactly makes these people confident that they won’t be fooled again?

Every presidential candidate employs a team of image makers, speechwriters, handlers and strategists whose job is to conjure whatever qualities voters are defining as “authentic” that election cycle. That Mitt Romney can’t fool anyone despite his machinations isn’t evidence that other charlatans are as easily identified, any more than spotting a brown tree snake implies an ability to see the chameleons spread about the same trunk.

Social conservatives ought to know by now that no one is able to identify an authentic politician by the speeches they give or the various cultural cues they exude. The best bet is backing political champions based upon the public policy measures they’ve actually supported in the past, and the most specific pledges possible about their future behavior. By that measure, Sarah Palin is a wild gamble on every issue save abortion and special needs kids, whereas a multi-term governor like Mike Huckabee, perfectly trustworthy on those issues, is a more known quantity on many other matters besides.

The most peculiar thing about the affinity of social conservatives for Sarah Palin is that they despise John McCain, distrusting him as much as any other Republican in the Senate… but are completely unbothered by the fact that he was championed by Palin not only on the campaign trail in 2008, but also in his 2010 bid to be re-elected to the Senate. Fellow mavericks! Ask a Palin supporter about this. They’ll usually reply that she was just being loyal to the man who helped establish her on the national scene. Put another way, Palin acted like a typical career politician by supporting someone not based on shared convictions, but because that person helped to advance her career. In other contexts, that sort of quid pro quo is held up as representing everything that is wrong with politics.

Near the conclusion to his essay, Anderson writes of social conservatives that “our politics—of both generations—are largely determined by our implicit trust our lack thereof in our candidates.” I’d ask him this question. Given the repeated inability of socially conservative voters to accurately assess the authenticity of their candidates, why should the rest of us give any weight to the outcome of events like the Values Voter Summit? Were it a reliable gauge of how a politician would behave in office, it would at least provide valuable information. But if the social conservatives of the past have inadvertently championed faux-authentic hucksters who successfully misled them about how they’d govern — and this experience has resulted in an investment of trust in Sarah Palin because she seems authentic — why should anyone be persuaded by that endorsement?

“The politics of authenticity” isn’t just a theoretically misguided method for choosing electoral candidates to support. It has been demonstrably discredited for decades on end by politicians left and right. So long as grassroots factions on the right decide primaries based on that metric, general election voters are rational to mistrust GOP nominees, as they often do. As Sarah Palin demonstrates better than any living politician, authenticity is in the eye of the beholder.

UPDATE: Matthew Lee Anderson responds to this review here. Please take a look.