Members Only | March 6, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
The Problem of Bernie’s ‘Authenticity’
All politicians pander, but his adds insult to profound injury.
Michael Gerson can’t, or won’t, understand why his fellow white evangelical Christians are still all-in for Donald Trump. For the Post columnist, the problem isn’t the religious perversion of Christ’s teachings—or evangelicalism’s “nurtured insanity,” as Frank Schaeffer memorably put it. Gerson can’t, or won’t, understand this as being in keeping with Trump’s authoritarianism. The problem, he says, is falling from grace.
So I’m disinclined to agree with Gerson on much of anything, but here I am, agreeing. Last month, he said Bernie Sanders has a lot in common with the president. He’s right.
Both men have benefited from a certain definition of political authenticity that allows them—no, encourages them—to be unpleasant, ill-mannered loudmouths.
To be sure, Sanders is better than Trump. Gerson and I agree on that, too. But:
Speaking your mind without filters is not a sign of political authenticity; it usually indicates a basic lack of respect for others. In almost any human interaction other than politics, Sanders’s outbursts on the debate stage would be taken as a sign of general jerkness. For Trump, such gracelessness is a lifestyle. Filtering out the worst of ourselves—demeaning language, crude insults, pushy interruptions—does not hide who we really are. It shows the kind of human beings we want to be (my italics).
Gerson doesn’t mention Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris (or Hillary Clinton, for that matter) but it’s worth noting his standard of restraining our worst selves to present our best selves almost never applies to women seeking power. Whenever they do, they are accused of hiding something, usually something nefarious. After a lifetime in public, people still ask themselves, evidently in good faith, who the real Hillary is.
Things would be better if we saw what’s in front of us instead of what we want to see.
This standard is also suspected of being something it’s not, depending on who’s being suspicious. From a fascist point of view, social mores like Gerson’s—not to mention entire systems of morality—are fraudulent schemes designed to shroud the true and natural order of things, in which the strong rightly prey on the weak. From a Marxist perspective, social mores are designed by the rich to maintain social control over the working masses who would surely revolt if only they knew the truth. (Sanders is not a Marxist, nor is he a real socialist; many of his followers, however, very much are.)
Practitioners of various ideologies—sexism, fascism, Marxism, conspiracism, or whatever—can be trusted to deny what’s in front of them, because, to ideologues, what’s in front of them must be a malicious ruse. The evidence of their eyes will never be enough. What will be enough will have nothing to do with observable reality.
Where I part ways with Gerson is his presuming that political authenticity exists independent of human agency. In this, he’s like many of my fellow pundits—using words he thinks he understands for the purpose of making arguments he thinks are worthy despite these words making no sense if only he’d stop and think about them.
What is authenticity when all politicians pander? All of them suck up. All of them must. Politicians are people who present one part of themselves at one point in time and another part of themselves at another point in time, depending on what’s useful, advantageous or self-preserving. In one way or another, these are unnatural creatures operating in an artificial environment and practicing a variety of rhetorical conceits. There is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, you could say this is what they should do.
Really good politicians make inauthentic behavior look authentic. That’s probably Sanders’ greatest talent. The Vermont senator has convinced legions they should choose him because he stands up to the rich and the powerful, as he always has.
In 2005, US Rep. Sanders of Vermont joined congressional Republicans in granting legal immunity to gun manufacturers. He did this in the service of his political fortunes, not in the service of the people. (He was preparing a run for the Senate.)
Sanders could have stood up to the rich and the powerful. Instead, he ensured that his name will always be on the lips of the parents of 20 six-year-old children lost in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. Sanders’ name will always be on their lips because—to this day—they have not been able to sue Remington, the maker of the AR-15 Adam Lanza used to murder their kids before turning the semi-automatic rifle on himself.
Sanders says he regrets his vote. I believe him. The damage is done, though. The suffering goes on. And his “authenticity” adds insult to the profoundest injury. Things would be better if we saw what’s in front of us instead of what we want to see.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.