The Washington Walrus has finally hit 100 articles! And in the 7 years since its inception (January 2016; okay, we don’t post regularly), a lot has changed in America. So to commemorate this momentous… moment, we thought it’d be fun to try and summarise and maybe evaluate some of the things that have happened since then. How has the character (or “soul”, as Joe Biden would put it) of this nation changed? What distinguishes today from back then… Well, there’s only one place to start.
2016: The Rise Of Donald Trump
In his final Last Week Tonight segment of that year, John Oliver blew up the cursed numbers themselves in a therapeutic gesture of frustration and disappointment with what seemed like a terrible year, marked by numerous high-profile celebrity deaths (David Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, etc) and the election of Donald J. Trump. The latter point marked the most significant shift of this period of time.
While most of us were certain of Hillary Clinton’s victory, in hindsight, the writing was on the wall. Many Americans felt betrayed by the system and disappointed in the not so perceptible “changes” promised by the Obama administration. In truth, Obama had to sweep up the mess of the economic downfall that occurred in 2008 and was largely gridlocked in his domestic agenda, against increasingly combative Republicans. Hillary Clinton, it seemed, was not the answer. Perhaps, no run-of-the-mill Democrat was.
In the 2015-16 Democratic campaign, Bernie Sanders had emerged as an unlikely favourite amongst the youth. An independent with a noble, if not particularly successful track record, he seemed to capture something of the same spirit that led to Trump’s shocking election; a feeling that corruption was ripe is Washington and lobbyists, billionaires, and special interest groups were calling the shots. For quite awhile, he was a great challenge to the Clinton campaign, but ultimately lost. (Many assert that had he succeeded, he might’ve beaten Trump. I’m not exactly convinced he wouldn’t…) This is besides the point however. The point is that a rot had set in and politics would not proceed as usual.
2017-19: “Chaos Is A Ladder”- Littlefinger
Upon releasing her memoir, Becoming, the following year, Michelle Obama wrote that she “stopped smiling” upon listening to Trump’s inaugural address because she simply couldn’t pretend any longer. For those who hoped he would rise above the petty insults and divisive rhetoric of his campaign, it became immediately clear that things were about to get wild. First, there was the ban on people flying in from predominantly Islamic nations. Then, a series of cabinet upheavals. Scandals galore. Then, an insensitive summary of Charlottesville, in which he deemed there were fine people on both sides; both sides being white supremacists and protestors. It was in this moment, Joe Biden apparently decided he should run, in order to “save the soul” of America.
The fact that Trump was so emboldened in his office and able to get away with (seemingly) anything perhaps emboldened the left, in turn. If the battle couldn’t be won in Washington, then perhaps it could be in the culture wars. Indeed, the values of left and right had polarised increasingly throughout the decade with right-wing commentators arguing the left were pushing a politically correct agenda across America, particularly in universities while the left challenged the right’s reticence on civil rights’ issues including gay marriage, trans identification, and more.
The breakthrough of the Harvey Weinstein case in 2017 marked a major cultural shift in the dynamic of women dealing with powerful men. With the colossal expose, a number of issues and transgressions were brought to light, helping to widen the scope of what was and wasn’t acceptable behaviour (or had always been). In the following years, Hollywood would amp up their promotion of diverse works and female-led stories, again sparking the ire of many who felt politics (or liberal politics) had become more important than art and story. At the same time, a parallel was being drawn by critics of the Democratic Party, who felt identity politics and the optics of diversity were becoming ever more prioritised in electoral agendas. This was dismissed by some as generational blindness. “OK boomer” became a de facto response for many.
The battleground for the culture wars had traditionally been fought in news media. By the 2010s though, social media had become the dominant source of information for most. Where misinformation and been brought to light with the 2016 election and the ensuing trials of Facebook, there now also lay the problem of a new level of sensationalism in misleading click bait headlines, yellow journalism, and (often) straight-out lies. Trump’s rise to power was seen as being emblematic of a post-truth world, in which both sides claimed ownership of whatever the “truth” was. Annoying celebrities started confessing their stories as “speaking [their] truths”. There was much cringe-worthiness to be found. Most crucially, it seemed beyond political differences, the left and right had come to hate each other outright.
Let’s not forget the dual disappointments of Game of Thrones season 8 and The Rise of Skywalker (both 2019) either. I’ve nothing to say about them. Just don’t forget.
2020: The Boiling Point
The fact that this year started with an impeachment barely anyone remembers shows how crazy the Trump years had gotten by this point. Somehow, 2020 would become the year all hell broke loose for a couple of reasons. First, the beginning of lockdowns in response to the emergence of Covid-19. Second, the protests and unrest that resulted from the murder of George Floyd in the summer. Both of these factors influenced the culture and politics of the US enormously this year, with the mania perhaps lending some desire for normalcy, found in the wrinkled hands of old Sleepy Joe.
