Political reality bites: why authenticity is the new black

So what do Pope Francis, Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau, the freshly elected Prime Minister of Canada, and Prince Charles have in common? Despite the huge political and spiritual differences between these leaders, I would argue that they are all perceived as being "authentic", real or genuine. All convey a sense of "what you see is what you get". In other words, the man you see in front of the TV camera is the man, more or less, you would see behind closed doors. There is no mismatch between the inside and the outside and each is "comfortable in their own skin".

All over the world people are reaching out for authenticity. This, I contend, is today's zeitgeist. There are, no doubt, multiple reasons, for the search for authenticity in our leaders. One cause is an increasing mistrust that governments are looking after us or protecting our interests, as epitomised by the subprime debacle highlighted in the Oscar-winning film, The Big Short. Add to this the growing virtual connectivity in our personal lives, the growth in reality TV and in "real" food –  it is perhaps not surprising that people are looking for "real" leaders. 

Different faces of authenticity: Pope Francis and Donald Trump.
Different faces of authenticity: Pope Francis and Donald Trump. 

So what does this mean for us? First, and foremost, reality is likely going to bite many current and aspiring leaders, sooner or later. Indeed, the old political maxim of "the truth will damn you" may no longer be true! Where once telling the truth and "how it is" provided the perfect opportunity for opponents to create political ruin, authenticity might just be the antidote to the political and leadership cynicism that many people share.  In other words, rather than being risky, not being authentic may be the risky option.

Second, while authenticity "sells" it does not necessarily mean we will get good policy outcomes. A leader may be authentic, but that doesn't offer any guarantees that the leader will solve the problems that he or she claims will be fixed.

In other words, speaking your mind may make you authentic, but you may still be genuinely wrong. Thus, opting for the most authentic leader may not be the best choice and other and additional ways of judging their suitability is required.

Third, beware the "fake authentic". If authenticity works you can bet that there will politicians who do their best to pretend to be authentic for political gain. The higher up the political ladder the fake authentic climbs, and the greater the scrutiny, and also the bigger is the disconnect between the public and private persona, then the more likely such people will be found out, at least in a democracy with free, open media.


Certainly, "fake authentics" have been exposed in the recent past in Australia and this may eventually become true of popular politicians elsewhere in the world who aspire to the highest office and who have built their career on being "authentic".

2016 is an election year in both Australia and the United States. While policy statements and history will count, the authenticity or otherwise of the two likely contenders: Hillary Clinton for the Democrats, and Trump for the Republicans, will matter. Indeed, Clinton's perceived lack of authenticity, or an apparent disconnect between her public and private persona, and especially when compared to her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, is the primary reason she has struggled to date, and why Sanders continues to perform so well.

Despite his public utterances, much of which would have long since derailed any other presidential campaign, Trump looks increasingly like the Republican nominee because, more than anything, he is authentic. 

In Australia, in 2016, authenticity will likely be judged less by presidential-style debates, but rather a comparison between the rhetoric and the reality. Politicians who over-promise and who under-deliver and also those who are less than forthcoming or truthful about past mistakes will be judged, to their political cost, as not being authentic.

In this brave new world of authenticity, we, as voters, will need to pay very careful attention to both the messenger and the message, less we be fooled by one or the other.

Quentin Grafton is a professor of economics at the ANU Crawford School and editor-in-chief of