Poll-tested, Consultant-Approved, Focus Group-Vetted Nonsense

Authenticity. It's one of the most important things missing from American politics.

This morning I was listening to a podcast called Candidate Confessional. They were interviewing former Massachusetts State Treasurer Shannon O'Brien, and she mentioned that her father worked in politics. One of the interviewers asked her what advice he gave her about having a career in the political arena. 

“The best advice he ever gave to me is . . . you never have to answer the question that you're asked.” She went on to explain how important it is to stay on message and avoid the trap of "gotcha" questions. Anyone who closely follows politics knows exactly what O'Brien means. Stick to the talking points. Stay on message. Re-direct the conversation. That's the advice and training candidates and public figures of all kinds are given. 

But what struck me is how openly we talk about this now: a former candidate joking with two journalists on a podcast about how politicians never actually answer the question they're asked. It's just implied: of course they're not really going to answer. Politicians, journalists, and citizens are all in on the charade now. The industry standard in politics is that you shouldn't honestly answer questions; instead you should say the thing you wanted to say before you were even asked a question.

Think about that.


Staying "on message," while it might be politically expedient in the short term, also strips public figures of their ability to be real people and erodes the public trust at the macro-level. Hollow, scripted, and robotic answers, especially to complex questions, are an epidemic in American politics and government at every level. Very rarely do you hear the words "I don't know," or "I'm sorry," or "I made a mistake," from public figures. Not unless they're forced to. That's a problem.

Instead, we hear fake, poll-tested, consultant-approved, focus group-vetted nonsense. Or, what's worse, statements that sound like they were poll-tested, consultant-approved, and focus group-vetted but are actually just hastily manufactured nonsense.

"Thoughts and prayers" after incidents of gun violence has been effectively called out as a meaningless and hollow refrain. "Deeply saddened" or "deeply concerned" are good examples, too. "I am humbled by the outpouring of support" when asked if someone is running for office is one of my favorites. Any variation of "I am shocked that my opponent would stoop to that level" works for pretty much anything. My friends and I used to joke about what we wished we could say to people after they released a predictably awful statement like that: "Be a real person." No one actually talks like that. 

There are endless examples of politicians ignoring questions and responding with talking points, but it's not just politicians. One of the most cringe-worthy examples was from an interim head of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in Oregon. She was confronted by concerned parents and community members after, according to KOIN 6 News, "it was discovered several Portland businesses were releasing toxic metals, like cadmium and arsenic, into the air." This was a big deal; it was receiving a lot of press coverage and people were legitimately scared of what it meant for their kids, their food, and themselves. One community member asked this interim agency head, bluntly, "do you agree that it's a public health emergency?"

Easy question, right?

"I agree that it's time that we continue to monitor with our soils and our air," she responded.

The correct answer was, of course, "yes." Especially when you're addressing the parents of children who have been unknowingly breathing toxic air. That's the human answer. And the second part of the answer is: "I'm sorry." Whether that apology is on behalf of a government agency that failed, or whether that apology is on behalf of a human being who can hear the fear and anger in her neighbors' voices, I'm not sure. But that's how people ought to talk to each other.

Brene Brown has a really simple take on authenticity: “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”

I love that. Authenticity is about choices.

Most people who work in politics would probably call Brene Brown's take "too soft" or "unrealistic" in a political context. I think they're wrong. I think that there is a huge appetite for politicians who are real people -- not people doing their best impression of what they think a real person might be like. There's a big upside if people actually believe you when you say something. Of course there has to be a balance between being "on message" and saying what you really think. But our broken political system will be better off if more public figures are willing to be honest, vulnerable, and authentic -- and are willing to embrace whatever consequences may come from it.