Voting for Authenticity

Back in September, the New York Times published a story on Hillary Clinton under the headline “Hillary Clinton to Show More Humor and Heart, Aides Say.”

Along with several other publications, it reported that Clinton would begin to make a bigger effort to bring spontaneity and humor into the forefront of her campaign; from then on, she would begin to make a bigger effort to appear genuine to the American public and give them the one thing they crave the most in a candidate: authenticity.

But Hillary’s “humor and heart” were then arriving at a post private e-mail scandal moment. Reports surfacing about her private messaging account and her delay in responding to the issue made voters doubt just how trustworthy she was.

And, as it turns out, authenticity didn’t seem to do the trick when it comes announced by a ‘I will now proceed to be authentic’ disclaimer.

“I think authenticity is sticking to who you are, sticking to your values, following through on what you promise. I think that makes a person authentic. Not changing your story to appeal to others,” said Ashley Ruiz, a 20-something New Yorker.

For many, a lack of authenticity is something that puts Hillary at a real disadvantage before her main competitors —Donald Trump in the Republican Party and Bernie Sanders in the Democratic.

“I think she does want what’s in the best interest of the country, I just think she’s done a great job at tarnishing her reputation by really going with whatever is the hot topic for progression and change,” said Chadwick Prima, interviewed in Union Square.

“When she first ran, she said gay rights are not something you should go forward with but now she’s like, ‘Yeah, I believe in gay rights!’ So it really comes down to, she’ll say what it really comes down to get elected.”

Voters are not blind to that, in Hillary or any other candidate. They have become hyper-sensible of candidates’ genuineness (or lack thereof) and allow that specific trait to influence their vote —even if it means, it seems, compromising policies they believe in.

People seem to not be as interested in reading presidential hopefuls’ resumes as they are about looking at them and thinking they are someone to believe in.

It is a trend, writes Erica J. Seifert, author of Campaigning for Authenticity, that became increasingly important in the late twentieth century. After Vietnam and Watergate, which played a huge role in breaking down the public’s trust in their government, voters began to look for different qualities in their future leaders.

They no longer wanted the most prepared candidate, at least not if they could have the “authentic candidate.” Votes begin to skew towards the candidates who could successfully showcase a satisfactory set of ‘authenticities’: approachable language and dress, self-disclosure, and anti-elitism.

The rise of soft news and television talk shows then allowed for the demand of a candidate that was relatable and accessible, while the social media boom now has only amplified the yearning for the most genuine and authentic character.

But while some voters allow the authenticity question to heavily weigh in as they consider their candidates, others are more skeptical of the real benefits of authenticity. After all, how will that truly help in running the country?

“I think the tough part is a president can only get 60% of what he wants done because Congress will prevent them from doing the other 40%, because it’s just not plausible to get that many people on board,” said Chadwick Prima. “It’s great to be authentic but it’s what’s plausible of getting done. And if it’s for the right reasons.”

Still, many seem to be detached from the election process as a result of a loss of faith in the institution and in their politicians. Now, if they’re not to believe in any of them, they might as well simply be able to believe them.

That seems to be the approach for leading Republican candidate Donald Trump: hotheaded and outrageous statements, which no matter how unfounded, people will perceive as genuine precisely because they are so hotheaded and outrageous.

“The fact that he is not a career politician I think is appealing to a lot of people, also to me,” said Josh, interviewed at Columbus Circle, about the GOP’s candidate’s standout qualities. “And he is very no-bullshit, you know what I mean?”

Most New Yorkers are not quick to praise any of Trump’s policies, but often eager to admit that they admire his frankness.

“I think the American people appreciate that a lot,” Josh said. “But I also feel that Bernie Sanders is the same way; he’s very honest, he has his opinions.”

This election is bound to prove just how appreciative the American people can be of a candidate that seems genuine and true to both what they believe in and what they say they believe in.

For Bernie, his authenticity has yet prove its impact on voters, with less authentic Hillary (at least to the public eye) still on the lead. For Trump, however, running on authenticity has yielded its results.

And if Trump’s lead so far is any indication, and if the people are truly voting on an instinct powered by their candidates’ perceived authenticity, it seems clear that the White House will sooner be occupied by an effective and persuading demagogue than an experienced politician.

It is both the danger and the recompense of presidential runs in a time that grants us so many different tools to get to know candidates more “personally;” the danger of politics in the time of live streaming, of Twitter, and whatever other resources —many real-time— that allow us to measure the level of authenticity in candidates more closely.

Politics become, again, a popularity contest, and the realest will win.