Testing Historical References Made By Political Candidates

MikaelianThis is an amazing resource.  It comes from Allen Mikaelian, the former editor of Perspectives on History, who now blogs at Flat Hill.

One can spend a lot of time with his most recent post titled “924 Times Politifact Ruled on a Historical Statement, in One Chart (bonus charts included)”.

Allen explains what he has done:

Politifact is perhaps never better than when it dives deep into a historical statement made by a politician or partisan commentator, cuts through the chaff, gathers expert opinions, and delivers a satisfying final judgement ranging from “True” to “Pants on Fire!” Some might accuse them of dismissing all the nuance and uncertainty of historical knowledge in favor of their clean and clear rating system, but when a politico claims that “The Taliban have been there for …  hundreds of thousands of years” or that the founding fathers were actively involved in cockfighting or that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican (again, and again), nuance isn’t really necessary.

I started collecting Politifact rulings of historical statements not just for the satisfaction of seeing abusers of history called out, but to explore how politicians and their supporters use history. My selection is an unscientific sample of Politifact’s unscientific sample, but exploring these statements through visualizations was highly entertaining and caused a few questions to jump out. Why are the discussions of taxes, budgets, and debt so prone to historic comparison and hyperbole? Why would historical arguments appear so frequently in discussions about education? How many times will Politifact have to refute the claim that the Civil War was “not about slavery?”

A word about the data before we cut to the charts. I selected statements that made direct reference to a historical event or person, that contained a historical comparison (for the first time ever, never in our nation’s history, etc), or for which Politifact consulted history or a historian to help settle the issue. In borderline cases, I asked myself if the statement was one that I felt required a historian to determine veracity. Although I believe that history can bring deeper understanding to any topic, you don’t necessarily need historians or historical research to check a fact like whether the climate has gotten warmer or whether a senator voted yea or nay on a particular bill two years ago. If you want to know why, history can almost always help, but Politifact doesn’t always have ask that question to make a ruling. More on this in the About the Data section below.

Oh, and I categorized these statements according to the point the speaker was trying to make. So if he was using Lincoln to make a point about abortion, I filed it under “family planning.” This will make some statements look oddly placed at first, unless you read the full Politifact ruling (which you can do by clicking on a circle).

Check it out here.  Make sure to read all the way to the bottom to see some of Allen’s tentative conclusions.

This information just might yield a few blog posts here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Stay tuned.