Originally published on the At The Threshold blog in April 2016.
Like few other cultures, America has long followed a cult of perfection. Starting with the earliest Puritan settlements run as “cities on a hill” by theologically defined political communities Americans have sought to build perfect lighthouse models with the potential to inspire and impress. The Victorian impulse, the Calvinist ethos, theCapitalist drive – many of the core shapers of American culture have had perfectionist tendencies. This version of America is dying, or rather, it is morphing into something new, something less perfectionist and more authentic – atleast in doctrine. At the core of the new culture is a very familiar backbone, the incentives have just changed. Thenew perfect is now something that appears laid-back, that is not trying too hard, that maybe has a crack or two and the style of a worn-out, half-ripped jeans. Flawless perfectionism has become so last season. Well-designed flawfulness is the new sexy.
What might come off as nothing more than a new robe for an old culture is actually having profound impact on our media, our politics, and along with it: our souls. Ever since the cult of authenticity met the decentralizing digital technologies, our institutions have been under a kind of fire unprecedented in modern history. The emerging cult of authenticity has, in fact, upset much of how institutions worked in the 20th and previous centuries. The goal of institutions used to be to appear big, polished, perfect, and to hide and disguise all small failures and insecurities. What used to be a virtue is now slowly turning into a vice. Big, polished perfection now arouses suspicion, along with a remaining hint of admiration for it. But even this last bit of admiration for the grand institutions of society is under the weather. It is becoming more nostalgia, and less true value. Flawlessness and theformerly hailed virtue of perfection are becoming a symbol for square-boring-kitsch, and most importantly: untrustworthy.
We don’t like the latest iPhones anymore – we like thesecond-to-latest iPhones with the spider-web crack on thescreen because it shows how anti-materialist and above-the-shiny-spoilt-kid we all are, of course without having to relinquish any of the convenience of recent technology. What we want to see today is outtakes, failure, little moments of flaw – not just because we love sensation, but because it makes us connect to the ones portrayed on a deep human level. It lets us relax and think: “oh, that celebrity x is also just a human being” and “oh, this bishop x is also just a sinner like me” and “oh, the politician x is also just a flawed being like myself.” We want to be taken behind the scenes, because we feel like we’re on theinside and represent the institution in question ourselves – instead of being left outside and feeling like this institution is confronting and manipulating us. We want to see pixelated pictures on Twitter and Instagram instead of flawless, beautiful photography. It makes us feel like there’s a real human being posting and not just a trained team of marketing experts manipulating us like everyone else. This is where Donald Trump’s genius lies. He understands this like few others in this election cycle.
Where the Republican establishment is using old-school ad-buy tactics and traditional mechanisms of shaming and ridiculing, Trump is using the cult of authenticity in ways that couldn’t be more ironic: A long-time member of the New York elite, a symbol of the economic theory depriving many middle-class families of their income and social security, and a bully who cares about little more than himself and his closest family and friends, he has managed to appear as the fighter for the small man on the street, and the worker’s man who’s been disenfranchised, the public protector of those who have been marginalized by the “liberal media” and the“Washington establishment.” Unable to compete with the100 million dollar war chest Jeb Bush brought to the race, and unable to out fund the anti-Trump Super PACs, he found a tool of campaign warfare worth more than much of the financial firepower of the establishment: social media. Trump’s Twitter account accrues about 50,000 new followers – per day! Anti-Trump Super PACs drop millions on a smearing-ad, and what does Trump do? He attacks the wife of Ted Cruz and gets all the free advertisement he could wish for, just because of a simple rude post on Twitter.
The shift in what we look for in candidates is crushing all old forms of political thinking, or at least political campaigning. What used to be a reason for politicians to resign – rudeness, imperfection, brash and brutally honest communication – is now a sign of authenticity. Of course, some are waking up to the fact that much of it is an act for Trump. The recent letter of resignation of his former communications director is only one illustration of the fact. But surprisingly many are sticking around, and his combative speech against even his own supporters isn’t hurting, it’s helping – precisely because it is uncomfortable for his supporters. It’s confirming to them that this man will not shy away from giving everyone straight talk and make the difficult choice, even if it means going against his own supporters. And since Trump is relying a lot on direct communication through Twitter, his followers feel like he’s talking directly to them and communicating on a close, personal level that none of thepolished marketing expert accounts of many other candidates can provide.
Only Bernie Sanders has similar social media appeal and a comparable authenticity bonus. Sanders, unlike Trump, has a real track record in government. This is a bonus, because his opinions have been on record for decades and he has been consistent on all major issues – even the lax gun policies that hurt him with the party he’s running for. But it is also a malus, because he’s always been a fan of institutions and approached “change” not through reality shows but through the long and difficult institutional process of political advocacy and representational government. Where Trump can make sweeping statements and simple assertions like his claim after the Brussels attacks that only he can “solve” terrorism, Sanders refrains and makes it clear that only long and hard work of many people joining in can really change anything about the major issues we’re facing. But since our media and entertainment culture has reduced attention spans to the bare minimum, the easy answer Trump style has been more successful than the long-hard-work approach of Sanders – or so it seems, because of the economic incentive for the media to make Trump a (well-selling) issue. In absolute numbers Sanders has more support than Trump. Why? Because of authenticity.
