To paraphrase a quote attributed to everyone from Samuel Goldwyn to Edward R. Murrow and George Burns: Authenticity is everything in politics. Once you learn to fake it, you're golden. In no political cycle has that been truer than in the angry, populist environment of the 2016 election cycle. As the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries approach, authenticity — or at least the ability to fake it well enough — will likely determine which candidates survive the first crucibles of the two parties' nominating processes.
The demand for authenticity has reached fever pitch in both parties, turning initial expectations of the results from analysts a year ago on their heads. Voters in both parties see the establishment as the problem, the obstacle that not only blocks the path to victory but perhaps does so out of malice or contempt for regular people.
What created this bitterness — or maybe more accurately, who? Salena Zito lays it at the feet of President Barack Obama, who will start the one-year countdown of his White House tenure on Wednesday. "That voter frustration was sired by Obama's political presidency which never came close to his promise and ability," Zito accuses. "Presidential elections often are equal and opposite reactions to the ideals and policies of the person in charge during economic upheaval," she says, "which explains the populist magnetism of Donald Trump's and Bernie Sanders' presidential campaigns."
Perhaps Obama's presidency might explain the rise of anti-establishment fervor among Democrats, but not among Republicans. For them, Obama remains the authentic embodiment of progressivism, the man who pledged to fundamentally transform America and an opponent they credit with attempting to do his best to fulfill that pledge. The only complaints Republicans have about authenticity regarding Obama are aimed at his pretense of post-partisanship and the strawmen he routinely deploys in arguments to make himself sound like the last reasonable man.
Republicans look to their own ranks for their bêtes noires. The GOP won two midterm landslides during Obama's term, eventually wresting control of Capitol Hill away from Democrats. While Republicans managed to block Obama's agenda for six years, they promised to do much more — repeal ObamaCare and impose significant reductions in spending — without regard to Obama's ability to block those initiatives. Conservative anger pushed John Boehner out of Congress late last year, leaving Paul Ryan to quarterback an omnibus bill that angered the grassroots even more.
With friends like these, the right complains, who needs opponents like Obama?
Zito has a much better case for Obama as a prime mover for disillusionment among populists on the left. Obama promised to deliver universal health care, and settled for a mandate-driven system that forces millions of people to send their money to big insurance companies. He promised to break up the big banks and pursue those who broke the economy with their greed, but Dodd-Frank actually perpetuates Too Big to Fail. So far, the number of Wall Street figures facing prosecution for the financial crisis that triggered the Great Recession remains at just under … one. On top of that, Obama fueled the Occupy movement in 2011 in advance of a class-warfare attack on Mitt Romney in 2012, only to do nothing meaningful on income inequality after getting re-elected.
That has left both parties' primary fights a scramble. The top two Republican frontrunners are competing to see who can demolish the other's authenticity more completely. Perhaps stung by Ted Cruz' rise in the polls, Donald Trump has attacked the Texas senator's status as an authentic American, even threatening to file a lawsuit to block his candidacy on the basis that Cruz does not qualify as a natural-born citizen. Those attacks have brought rebukes from authentic — and previously sympathetic — conservative thought leaders such as Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, whose disapproval could scramble Trump's support. In return, Cruz has belatedly taken off the gloves with the long-time frontrunner, deriding Trump's claims to conservatism by reminding voters of his "New York values." Trump may have momentarily (if mildly) exacerbated the problem with a botched attempt at pandering to evangelicals at Liberty University, in which Trump made reference to "Two Corinthians," instead of the normal "Second Corinthians."
It's not much better for Democrats. Hillary Clinton had hoped to ride Obama's coattails to an easy nomination, but now she looks like she might lose both Iowa and New Hampshire to Bernie Sanders. In the debate this past weekend, Sanders pushed her into the position of declaring herself the most stalwart defender of ObamaCare, a program so unpopular that the last time a majority of voters supported it in any poll was three years ago. Clinton appears to have concluded that authenticity within the Democratic coalition depends on the closeness of the embrace with Obama, even though she began her run by trying to keep her distance from him.
Sanders has a better grasp of the trend, and a political lifetime of single-minded pursuit of the left's class-warfare anger, in part fueled by the perception of ObamaCare as a corporate handout. This week, he offered some red meat to the progressive-populist base in his soak-the-rich, single-payer national healthcare proposal. That one comes with a price tag of $14 trillion, but as a signal of authenticity to the part of the base animating this cycle for Democrats, it's priceless.
The common thread between the two parties? Very little of the attention in either party is on policy. Voters of both persuasions listened to policy arguments through multiple election cycles, only to find out that the leadership they elected had other priorities. This is a return to the more basic politics of trust: a vote of confidence in outsiders, and no confidence in the establishment. It's no longer business — it's personal, and it will stay that way to the conventions and all the way to November.