Can Politicians be Authentic?

Politics is a national sport in Israel, as the survival of the state and its citizens depends on it. The political process is conducted against the background of the country of immigrants with the broadest diversity of cultures and histories. The hourly news are analyzed and interpreted with the corresponding wide range of opinions. The rules of the political game are not well defined. Under these circumstances, what is surprising is not that there are so many political parties in Israel, but that there are so relatively few of them. The question is whether politicians can be expected to be authentic under these or any other conditions.

It is hard to be authentic all the time: to be completely true and honest with oneself and others, having credibility in one’s words and behavior, and absence of pretence could be a demanding challenge. It is also difficult to discover and accept all personal flaws and appraise in detail all actions, and to minimize the bias during self-examination, which is a continual process of defining and refining the self-perception. As individuals are immersed in a society that demands adaptation, at any given moment authenticity can only be partial.

Complete authenticity is not sustainable due to the various expectations, constraints, and demands from the outside world. Becoming authentic is difficult because of the need for approval and recognition by others, which entices one to appear and behave according to their expectations. The human ego desires recognition. Thus, the tendency is to present an artificial, distorted or illusory image of oneself to gain the desired approval.

True authenticity must inevitably reveal human limitations. Politicians cannot be truly authentic, as they have to appear confident and nearly perfect, rather than show any doubt or weakness. They must perform on the stage of the theatre of life and convince and please various people with different values, beliefs, and needs. In these conditions, authenticity is difficult to sustain, as people expect politicians to deliver on their promises, and typical priorities are jobs and economic prosperity. In this context, authenticity is a secondary concern.

Matching words with deeds is an impossible task in a very complex world with shifting political and economic trends. No one can anticipate or control social, economic, environmental and political changes. It is difficult to translate slogans into workable programs in the interdependent world, in which economic and political power is more diffuse and contested. In such circumstances, politicians are limited in their ability to deliver on their promises. Politicians often use metaphors to simplify complex issues. In the absence of sufficient time for detailed discussion, large volumes of information are replaced by sound bites.

The mindset of a politician is somewhat similar to that of an actor on the stage. In films and theatrical performances, actors may seem authentic in their roles. But one must always distinguish between the person and the persona, although the distinction is not always obvious. The persona on the stage cannot be authentic, as any expression of authenticity on the stage is scripted; only the person in an unscripted setting can be authentic. Any measure of personal authenticity is diminished under any awareness of being observed, or in front of the camera, or even in front of the microphone.

Perhaps great actors, having difficulties with inauthenticity in their lives, can transcend the acting and discover authenticity on the stage of a theatre, rather than in the theatre of life. As actors, they may attain some measure of true authenticity against the background of an inauthentic genre of performance. Nevertheless, actors play the roles expected of them, and so do the politicians.

About the Author
B. G. Yacobi received his PhD in physics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1975. He held research positions at Imperial College London and Harvard University, as well as teaching positions in universities in the United States and Canada. He is the author/co-author of numerous articles and several books on physics, and of a number of essays on philosophy.
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