Campaign 2016's quixotic quest for 'authenticity'

Here’s the thing: The variety show routine isn’t a reliable test of the qualities we’re looking for.

“Often, what people respond to is how comfortable [the candidates] seem to be,” Deborah


Tannen, a Georgetown University linguist, told me last week. “But that often has nothing to do with honesty. If someone sounds stiff, or pauses to choose the right words, we sometimes think they must be cooking up a line. But they might just be inarticulate, or introverted, or worried about saying something the wrong way.”

Put otherwise: Some candidates may be authentically robotic.

She cited an old joke from theater and broadcasting: “The key to success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Moreover, Tannen warned, the mania for authenticity may disadvantage women.

“Women are expected to talk in ways that are incompatible with the ways we think a leader sounds,” she said. “But if we think of displays of emotion as evidence of authenticity, they can easily be seen as too emotional. That’s a huge double bind.”

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