How Covid became a political issue may be question for future historians but by 2020, when everything else had, there was no reason this shouldn’t have been. Indeed, Trump mocked Biden in the debates for “wearing the biggest mask” before getting Covid himself. Beyond his pantomime, it was drawn as a debate on the nature of civil liberties for many; with some arguing against big government limiting their freedom through mandated governmental worker vaccines and lockdowns. Others felt that these opponents were questioning science itself in the name of partisanship or wilful ignorance.
As regards the second factor, the Black Lives Matter movement had become increasingly visible throughout the 2010s since social media allowed for the sharing and exposure of police brutality. With the shocking violence and boiling point of George Floyd’s death, the truth was driven home once again that black lives were treated as second class in America. Critical Race Theory became more prominent in the years that followed, with a wider net cast for those learning of the systemic oppression caused by economic and power models in US history. And while some progress had been made since the 1992 riots, Americans were reminded of the lived realities of many Black Americans. Unfortunately, this lesson has needed repeating throughout history.
2021-Present: Conflict At Home & Abroad
2021 started off with a little hiccup at the Capitol. A misunderstanding or something. Then a new leader was sworn in. So… Joe Biden’s presidency has and hasn’t marked a return to normalcy. I, for one, no longer feel the need to google the president’s name every day to see what wackiness he’s gotten up to. On the other hand, America remains deeply divided and though Trump is presently indicted, I don’t think his loss in 2024 is guaranteed. The same seeds of discontent fester and not even under the surface. To many, these legal proceedings are a “witch hunt”. Increasingly the idea of a “national divorce” seems pushed to the forefront, even if in political jest.
The Biden presidency (post Covid), outside this sphere, has chiefly been defined by the Ukraine-Russia war and inflation. The expansion of NATO and America’s involvement in this conflict may define the coming years, if no resolution materialises soon. As Trump had been (shall we say) cozy with Putin, things would likely change should he succeed in getting a second term. For most Americans however, economic burdens will distinguish this decade (even more so) than the last. To go back to where we began, it seems Bernie Sander’s concerns have only become more pertinent and fully understood with the passing years. As billionaires control social media and politicians fail to close the left-right divide, the country lies in a precarious position.
The Washington Walrus Thanks You…
Thanks to all for reading this or any of the articles we’ve put out in the last 7 years. It’s been an interesting blog to attend to, even if not attended to regularly. While it started out as an exercise in writing about current politics and American history, it transformed to something that could address all sorts of cultural, social, and even entertainment-based issues. No subject’s too light or heavy to cover, so long as something lies beneath the surface (e.g. Rotten Tomatoes’ scoring not accurately reflecting viewers’ interests and appreciation of art).
The nature of the vice presidency is typically one of brief significance, ridicule, and vague adaptability. They’re briefly significant in the election cycle because they can be used to give some momentum to a candidate’s campaign, as the final months close in. They’re ridiculed because, while seemingly senior in management, they’re often sidelined next to other key positions such as Chief of Staff or Secretary of State. And then their actual role remains vague, depending on the administration, and adaptable, because their responsibilities may change depending on the issues at hand, their credibility, or image.
All of these things are as true for any VP as they’ve been for the current incumbent, Kamala Harris. And yet, with an approval rating hovering in the 30s (a few points below Joe Biden’s), she seems to be suffering the brunt more unjustly. To the left, this is because she is a woman and mixed race. To the right (and many others aside), this is kind of for the same reasons, if with a twist. They see Kamala Harris’ very appointment in terms of affirmative action; a choice made solely to appeal on the grounds of identity politics. To reel in those wide-eyed liberals.
This is a tough ordeal for Harris because she can’t exactly deny such criticisms. Indeed, it was always Biden’s plan to choose a woman as his running mate but given she’d been relatively tough on him in the debates, she also might’ve drawn some early intrigue for her strength in challenging a potential “yes man” agenda. This might’ve mattered to some. To most, it probably didn’t.
But say, Harris was just what many expected; a choice to appease Democratic voters. This is hardly different (beyond the issues of gender and race) in making such a decision. Kennedy picked Johnson (despite disliking him) to win the South. Roosevelt was forced to go with Truman for his fourth round, to appease his party. Mike Pence was hardly a regular at Trump’s various resorts but yielded an opportunity to appeal to more traditional, evangelical Republicans. This kind of appointment is nothing new. And yet…
Well, things have changed a bit. The cultural and political wars of today are more toxic than ever. There is increasing skepticism and frustration with the Democratic Party and liberals today (from within and outside the party) on how important identity politics has become in electing and appointing important positions. Credibility is at play on the level of perception and media coverage. Plus, more tangibly, there’s the matter of Sleepy Joe’s age. He’s 80. And while relatively fit for the job, one can’t help but hover over the matter of mortality. Indeed, the question of whether he’ll run again in 2024 has been springing up at every occasion (he plans to, by the way). This is awkward for Harris because (already labelled an affirmative action pick), she’s been perceived as a forced successor; a more likely leader than most VPs have been before her. The optics are concerning.
