One of the more depressing developments during the Post 2016 Election Ethics Train Wreck has been how virtually all of our professions have proven unable to remain objective and trustworthy, instead descending into bias and submitting to peer pressure—exactly the kind of behavior professionals are supposed to have the training and integrity to avoid. Journalists have been the worst in this respect of course, with politicians close behind. However, judges, lawyers, educators, academics, psychiatrists, health officials, performers and, yes, ethicists have also disgraced themselves, among others.
One persistent example of a corrupted profession is historians, and a useful measure of their ethics rot has been Presidential rankings. Here’s one I missed from 2018, when “172 professional historians” were asked to rank the POTUSes from first to last, using a 1-100 scale. A Jimmy Kimmel writer who ran out of current Trump-bashing material circulated this on Twitter, and it is, as they say, “trending.”
It’s easy to tell that the chart is garbage, and that its participants were soaked in all manner of bias, partisanship being a prominent one. The big clues:
- Woodrow Wilson ranked just out of the top ten. The prominent, non-biased American historian I wrote a book with told me that Wilson had to be ranked near or at the bottom, and he was correct.Its not even a tough call, unless you rate good intentions–you know, progressivism—over results.
And since Wilson was a noxious racist, you can’t even grant him the presumption of good intentions.
- Ranking Barack Obama at #8 is ridiculous, and cannot be defended by citing any substantive accomplishments.
Obama’s destructive effect on U.S. race relations alone places him deep in the lower half. Then there’s Syria, Benghazi, using the IRS to sabotage a political opponent, then using the Justice Department and FBI to undermine his successor…yeah, he was terrific.
- Johnson and Kennedy are both egregiously over-rated.
(Are you seeing a theme here?)
Finally, past Presidential ranking surveys observed the practice of not including the current President, since it is unfair (not to mention foolish) to rank any President before his tenure is over. Imagine how Lincoln would have ranked in 1862. Or Nixon in 1970.
Never mind: these historians tossed aside that obvious rule along with any shred of professionalism and integrity, because they just hate this President so much. He’s so, so…unprofessional!
12 thoughts on “From The “Res Ipsa Loquitur” Files: The Presidential Ranking Survey”
It really is better if they leave off Presidents from the previous couple of decades since it can take that long to assess just how successful their Presidencies were.
And Kennedy is always going to be overrated – not because of anything he actually did – because of what his worshippers deem his potential for doing. He is the only President who died before completing at least one full term in office that isn’t in the bottom ten (with the exception of James Garfield who, at #34, would have been in the bottom ten if they hadn’t made sure to reserve a spot for Trump).
The report itself, and not just the rankings chart, is available here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/ps-political-science-and-politics/article/presidential-greatness-in-a-polarized-era-results-from-the-latest-presidential-greatness-survey/169AFBF02BBE5938C2FA78902A1CB77B
From the abstract, you would be led to believe the main point of the survey was to measure the differences in evaluations of presidential greatness by political affiliation. “Can those who study the presidency offer fair judgments regardless of their political affiliation?” Including the last few presidents would be helpful, it that actually was what was being measured.
And, that does seem to be one of the main results of the survey (which will be ignored by those looking only at the fact that Trump is at the bottom). Also from the abstract: “Our results call into question such ratings insofar as they exist absent the political and ideological context of the reviewer.”
From the report itself, however, the main object was the overall rankings: “The primary purpose of the survey was to create a ranking of presidential greatness covering all presidents from George Washington to Donald Trump.” With this goal in mind, it makes no sense, as noted by Jack, to include the last few presidents whose assessment is much less complete than for those from decades and centuries ago.
And it appears that two of the authors of the report were only too happy to use it to slam Trump. An opinion piece By Brandon Rottinghaus and Justin S. Vaughn in the Feb. 19, 2018 issue of the New York Times refers to his “ignominious debut” with a link to an earlier article which describes Trump (at less than a year in office) as a “colossal failure.”
I would also note that the survey itself has some flaws that at least raise a question about its validity. Survey participants were not exactly professional historians as has been reported by some media; the target group was “current and recent members of the Presidents and Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Association”. So, they were people who studied the presidency, but from a different perspective than historians. In addition, the sample size was small, just 170 usable responses from a target group of 300, and while that sample size is adequate for the group studied, it does not have validity beyond that group.
Thanks for that spade work, Johnny.
You’re welcome, Bill. I wanted to see the actual survey instrument, but haven’t found it yet. A few of the first links I found went to Boise State, and there was no luck finding the survey there. I got to Cambridge by Googling the names of the authors of the study.
Academics are usually liberal. Some academics can be trusted to be objective, or at least see both sides of an argument. However, many are just arrogant and self-important hacks, made more so by hearing students give their own words back to them semester after semester in search of the A. Even many of those at least can support what they have to say. However, there is a great potential for laziness and inertia in academia, especially in the later stages of your career when you’ve done your publishing, you are tenured, and you can only be fired for serious cause.
