By Amrit Singh
Everybody knows that real New Yorkers eat slices of real New York pizza. And so to his credit, that’s just what John Kasich did. (And then he ate it with a fork and a knife, to the horror of real New Yorkers.) And if you’re a real New Yorker, everybody knows you take the subway, probably multiple times a day. And to her credit, that’s just what Hillary Clinton did. (And then she said “I love it because it’s so convenient,” which is something nobody in New York says.) Bernie went to Coney Island and got a Nathan’s hot dog. Trump went to Manhattan and bought a bunch of buildings. You know, just some regular people doing regular New York stuff.
The presidential primary season has made its way to The Empire State, and what better place than the home of Broadway to examine a relatively theatrical session of the 2016 presidential field’s collective quest for authenticity. While it’s unclear whether these brazen theatrics work, a few things are undeniable: In 2016, conveying a sense of the authentic is of paramount importance. And no voting bloc values this, or is better at assessing it, than the very youngest amongst us.
There are reasons for this thirst in the electorate. In 2016, the body politique is famously fed up with politics as usual. Credit the progressive movement’s feeling that Barack Obama didn’t deliver on the loftiest of his campaign promises; or the internet providing unprecedented information and access to the machinations of Washington lobbyists and the influence of money in politics; or the right-wing sentiment that their party has left them behind, with the only remaining solution being to rally round someone who can “tell it like it is.”
All of those factors go directly to voters’ need to feel something real. And a shortcut to demonstrating that you authentically empathize with someone is to demonstrate you can relate to their existence. And one way to demonstrate relatability is to eat a sub sandwich the right way, order the customary toppings on a frankfurter, and know the best place to go for Indian buffet when you’re in Flushing, Queens. (Answer: Jackson Diner. Good job, Hillary.)
My conversations with “millennials,” as the media insists on calling the youngest voting bloc, suggests that these gestures toward local normalcy are effective and important. “It shows that you can connect with everyday people,” one young voter told me this morning. (Coincidentally, one way in which Hillary is trying to connect with so-called “everyday” people: By no longer calling them “everyday” people.)
The logic seems to go: If you don’t recognize that people like to eat a certain way in a certain city, what chance do you have of understanding their hopes and fears?
But why does authenticity matter so much to young voters, and especially in 2016? This one goes deeper than a slice of pizza. It’s because we have seen it all, and savvy “af.” We don’t have outsized first-hand empirical experience, per se, but we are consummate voyeurs of the endless data stream of YouTube and social media. We exist in the hyperconnected present, where data is no further away than a call for Siri. We’re inundated in a deluge of images, and we see their manipulation firsthand. And that’s because we are the masters of data-manipulation ourselves (think: Instagram filters, photoshop, and a world in which you can constantly “tweak” your “end result,” whether it’s a blog post or The Life Of Pablo). Nothing is fixed, everything is mutable, the real feels rare. The thin veil of airbrushing has been pulled back, and we know how easy it is to sanitize the image. And so, we value the warts—the real real—more than ever.
So, can this quest for authenticity ever go wrong? Well, according to this morning’s millennial counsel, it goes wrong when you don’t do it right. Which is to say: Obviously it’s impossible for any one person to be fully steeped in the rites, rituals, and realness of every place they visit. And while it’s imperative you try, it’s best if you can do it without a focus-group at your side, whispering in your ear and distancing you from the mechanics of the moment, rendering it authentically inauthentic. That would expose a realness that you might not want to be seen.
So the bottom line for you presidential candidates who happen to be reading, on behalf of the young voters you covet: Trying to be real is still more important than not even bothering. But if you can’t be real, at least get good at faking. Because as a wiseman once said: “Authenticity is everything in politics. Once you learn to fake it, you’re golden.”
Or let me put it another way: The theater of authenticity is the one venue in which you don’t want to sell out.
@FactsOnly is a weekly column by REVOLT Chief Political Correspondent Amrit Singh. Last week, we looked at where the race goes from Wisconsin. For more on the race, follow @amritsingh on Twitter and Instagram, or @FactsOnly on Twitter and Instagram, and join the conversation using #REVOLT2Vote.