With the 2020 presidential campaign officially underway, the worst excesses of political reporting are once again rearing their ugly heads — most notably, the media’s preoccupation with candidates’ authenticity, an obsession that has marred so many recent presidential campaigns. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand became the latest victim of the authenticity police on Saturday, after she had the audacity to ask whether it was appropriate to use her fingers or a fork to eat the fried chicken she was served at a women’s brunch in South Carolina.
New York’s Frank Rich asked on Twitter, “Is there anything Gillibrand has done that is not contrived and opportunistic? I ask the question seriously. Replies welcome.” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni went further, writing that “you got the sense that she would have grabbed that chicken with her pinkie toes if she’d been told to… Anything to conform. Anything to please.”
The incident, just the latest entry in the growing pantheon of political food gaffes, reveals how the media too often covers presidential candidates on the trail. With most candidates’ speeches and rallies generating relatively few headline-worthy sound bites, reporters and commentators often instead turn their focus to theater critic–style assessments of a candidate’s strategy and campaign skills. In its most dangerous form, this form of coverage centers on manufactured narratives about a candidate’s personality.
These narratives often center on whether the candidate is “authentic” — a media construction that ignores the reality that all candidate behavior is strategic. Bizarrely, many reporters appear to believe they can determine candidates’ inner beliefs by observing their behavior in the artificial, high-stakes world of presidential campaigning. Those candidates who are less skilled in campaign trail rituals are often skewered as inauthentic, especially if their failures seem to reflect a character flaw. How else would an impossibly trivial anecdote about John Kerry ordering a cheesesteak with Swiss cheese in 2003 become a national story? Meanwhile, other candidates are considered more authentic because of their superior skills as performers: Coverage of George W. Bush, Kerry’s opponent in the 2004 presidential election, portrayed him as an authentic Texan who lived a quiet life on a ranch, not a prep school graduate from an elite New England family who’d bought the rural property just before running for president.
It is all too easy to get trapped in what I’ve called the authenticity doom loop, a pattern in which attempts to showcase a candidate’s authenticity are taken as proof of the opposite.
Once these narratives take hold, they are profoundly difficult to escape. It is all too easy to get trapped in what I’ve called the authenticity doom loop, a pattern in which attempts to showcase a candidate’s authenticity are taken as proof of the opposite. In 2015, for instance, efforts by Hillary Clinton’s campaign to put her character and personality on display were largely deemed a contrived marketing campaign (sample headline: “The Making of Hillary 5.0: Marketing Wizards Help Reimagine Clinton Brand”). Gillibrand’s chicken faux pas was minor, but she may face a similar narrative if she rises to the top of the Democratic field.
Those candidates who, like Gillibrand, have been forced to change their platform to succeed in national politics are most vulnerable to claims of inauthenticity. Of course, every candidate selects a set of positions that will help them win elected office — they are all inauthentic in this sense. But some candidates have the luxury of going on to run for national office without having to substantially tweak their positions. Consider, for example, the initial presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and Barack Obama; both men ran versions of their previous statewide campaigns when they sought their party’s presidential nominations in 2000 and 2008, respectively. Other candidates aren’t so fortunate and have to substantially alter their views to appeal to a national party constituency. Al Gore, for example, had to shift his positions to the left in order to run for president after serving in the Senate as a Democrat from Tennessee. Mitt Romney had to make the equivalent move to the right in order to win the Republican nomination after serving as the governor of Massachusetts.
Especially skilled performers like Bill Clinton can pull off such a move, but Gore and Romney lacked Clinton’s slipperiness. And while the media could have covered the policies on which they changed their views, their shifts were no longer considered “news.” Instead, reporters sought evidence of Gore and Romney’s inauthenticity in campaign trail minutiae like their clothing, which was portrayed as evidence of their insincerity. (Romney is wearing jeans! He’s got a Bass Pro Shops shirt! Al Gore’s wearing earth tones!)
In her critics’ eyes, Gillibrand’s question about fried chicken reveals the inauthenticity at the core of her campaign. But there’s an alternative account to consider: Campaigning requires a candidate to publicly interact with scores of people, a fact that will inherently create lots of awkward moments. Most of these gaffes are quickly forgotten, but reporters and pundits choose to amplify a few cherry-picked anecdotes to reinforce a narrative they have already constructed.
It is true, of course, that Gillibrand has changed the set of positions she espouses as she moved up the political ladder. Whether that transformation is sincere is impossible to judge; we can never know what politicians truly believe. But we can be confident that how she eats chicken tells us very little.