Trump might have been brilliantly using social media to create the authentic persona Donald Trump, but unlike Trump who has changed and engineered a number of opinions to match the electorate he’s trying to win over Sanders has been consistent on most opinions for all of his political life. This authenticity, along with brilliant millennial marketing brains, is what has turned Sanders into a social media phenomenon and took him from a fringe candidate right into the heart of mainstream politics. So while the virtue of integrity is still underlying the love for authenticity – thus giving Sanders a bit of an edge in this regard – the real value of the day is the display of a character that has no shame, stands up against theshamers, takes on Goliath while appearing as David, using the words “the establishment” a lot and identifying, not the voters and consumers as the problem, but diverting all the blame to the grown institutions of democratic, pluralistic societies.
One of the ironies of this election cycle is that both Trump and Sanders advocate stronger institutions in the name of an anti-establishment fight. Trump wants a strong man with a strong coherent executive in a somewhat fascist style, Sanders wants a less libertarian, and more communitarian approach to politics and a strong community organizing including higher taxes for the rich to invest in the social fabric and societal cooperation. For both, and of course Ted Cruz as well, the path towards this goes through a solid distaste, even hate for the state of most societal institutions today. And it is resonating, which is why Sanders polls better than Hillary Clinton against all Republican contenders for the general election. Because of his anti-establishment communication, Sanders has more crossover appeal than Clinton, despite being a self-described democratic socialist. As a socialist Sanders is enjoying more crossover appeal than Clinton, an economic moderate with honed capitalist skills and a history of financial deregulation policy in Bill Clinton’s White House – a previously unimaginable, fundamental shift in American politics that blows up the traditional political scale and requires a whole new analytical framework for politics. Why? You guessed it, authenticity.
The cult of authenticity challenges all major institutions – public media, government, unions, parties, institutions of higher education, even multi-national corporations. What we’re craving is real connection and at least an illusion of genuine relationship. Our trust in the manipulative perfect of marketing is so thoroughly eroded that while we’re still as manipulable as ever, we just want those manipulating us to please make us feel like they aren’t, or that they somehow don’t mean to, or at least that they’re doing it for some good reason or cause. When we walk into a Starbucks we’re perfectly aware of the fact that we’re being manipulated by a large-scale, impersonal, multinational corporation dedicated to shareholder value more than our fates as human beings, but at least they have this fair trade initiative and their wall murals say they care about Africa. So while we deep-down know we’re just being used for the profit we generate, at least we feel like we’re also saving the world one cup at a time. And that’s where this new cult of authenticity might eventually end up as an exhausted version of okay-manipulate-me-but-please-just-do-something-good-for-the-world-so-I-can-get-some-sleep-because-I-really-need-it-tonight.
Dangerous about the development is that even fact-based reasoning and objective logic have fallen prey to it. Authentic is not what has sound logic, but what is presented with emotion, intensity and “high energy” – something that eventually killed the promising presidential bid of the seasoned politician Jeb Bush. The emotional part is not new: America has always had a romantic streak. Where the stereotypical German would not even consider watching, listening or approaching an emotional and irrational public persona, Americans would not only listen to, but even be inspired by the personal feelings of the public speaker. If the person lacks qualification and real substance, he or she would not be considered relevant for a meaningful discourse in Germany. In America, this dismissiveness or irrational statements of emotion might even be considered arrogant. We give real consideration for not just the rationale, but the feelings of the constituency a politician represents, whether he or she conveys sense or not. This appreciation for emotion and inspirational narrative has not only done harm. It is atthe heart of America’s success. Grand narrative, beautiful language, identity through shared stories, and romantic inspiration have provided one of the most diverse immigrant societies of this earth with a drive, firepower and unity unprecedented in human history. It has served as a force for good, a basis for peace, a driver of cooperation. But in the times of individualized search engines and algorithm-selected information through social media the American tendency towards emotionalized political communication has created a polarization fracturing the conversation and fragmenting the public. After decades of this, there really is no public left in America.
We have to start using the term public in plural: a diverse set of publics is the closest thing we have to a universally shared public space. And it provides the challenge to new entrepreneurial thinking: How can we reconnect some of these publics and reset the conversation amongst estranged antagonized subcultures? Recognizing theproblem is the first step to solving it. Understanding thedeep desire for immediacy, connectedness, and authenticity is at the heart of it. And then refining, or redefining our grown institutions is the second step. We have to emanate what we preach. We have to act consistently with our message. We have to realize our humanity – and most importantly: We need the courage to drop the perfection. It’s been an illusion anyway.