Academics are also notoriously conformist. They follow the herd, until the herd changes. They may not agree with the broader herd outside academia, but they are strict inside. It’s pretty much gospel that Washington, Lincoln, and FDR are the holy trinity of the American presidency. Very few academics will look too closely at FDR’s anti-business policies that might have slowed down recovery or his governing style, which was that of an elected king. Fewer still will point up just how dangerous his attempt to pack the Supreme Court really was. Almost no one calls the “switch in time that saved the nine” what it was – judicial capitulation to executive bullying, or points out that by overstaying two terms, the rest of the country was stuck with FDR’s judicial appointees a lot longer than any other president. Only a few point out that he was naïve in his dealings with Stalin and ended up selling Eastern Europe down the river. Then there’s the matter of running for a fourth four-year term when he knew he wouldn’t make it another year, and his affair with his secretary. Never mind, he fixed the Great Depression that Hoover got us into and won World War II, so that’s all we need to know.
The tide is starting to turn on Woodrow Wilson, as the BLM movement has made it impossible to ignore the fact that he was the biggest racist ever to sit in the White House. It shouldn’t have taken this long, and it shouldn’t just have been about that. At least people should have started asking questions thirty years ago, as Slovakia and the Czech Republic divorced relatively peacefully, Iraq started to really become an international problem, and the glue that held the cobbled-together state of Yugoslavia together started to disintegrate. As I said earlier, the difference between God and Woodrow Wilson was that God didn’t think he was Woodrow Wilson, and Wilson’s attempts to remake the world the way he thought it should be did more harm than good, if they did any good. But, for the longest time all we heard is how he oh-so-reluctantly entered World War One because he had no choice, and then tried to build an unlimited future of peace and prosperity… but those cynical European leaders and those mean Republicans in Congress wouldn’t let him.
LBJ? Oh come now. Oh, I get it, in his case it’s all about the Civil Rights Act, and the blame for Vietnam all falls on that criminal Nixon. JFK was a martyr and apparently the Schlesinger Kool-Aid didn’t pass out of these folk’s systems. However, these scholars obviously didn’t get the memo on that senile homophobe Reagan, the racist rapist Jefferson, or the genocidal slaveowner Jackson. Grant is inching up, so I guess they didn’t get the word that he owned one slave for about a year. I suppose we’re lucky that Obama hasn’t been elevated into the holy trinity, but give it time, eventually he may well displace FDR as #3, since he gave the people of color someone to look up to and proof that they too could reach the highest office in the land. I’d say it’s likely to be at least a generation before anyone is wise enough or brave enough to look at him objectively. For now, though, no one dares, since to do so could bring a mob of angry BLM activists stampeding from the nearest coffeehouses and parental basements onto your doorstep.
Carter above GWB? I guess incompetent inaction with a smile is better than taking bold action that doesn’t all pan out, and let’s not forget the unfair pile-on of GWB after Hurricane Katrina. And why are W.H. Harrison and James Garfield even rated? The first was dead in 30 days and had no time to do much, good or bad, and the second was president for only 6 and 1/2 months, two of which he spent incapacitated from the bullet wound whose mismanaged treatment would kill him.
The most telling factor that makes this chart garbage, though, as you point out, is the deliberate placement of Trump at the absolute bottom with a score of only 12 out of 100. Two men who served less than a year between them and accomplished almost nothing, the man who brought this country to its lowest ebb internationally (Carter), the man who got us deeper into Vietnam when his predecessor was trying to get us out (LBJ), the man who shrugged while the nation fell apart around him (Buchanan), the man who let Teapot Dome happen (Harding), and the man who spent most of the presidency soused (Pierce) all rank above Trump. It’s saying something when it’s better to be drunk, incompetent, or out of it than Trump.
This pretty much mirrors my feelings. I think the thing should make historians wear a bag over their heads. With Garfield, you either leave him off or rank him on what he was likely to be, which is great. The latter makes no sense, but ranking him low because he died is even worse. Diito WH Harrison.
Regarding FDR: he also ordered the internment of the American citizens. He was probably the closest thing we have had to a dictator, all things considered.
However, the left tends to gloss over that unless they are trying to bash the US for its role in WW2.
Absolutely. If his health hadn’t given out, FDR would have run for a fifth and sixth term. He considered himself President for Life. He was a real danger to to the democracy.
He’d have probably gotten it too – unless he failed miserably against Stalin. Cuomo is probably on track to win a fourth term as governor of NY, the only major governor I can think of who isn’t limited to 2 terms. Sharpe James served five terms as mayor of Newark, before he realized the walls were closing in due to some shady doings and chose not to run for a sixth term. Ras Baraka, the current mayor, is halfway through his second term and probably in line to go five or even six (although end of his fourth  is where I get off). Seven is probably the farthest he’ll go, though, since then he’d be 72 years old and presumably ready to retire. No one from the GOP bothers to run in Newark, same as Seattle and Minneapolis, it’s a one-party town and quite often a one-man town. NJ used to get the occasional GOP mayor in the cities (Brett Schundler in Jersey City for a while) but I think that ship sailed a decade ago. I don’t know what’s a greater danger to democracy – de jure one-man rule, or de facto one-party rule. Two candidates from the same party is a choice, but not much of a choice.
And, that is the great distinction of George Washington. After he gave up power (for the third time?), everyone after him, modeled themselves after his two-term limit (even Cleveland); FDR forced the country to put it in writing because he destroyed that trust.
As our illustrious host has oft put it, “When ethics fail, the law steps in”.