This article examines the concept of authenticity in American politics through its construction and representation in fictional election campaigns in film and television. This article will posit The Candidate (1972), Tanner '88 (1988), Wag the Dog (1997) and The West Wing (1999–2006) as crucial sites of popular cultural critique of this aspect of the electoral process: The Candidate as a damning critique of television's influence, Tanner '88 as a satirical take on campaign films in the Reagan era, Wag the Dog as a savage indictment of spin-doctoring during Clinton's presidency, and The West Wing's attempt to rescue the process through the construction of an “authentic” political candidate. This involves close textual analysis of the four examples identified, examining the contrasting visual styles, strategies and tones. The textual discussions will not take place in isolation, however: this article will chart the simultaneous developments in real-world electoral politics, with particular focus on the influence of the media in the election campaigns contemporaneous with the fictional examples discussed. The article charts a shift in the representation of political authenticity, from a cynical attitude towards its possibility in the 1970s, to an uncomplicated reversion to traditional markers of this elusive concept in the 2000s.
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