Can We Kill ‘Optics’ in Politics Already?

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders changed how candidates think about their personal image, except that they didn’t


Longtime Village Voice political reporter Ross Barkan announced his candidacy for state senate in south Brooklyn’s 22nd district on October 3. As his campaign proceeds, Barkan will be reporting for the Voice on his experience navigating the New York state election process.

Publication of these articles by the Voice does not imply our endorsement of Barkan’s campaign or, for that matter, of the New York state election process.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I got a haircut.

A day later, I shaved.

Nothing about either act is remarkable. What’s changed since I decided to run for office is the frequency — more trips to the barber, more time spent in front of the mirror trying not to cut myself. Suddenly, image matters. I must conform, in some way, to the public’s alleged conception of the politician. I’m planning to buy nicer shoes. My old black peacoat, too rumpled, has been shelved.

Traditionally, with few exceptions, a politician crafted a persona and then compartmentalized his or her life into the poll-tested, consultant-scripted outward opinions offered to the voters, and what existed below — what the pol really thought. The pol’s positions are an amalgam of conviction and of what is deemed acceptable to the public at a particular juncture of history.

I find myself navigating this balance between fulfilling expectations and defying them, acting out a role (in part) while understanding voters are tiring of artifice. I strive, consciously or not, for the look of the politician. Do I need the tie for Sunday events? Can I wear tan pants in winter? What did Obama do?

I want to signal, through my appearance, that I am a person to be taken seriously. (I understand that this can only be more difficult for female candidates.) I also reflect on its ultimate insignificance — I must pay attention to it, but only so much. Were the Politician Genie to grant me the wish of making me as classically handsome as I want to be, I would still be no closer to winning elected office.

But we are living in strange times, political and otherwise. Before 2016, few thought that a slovenly, cartoonish billionaire could arouse the passions of millions. Granted, Donald Trump was, to many, wealth and success personified, unabashed in the way he had seemingly (though not really) dominated the business world. But he was not “presidential.”

Bernie Sanders, though far different in approach and substance, was not cut from the political consultant’s cloth either. He didn’t always comb his hair. He came from Vermont. He screamed to high heavens about democratic socialism.

Despite the success of each man, a certain brand of politics beyond the White House has remained surprisingly durable. Most Democratic and Republican elected officials still act as elected officials; they move about the public stage in their scripted roles, projecting relative calm and control, hair well-coiffed, teeth bright. They don’t step beyond the Overton Window.

With few exceptions, there are not mini-Trumps roaming America. Even local Democrats, edging left to tap into some of Sanders’s popularity, do not wrap themselves in the socialist banner. Perhaps this doesn’t matter, if even corporate centrists like Cory Booker embrace single-payer healthcare. Substance could trump style.

The politician’s instinct to be cautious endures. Supporting healthcare as a right or legalizing marijuana, like the celebration of same-sex marriage, came years after many in the public had come around to these positions. Sanders did not workshop his viewpoints before embarking on the campaign trail, but many candidates still do. Engineered “listening tours” are not out of fashion.

One lesson of 2016 was that voters, by and large, seemed to be craving “authenticity.” The unvarnished candidates packed arenas; the others chased sparser crowds in littler rooms. These days, I think on this more: If we are all products of our time, what is authentic? If Bernie chooses to comb his hair less, is that some version of fakery too?

Political campaigns inherently involve a degree of artifice — a person dreams up an enterprise, hopefully well-funded, to win over voters. There is the push and pull between what the pol thinks and what the pol thinks voters think. A “savvy” enough pol (the term, abused by journalists, in this context often means the ability to fool people) can appear genuine while responding to the apparent whims of the electorate.

I can feel the tug myself. I have promised to be unapologetically myself, and I believe I have upheld that — so far at least. But I consider what forces may pull me elsewhere. Is it myself to want to upgrade to wingtip shoes? Maybe. Is it myself to put product in my hair to appear more “professional”? My internal argument is, yes, as long as my message doesn’t change. My message was not crowdsourced or poll-tested, but inevitably — as all messages are — it is impacted by the age in which we live and my own bubble of experience.

One frustration with politics is how it devolves into spectacle. Trump was ludicrous, but the dominance of the image — of what is manufactured to be merely seen versus what should hold deeper meaning — is not new.  

The TV era ushered in the idea of a presidential candidate as celebrity, beginning with John F. Kennedy’s triumph over Richard Nixon in 1960. It was believed sweating Dick lost the race by the narrowest of margins in history because he didn’t appear as buoyant and fresh on a debate stage as Kennedy.

Since then, “optics” have ruled, one of those political buzzwords I hated the most as a reporter. The idea of stagecraft trumping substance, the artificial reality constructed to fool voters who apparently just hungered for a good show. Only journalists and political operatives — the insiders in such a formulation — can see through the ruse, but they are in on the joke.

Joan Didion, in the brilliant 1988 essay “Inside Baseball,” captured one such dispiriting example on the campaign trail, writing how the Democratic presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis, staged a game of catch on an airport tarmac in sweltering heat — to demonstrate, somehow, he was tough.

“What we had in the tarmac arrival with ball tossing, then,” Didion writes, “was an understanding: a repeated moment witnessed by many people, all of whom believed it to be a setup and yet most of whom believed that only an outsider, only someone too ‘naïve’ to know the rules of the game, would so describe it.”

Why this obsession over optics still? We are not simply in the TV era anymore, when a few networks set the agenda and every candidate rushed to fit their stagecraft within the medium’s narrow parameters. If social media has been a social ill, it has also allowed new modes of presentation and transmission of information: We are a fractured world, but young people seem to demand a little less bullshit.

But there is still that pull between the old way, the “optics,” and what is demanded now, which is purpose. Can I fret over my appearance — the haircuts and the tailored suits — while also understanding that it’s merely the point of entry, at best a few cents of the price of admission to this new arena?

On all levels, I see politicians underestimating voters. They pinch their speech into little clichés and string them together in a bid to offend no one. They do what highly-paid people tell them to do. They often operate from a place of fear — how best to leave the room without being hated.

The key isn’t to ape Trump’s slobbering mien — it’s to understand voters don’t simply want another Dukakis, fake-tossing his baseball for the cameras. The TV era is dead. Optics belong in the dust bin of history.

Belong, of course, being the operative word. They aren’t, and won’t be for a while yet. Unfortunately.