Authenticity, Care, and Politics

political debate

We have a multiplicity of means to know exactly what we get in a box of cereal or the milk carton from which we add a bit to the cereal. There’s a long list of ingredients, maybe a label listing the ingredients, and more information attesting to the organic or natural quality, the calories and more. Market theory works best when the consumer has perfect information about what is being offered in the market. Of course it takes any number of agencies to make sure that the information is accurate and that the producers do not cheat or lie about the quality of the contents. We take this situation pretty much for granted.

So why not demand the same essential information in the candidates who offer themselves up for choice in the market of politics—the campaigns for office. Several of our Founders spoke about the idea of an informed citizenry early in the development of our country. Jefferson famously said, “A well informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.” He made other numerous comments on the importance of knowledge, like “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Benjamin Franklin added later “A nation of well informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the region of ignorance that tyranny begins.”

I will try to take a balanced stance in what follows, but my observation tilt me far towards the side of the right and their blithely ignoring of these wise and important comments. Neil Newhouse, Romney’s pollster, said to a meeting of reporters just before the Republican Convention began, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers, reminiscent of the comment from the Bush White House that the President’s critics were part of the “reality-based community.” I suppose this attitude should be expected from the libertarian ideology, based fundamentally on the idea of negative freedom: the fewer constraints there are on my ability to choose to do anything I want, the better off I will be. This is usually directed to the rules, imposed by governments and other institutions that bind and constrain, but these statements argue that it goes much farther to blow off any limits that the real world might impose. It seems obviously dangerous and unwise to completely disregard Jefferson’s warning about the impossibility of building a nation on ignorance.

But I want to put this into another perspective, the one I began with: the importance of knowing what you are buying in any sort of marketplace. With the laws we have today, if you buy a lemon at the auto dealer, you can return it within a window of a few days. Not so with elected officials, you have to wait until the next election and suffer through the consequences of the choices. Buyer’s remorse lasts for at least two years. We have learned over many years and even centuries, that, political leaders cannot or do not keep the promises they make. Life in an office is always shockingly different from the pictures in the heads of candidates making their first run at it. Even if they have a pretty good sense of what they are getting into, things can and do change quickly, as they did for President Obama. So while it is important to listen to what candidates claim they will do and what they stand for, it is critical to know who they are because, sooner or later, they will have to act from their core, if there is one. And this is what concerns me now.

I have been writing about authenticity and its critical connection to flourishing and sustainability for quite some time. Its philosophical origins are deep and complicated; it’s good enough just to think about it as meaning coming from one’s own self as if there is something we can call a self residing entirely inside one’s skin. Acting authentically means that ultimately the choice of action comes from one’s quality of caring, not from a desire to conform to the prevailing sentiments outside. This does not mean acting without paying attention to what is going on out there, including listening to the advice of wise counselors. In other words, living within “the reality-based community.” Authenticity is important on its own, but it is the link to the domain of care that is most critical. Authentic action, including declarations about what to do in tough situations, springs from the basic human core of care, and represents over time the values of the actor/leader. Authentic actions can be parsed by some grammar of care. Each of us knows that sometimes we cannot take care of all of our concerns at the same time. Conflicts arise over how to deploy the resources we have at hand. But the failure to satisfy everything at once is not evidence of lack of authenticity.

No human is authentic all the time; even saints may not be saintly at every moment. But those who we observe to act out of authentic cares inevitably become respected, even if their actions fail to achieve their intentions. So much for philosophy. Let’s get down to politics. I cannot remember an election with a more inauthentic candidate running. For me this is of much more concern that the difference in policies and ideologies between Romney and Obama. We know that our government has built-in checks and balances (or had these in theory) to prevent the majority or the controlling forces to become tyrannical. So, the future of my life as a citizen will be influenced by who the President IS as much as by these ideological forces (which are certainly important). I want a leader who cares about the world, right down to including me. I want an authentic human being in office. This does not mean someone who will be right or wrong by some ideological criterion; all Presidents are always both right and wrong by these standards. Inauthentic “leaders” are not leaders, when push comes to shove. They are conformists, obeying the cultural pressures they allow into their space.

Anyone can be authentic or not, but there are places where one of these tends to show up more than others. One is the world of business. I find it interesting and worth thinking about. Business leaders are successful for all sorts of reasons, but caring for the world is not usually one of them. The key to business success is out-competing and innovating, as Mr. Romney has so often said. Competition is the antithesis of caring. Success is judged by how much better one does than another, not by any internal measures. No caring or authenticity here. This fact about business is something I think about a lot with respect to sustainability. Basically I believe that the way businesses are run and the role of their leaders in this is one of the principal reasons we are in such an unsustainable state. (I always try to get sustainability in these posts.)

From a political perspective, it is easy for me to write this post. I am a Democrat and also a democrat. I vote on the basis of both what someone says and who I assess them to BE. Since one side, the Republicans, has already said they are not going to be concerned with truth, I listen to them with only one ear, but with both ears to the Democrats. Both are pretty noisy, so I am more and more concerned about who the candidates ARE as human beings. Here the choice is very clear. Romney is the least authentic person I can remember running for President. Truman beat Dewey to no small extent on the voter’s judgment of authenticity. Not much else can explain his paper thin, unexpected victory. Obama, whatever judgments can be made about his first term in office, is clearly the more authentic. If you ask me for evidence for this, ponder this simple fact. Romney became who he is in business and within a highly authoritarian faith (authority and authenticity do not co-exist easily. Not just any business, but one measured only by financial success, not by how well the companies satisfy the cares of the market of “real”people, not just wealthy financiers. Obama started professional life as a community organizer; clearly a career based on care. On this alone, I can make a clear choice, even without thinking about the “politics.”

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