In our "Question of the Day" feature for this year's Ideas Special Report, our readers tackle some of the emerging issues that are defining our time.
It's become a common understanding that American voters are more ideologically polarized than ever. While there are certainly real political divisions in our society, drawing clear distinctions between right and left in the electorate is complicated business: In general, polarization tends disproportionately to be a characteristic of political elites, but it can also drive democratic politics in complex ways -- particularly where it comes to campaigns and elections: Politicians with presidential aspirations, for example, are forced to hew to party orthodoxies to avoid alienating various constituencies and issue groups in primary elections, while positioning themselves to capture centrist, independent voters in the general election. This is a relatively well known pattern, but the result is that the policies politicians represent tend to blend together within their parties. This trend has become especially pronounced in this year's GOP primary. Ronald Brownstein ponders the first Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire: :
All seven candidates insisted that the key to economic revival was to take a sledgehammer to taxes, spending, and regulation. They engaged in a bidding war over the federal initiatives that they would repeal, with some promising not only to uproot Obama's health care plan, but also his financial-services reform and even Bush's post-Enron corporate reforms. None directly criticized the House Republican plan to convert Medicare into a premium-support, or voucher, system that would provide seniors a fixed sum to buy private insurance.
In their metronomic agreement, the Republican contenders reaffirmed the tail-wagging-the-dog quality of their contest. The agenda that the party wants to carry into 2012 already has been largely defined by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, confrontational Republican governors such as Wisconsin's Scott Walker, and the uncompromising ethos of the tea party activists who helped power the GOP's 2010 recovery.
In the presidential race, the party doesn't appear to be looking for someone to write a new script; it is debating who will be the most reliable, and effective, messenger for the script that the party has already written. That means that the nomination race is less likely to revolve around ideological differences than around questions of authenticity and electability.
If ideology (and policy as an extension of ideology) is not necessarily the best metric to compare candidates to one another, how useful is authenticity? To some extent, authenticity has become an ethical principle turned partisan buzzword, like "electability" and "seeming presidential." Still, politics is theater, and ephemera matters to voters in both primary and general elections, whether they consciously realize it or not. Body language and nonverbal communication can change the public perception of a politician during a debate, while excellent oratorical skills can help inspire confidence and convey a sense of leadership and capability
Question of the Day: As candidates are forced to appeal to their ideological bases by embracing party orthodoxy, do authenticity and trustworthiness increasingly decide elections? And what characteristics, if any, define an "authentic" politician?
Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine.