Striving for Intimacy: The Role of Sincerity in the US Elections

An Essay by R. Jay Magill, Jr.

It might be nice to know that your dentist is generous, but it is irrelevant to the job of cleaning your teeth. Is the same true of the role of sincerity in politics? The current campaign in the US has seen candidates eager to portray themselves as being as sincere as possible. Voters should not be led astray.

Photo Gallery: The Search for Sincerity Photos
REUTERS

This past August, at the Republic National Convention -- one of the most politicized contexts available for speech-making -- intimate feelings were aired in the speeches of both Republican vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, who weepingly hoped his parents were proud of him, and of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who recounted the emotional trials of his upbringing and how much he loved his mother.

Private emotion also took center stage in the speech made by Ann Romney, wife of the Republican nominee, who stood before an air-conditioned crowd of 15,000 delegates, journalists, and enthusiastic onlookers, and declared: "Tonight, I'm not going to talk to you about politics…I'm going to talk to you about love." And then she did, holding forth on her "deep and abiding love" of husband, children, and country, back-dropped by faded family photographs projected onto multiple LED screens mounted atop a $2.5 million stage, one of the priciest setups ever erected for such a convention.

The effort was for a seemingly good reason: "Every aspect of the stage has been designed to convey warmth, approachability, and openness," reported the New York Times. Price, it would seem, is no object when striving to convey emotional sincerity, no matter how much you really mean it.

But it's not their fault. Republicans are merely the most recent victims of our modern "intimate" culture, evidenced in equal measure among Facebook friends, apologetic celebrities, repentant athletes, contrite congressmen and crying talk-show hosts. Democrats also used to be emotional types, descended as they are from the Age of Aquarius and its commandment to shed the trappings of cold rationality and share fuzzy feelings. Taken together, this collective sentimentality aims to display a human dimension unsullied by the machinations of politics and commerce and to vie for the "deeper values" of religion, patriotism and goodness.

A Job to Do

But a candidate's or public official's ability to come across as sincere implies nothing about his or her grasp of reality or ability to be an effective leader, execute favorable policies, grasp the enormous complexities of geopolitics and engage on the world stage. In fact, more often than not, seemingly insincere technocrats do a fine job of running the state, which is, after all, what politicians are there to do. Their brand of hardness is not bad, despite America's romantic obsession with fostering warm interactions to counter what many perceive as a cold and heartless world.

In Europe, for example, no one really asks if politicians are sincere, because that quality is deemed irrelevant to politics -- or even taken to be a joke. This is because European public figures, drawing on a very old tradition, are permitted to don a public mask -- that is, to be insincere, to hide their personal feelings -- in exchange for being a public figure governed by public rituals and bureaucratic procedures. (This says nothing about their honesty when it comes to relating objective facts.) Germans, for example, see their politicians as professionals with a job to do on behalf of constituents and the state. They rolled their eyes when former President Christian Wulff, ejected from office in February 2012 following corruption charges that emerged from his past, began talking about the "sincerity" of his mistakes, and about his "life's journey." In Germany, asking if politicians are sincere is akin to asking if your dentist is generous: It's a nice personal quality to have, but it's irrelevant to them cleaning your teeth.

In the United States, we insist on being able to realistically imagine having a beer with the would-be president as a measure of his or her electability. This kind of closeness is so vaunted because it aims to counteract feelings of estrangement that otherwise permeate American society -- a distressing trend borne out in a number of polls and decades of studies. The American sociologist David Riesman, for one, noticed this increasing preference for sincerity over critical assessment already in the early 1950s, when pop-singers like Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra were being admired by fans for their emotional closeness as much as, if not more than, for their music.

Riesman saw the same thing happening in politics during Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1951 run for the presidency, when voters began to demand more emotional closeness to candidates. This led candidates, in turn, to seem more emotionally available and sincere. The ensuing performance feedback-loop led Riesman to the wise conclusion that the more the public focused on a political personality's "sincerity," the less that public critically engaged with the truth, falsity, or prudency of a candidate's interpretations or policies. That's then when "the search for sincerity among political personalities," Riesman famously wrote in "The Lonely Crowd" (1951), "becomes a vice."

Looking for the "Real Thing"

This sincerity-criterion has only increased over the decades, now even surfacing in national polls about candidates. A January 2012 USA Today/Gallup poll asked whether each of the presidential candidates, aside from being capable of leadership and managing government effectively, was "sincere and authentic." Sincere, meaning that the candidate really means what he says; authentic, meaning that the candidate really is what he says he is and not just appearing to be what people want him to be -- the recurring complaint about Mitt Romney. Americans like the "real thing," of course, but mostly when it looks like what we imagine that real thing to be: individualistic, optimistic, hardheaded and principled but vivacious. This desire employs a great number of people in the dark arts of what has come to be called political consulting.

