Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics: The “Worst Presidents” Poll

In 1906, Mark Twain wrote, “Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned likes, and statistics.'”

Figures are never more beguiling, I might add, than to a man who has been overindulging in partisan politics. For the mind of such a man is like a drunken sailor on shore leave stumbling past a brothel, with every easy, cheap “figure” in the window suddenly looking like happiness.┬áThis perfect blend of a wobbly argument grasping for support and a tawdry, dishevelled pile of statistics trying to look sexy has provided the anemic lifeblood of global warming “science” (i.e., progressive propaganda) for a generation, for example.

The weakness for treating numbers as ultimate realities is merely modernity’s replacement for the Word of God that men of past eras, with slightly more plausibility, would cite to win a debate or solidify an opinion in their own minds. Modernity is the age of scientific materialism, and thus, just as a chef is likely to understand everything around him in terms of analogs of cooking, so we moderns are forever attempting to reduce the elegant imprecisions of human nature to the empirically verifiable certainties of material science, and then using our mockeries of mathematical precision — “social science,” we call it — to bludgeon our opponents and impress our friends, who are all sure to be equally besotted with the vapors of Statistical Proof.

But once again, as common as this modern temptation may be in general use, it rises to the level of a Dionysian ritual when political factions give themselves over to it.

Case in point: USA Today has published a new opinion poll — Oh joy! Oh bliss! — in which participants answered this question:

Thinking about the United States presidents we have had since World War II: Which one would you consider the worst?

The result, from worst to least worst:

  1. Barack Obama 33%
  2. George W. Bush 28%
  3. Richard Nixon 13%
  4. Jimmy Carter 8%
  5. Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson (tie) 3%
  6. George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford (tie) 2%
  7. Dwight Eisenhower 1%
  8. Harry Truman, John Kennedy 0%

Sadly, but not surprisingly, my old friend Thomas Lifson, the publisher of American Thinker, has leapt at the chance to score partisan points by citing this poll as proof positive that America has turned a corner at last:

No wonder there is such a rush to build that ugly monument to Barack Obama in Chicago: the bloom is already off his rose. I suppose it was inevitable that the tidal wave of media flattery would recede from memory and allow the hollowness of his two terms in office to be perceived by those who don’t think critically about what they see in the media. But now that Trump is demonstrating the bankruptcy of the Obama administration economic and foreign policies with solid results that vividly contrast Obama’s failures, a new poll has identified him as the worst president since World War II.

Not only, then, has Trump rewritten all the books on good government, statesmanship, and chess, but in only eighteen months he has undone the Obama legacy so thoroughly that the average American has seen the light and declared Obama a failed president! This is what human reasoning looks like when it becomes the handmaiden of blind faith — the faith, in this case, being the cult of Donald Trump.

Or we could be semi-rational and actually take thirty seconds — that’s literally how long it took me to make the great discovery I am about to declare — to notice that the above poll results break down like this:

Worst president since WWII was a Republican: 49%
Worst president since WWII was a Democrat: 45%

Shocking news! The judgment of bad presidents breaks down in numbers exactly consistent with typical voting and party registration patterns.

More earthshattering discoveries:

By far the two presidents rated worst just happen to be the last two presidents, one Democrat and one Republican.

The 33% who selected Obama as the worst corresponds roughly with the number of American voters who consistently self-identify, in similarly useful polling, as “conservative” or “very conservative.” In other words, this number represents those Americans who spent the eight years of the Obama presidency decrying his Marxist sympathies, his friendship with communist terrorist Bill Ayers, and his overt attempts to fundamentally transform America along Euro-socialist lines. Far from representing any shift in public opinion, those 33% are the same people who have been calling Obama the worst American president since 2009.

(Not surprisingly, almost the same number, 35%, judge Ronald Reagan the best post-war president in the same poll. The Reagan legacy, in the minds of American conservatives, is more or less the precise negation of the Obama legacy.)

The second-worst president, according to the poll, happens to be the only Republican president younger Democrats would remember, as well as the only one whose policies had immediate and memorable significance in the adult lives of most voters under age fifty.

Equally banal and predictable is the fact that the third and fourth worst presidents on the list are the two major presidents of the 1970s, a time of war and recession formative in the lives of the oversized baby boomer generation. Furthermore, the third-worst president, Nixon, is the only one officially and universally branded “Bad President” in all American history textbooks and in the popular culture.

In short, this poll, if it suggests anything at all, suggests that most people judge presidents more or less the way they judge everything else political: by a combination of tribal loyalty and vague memories of personal feelings.

One more thing is revealed, however, if one turns to the “Best Presidents” list:

  1. Reagan 35%
  2. Clinton 18%
  3. Kennedy 15%
  4. Obama 8%

The mass of Democrats, for all the overt radicalism of their so-called intellectual leadership, still tend to judge and prefer their presidents more on the basis of style than of substance. The sex-addicted smooth talker who seems to have some crossover appeal, or at least some crossover charm, still holds the sentimental place of honor among a large plurality of Democrats. By extension, it is reasonable to suppose that a superficially suave image, rather than his neo-Marxist “transformation” agenda, is what made Barack Obama successful with the broad swath of Democrat voters. And this, in turn, explains the ultimate failure of candidates like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders: The majority of Democrats over, say, age thirty, are not really looking for socialist revolution — at least not by that name — as much as they are looking for a wish-fulfillment fantasy of the slightly naughty but charming boyfriend who truly understands you, feels your pain, and “cares.” (Ick.)

But if you have a cult to justify, then polls such as this one prove one thing and one thing only, namely that Donald Trump has demolished the public reputation of Barack Obama with one wave of his enormous hand.

“Lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

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