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What we Expect from our Presidents

January 24th, 2012 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

The maelstrom of criticism on yesterday’s post has all been good fun and even better learning, the sort of raucous and respectful comment threads that are simply a joy.

It’s got me thinking, though, of what we expect from a President.  I have been accused of expecting too much, of requiring a standard of perfection that I do not meet and thereby throwing the first stone upon a fellow who manifestly has not measured up.

Let’s set aside the practical questions of this election, practical questions which shall resolve themselves soon enough.  The issue at hand is how we think about such things, the presuppositions that we go into the voting booth with and whether those are in fact true.  We are well beyond the point of significantly altering the political landscape, but never beyond retooling ourselves.  And it is we, the amorphous and undefined public, who stand responsible for the media and political environments that has left us with a rather disappointing crop to pick from.

But to my point:  we live in an age where the only currency is authenticity, where the most zealous buffoon can earn the qualified dismissal that “at least he is sincere.”  It is earnestness that covers a multitude of sins.  If a candidacy doesn’t have it, as Mitt Romney clearly does not, then he will find himself on the outside.  Obama was said to have it, but I don’t think ever really did.  That was an overblown attachment predicated on an excellent personal narrative and unmitigated political hope.  The times have changed, and his connection with people has been frayed.

Yet authenticity’s triumph renders “hypocrisy” our greatest vice.  Nothing new that I’m arguing for here:  go read Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax.  I did this weekend, and stumbled over this:

A fixation on authenticity and a candidate’s character creates an opening for attack ads by the opposition.  But this in turn gives a candidate an incentive to lie about his past or hide his true character, which provides jobs for all the spin doctors and image consultants whom nobody likes.  In the end…it isn’t the spin doctors who have drained the authenticity from politics; rather, it is the desire for authenticity that provides opportunities for men who can help you fake it.  The only alternative is to vote only for candidates who are so upright, honest, and unimpeachably dull that you wouldn’t want them having supper with you, let alone running our country.

Quoting isn’t endorsing, and I’d hold on to the distinction between ‘authenticity’ and ‘character’ longer than Potter does.  But even he notes that in this environment, it’s social conservatives who are most at risk of being charged with hypocrisy:  after all, our platform is not laissez faire on questions of morals, and that makes the situation a might more precarious.

I’d also note that the authenticity fixation allows for the occasional person to break through without the image consultants, and to position themselves as outside the whole political game.  “Authenticity contrarians,” if you will.  Or political hipsters.  And like any contrarians, their unique force is derivative, rather than (wait for it!) fundamental.  This is Newt’s gimmick:  position yourself as so authentic as to be outside the media’s grasp, and mediation’s grasp.  Run an “untraditional” campaign, and eschew the appearance of being subject to the media consultants who cost him his job.  For a more disciplined, careful candidate, the ruse might actually work.  But for someone like Gingrich, it’s a disaster in waiting.  The moment the messaging discipline has to come is the moment Newt’s energy will dry up.  We saw the beginnings of it in last night’s debate, I dare say, where Newt was nothing if not subdued.

And therein lies the problem with contrarianism, affable, political, or otherwise.  It can get you noticed, but once people start paying attention, what then shall you say?  And how shall you say it?  Newt’s only hope in a general election is to run against the media, and he had better hope they provide him an endless stream of reasons to denounce them.  Because in an authenticity environment, where being able to pose as the outsider is more valuable and effective than anything else, the moment he becomes an insider into the world of politics, he will invariably self-destruct.

What then, do we expect from our Presidents?  Conservatives might yearn for Calvin Coolidge’s incredible fiscal restraint, but there’s no room for his verbal thriftiness.  If ever a fellow might be a bore at dinner, I suspect it would be him.   But the virtues of discipline, restraint, frugality–the sorts of virtues that we might want in Congress and the White House–don’t play well in an age that has confused authenticity and character.  And so the fellows whose families are normal and whose steadiness seems unnerving are in danger of giving way to the most brash and boisterous candidate of them all.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.