But political deception should come as no surprise. Though it may make Julian Assange cringe, powerful people in the public eye, stretching back to the Florentine political strategist Niccolo Machiavelli, have held the privileged position of not saying what they mean in order to get or hold onto power, outwit opponents or keep confidence with voters. Even public proclamations and acts, like taking an oath with one's hand on the Bible, are a variety of political performance. Such actions serve in part to show an audience that the oath-taker means what they are saying so much that they will put their hand on a sacred text to prove it. But even a quick recall of recent history shows that plenty of oath-takers have not upheld their pledges. And everyone knows that there is a chance that the next oath taker will either do what he or she says -- or not. That's the gamble of a free society.

But take solace: In a system like ours, governed by laws and institutions instead of by individuals (as in dictatorial or absolute monarchical rule), the consequences of personal insincerity ultimately matter very little. If an oath-taker promises to uphold the Constitution or defend the laws of the United States, but seeks to undermine them instead, he or she will be ejected from office and potentially face legal consequences.

'The Wisdom of Compromise'

Elected officials are there to get what their constituents want (they do, after all, ultimately work for us), and in order to do so, they have to give up some things they may sincerely believe. This seems to have become a problem on the extreme ends of the political spectrum, whose members would seem to value their own principles above the act of compromise necessary for democracy to work. While they call this principled, in the context of democracy it's also called being selfish. "The wisdom of democracy is the wisdom of compromise," said the eminent German statesman Helmut Schmidt, who as chancellor in the 1970s and early 80s managed to steer a damaged nation back into economic and geopolitical influence, despite enormous political pushback.

As Amy Gutman and Denis Thompson point out in their timely new book "The Spirit of Compromise," democracy involves giving up some things you sincerely want and then begrudgingly accepting some of the things you don't. And since getting things done is what we expect of our politicians, we ought to focus less on how sincerely a politician holds a given belief and more on how effective he or she is on achieving the ends with which he or she has been tasked.

In a 1951 book called "Minima Moralia: Thoughts from Damaged Life," the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, who was exiled in New Jersey and California during World War II, wrote: "Estrangement shows itself precisely in the elimination of distance between people." Like much in Adorno, this is confusing. We tend to think of eliminating distance between people a sign that they are less estranged. But Adorno is right: The more that people have an immediate, unspoken sense of belonging to a cohesive society, the less they feel the need to show explicit outward signs of being connected -- such as sincerity or awkwardly staged emotional openness. Rather, it is the measurable fact of connectedness -- like in polls asking whether citizens generally trust one another, which in America are lower than in all Western democracies -- that cancels out the need to show it.

As we head to the polls on November 6, we would be better served looking for domestic policy solutions that would alleviate social alienation -- for example, through a shared sense of responsibility, social programs to which we all contribute and national initiatives that actually made Americans feel bound together -- than on the displays of sincerity, "individualism," and toughness that ultimately camouflage our more fundamental anomie.

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1. Unemotionalizing politics
wondering14 10/27/2012
Mr. Magill, Jr. complains that Republicans spent $2.5 million for a stage, a stage paid for by their own money. He also complains that the stage is well-designed in order to play its appropriate part in the convention. To change the quadrennial convention particulars, the political system must be change. What system does Mr. Magill, Jr. suggest? And then he denigrates political emotion. Political people are after all, people, therefore emotional, and they are speech-givers, they have an audience to address. How would he suggest unemotionalizing people? How much did the Democrats pay for their stage? And were any of their participants emotional, that is, people? Democrats are still the Age of Acquarius, emotional, types—not the has beens that Mr. Magill, Jr. suggests. And, has he listened to or read FDR's fireside chats, for example? FDR was serious, but listeners couldn't help become emotional, whether up or down. Did FDR broadcast his chats without the intention of persuading? How would Mr. Magill, Jr. suggest calibrating a speech-giver so that he or she doesn't move the emotional needle? After reading Mr. Magill, Jr.'s early sentences, I'm afraid that I couldn't get any further into his essay.
2.
retarded-freak 10/28/2012
Yes, I have never liked the sincerity factor in the US social-structure. It is perhaps linked to the folkish tendency toward optimism even against the facts. I am an American, and have always been rather reserved than outgoing on this sort of display, and this reticence has brought no end of trouble to me and made me feel like I live in a Kafkaesque and dangerous land. I really enjoyed living in Turkey, because the measure of sincerity was not based on strange-facial-expressions. In Turkey, it is considered insincere if you smile too much. Consequently, Turks have a more dead-pan expression. I really liked this, because it was less mask-wearing. In the USA, we are seen as stupidly sincere, and foreigners want to sit on our shoulders like devils and whisper in our ears, to see if they can get anything out of these stupidly sincere people. Israel, England, Germany, all take turns whispering into out ears. "Help us fight Iran?" or "Help us beat the Serbs?"....whisper, whisper...
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About R. Jay Magill, Jr.
  • Gunter Kloetzer
    R.Jay Magill, Jr. is the author, most recently, of "Sincerity: How A Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion That We All Have Something To Say (No Matter How Dull)." He lives in Berlin.


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