The gullible (or innocent) response to this quagmire would be to posit that Harris need only prove herself in the role she has to attain credibility. If you regard most the criticisms of Harris however, they’ve been mostly vague: weak on immigration (not exactly a simple issue to tackle); not doing enough to support Biden and conversely, out there too much or hidden in the background; and “dysfunctions” in her office (as if Trump’s cabinet didn’t changed a thousand times in his first year). Again, this role is largely symbolic and without definition. Harris’ main prerogative seems to be addressing immigration, voting reform, and other issues (e.g. the destruction of Roe v. Wade) with an ambassadorial-type approach, which granted hasn’t yielded any phenomenal results. But the same people who’d argue how disastrous she’s been would likely be hard-pressed to define the legacy of past VPs such as Pence or Biden, himself. The point is that most people simply don’t care about the actual job, whatever they think it may be.
To return to the matter of image then, Harris faces a challenge there may be no solution to. It seems to me that she’s been given a raw deal on one hand but on the other, having watched her give several interviews, I’m not exactly impressed by her traditionally political, say-a-bunch-without-saying-anything approach either (see her on Colbert recently; cringe). The 2024 election is looming and where the question of Biden’s age lingers, so too does a tangent on Harris’ continued suitability. At the end of the day, is she worth the hassle? Would offing her prove cowardly or tactically smart? If Biden’s credibility is at stake, I think he’d be better off sticking with her; the image of loyalty supersedes political meanderings. They may be no Obama-Biden, but they can at least stick it out and maybe one day, Harris’ legacy will be revised to reflect her support of this administration rather than her attributes as a candidate.
President Joe Biden has issued some major economic sanctions against Russia in the midst of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. These measures have largely been supported by the public, both in America and across the world, as strong displays of condemnation, without taking the next dire step. The question arises everyday then: will such a step be taken? If we consider the trajectory of America’s recent interventionist past, I would say it’s unlikely. (Of course, such postulation may be emboldening Putin so there’s a caveat to consider there.)
Anyways, to take the first view, let’s look back at Syria in 2013. Obama was concerned that if the US didn’t intervene, it would undercut the severity of chemical weapons’ usage there. Rather than go in all-guns blazing like his predecessor had with Iraq though, he instead went to the Capitol to seek approval. It was determined America wouldn’t intervene. Years later, a divide remains over whether they should have with a Guardian piece in 2018 entitled “The Epic Failure Of Our Age: How The West Let Down Syria”. I mention this, not to weigh in on any specific view, but to show that it’s not always clear-cut when, where, and why America should intervene.
Had Syria’s crisis come ten or twenty years before, America may very well have sought a different approach. As it happened, George W. Bush had led the nation into two costly wars in 2002-3 with Afghanistan and Iraq. We know all about how those went but it’s interesting to consider that at the beginning, support for the Afghanistan War was close to unanimous (90% according to Gallup). Iraq wasn’t ever quite as popular but it got a whole lot less so in the following years. But what if it hadn’t gone so wrong? Yes, I understand and completely agree that the invasion of Iraq was wrong from the get-go but in the eyes of the American public, what if there had been less casualties and more success associated with it? Like with the Gulf War a decade before?
George H.W. Bush sent the military in to liberate Kuwait from an Iraqi invasion. It was a quick, bold, and decisive victory that skyrocketed his approval ratings to 90%. The mission was complete but a lot of his supporters felt he should have gone further (into Iraq) and removed the problem of Saddam Hussein there and then. He declined, though years later (under the auspices of the War on Terror), his son determined America could not hold its head high while Saddam continued to violate international laws (and maybe have nuclear weapons???) Perhaps, an invasion in the early 90s would have gone just as poorly, even with the senior Bush proving a formidable foreign policy strategist. Indeed, his interventions in Panama and Somalia (while contested and dubious to many) were well planned out and successful. Well…
With regards Somalia (which began just after Bush had lost election), the people were initially thankful for his swift intervention. His record would then turn out positively when Bill Clinton took over and Somalia descended into chaos (with Black Hawk Down and more). Bush didn’t have to deal with the eventualities such interventions can bring, where Clinton was faced with an uphill battle he hadn’t even sought. The rest of his presidency would be tested on the question of when American intervention should and shouldn’t occur with critics (and himself, later on) citing a late entry to Rwanda and Bosnia as unfortunate, if not shameful, chapters in history.
In 1996, Eric Carson wrote a piece for the Rand Organisation entitled “Public Support For US Military Operations” exploring the factors that restrained presidents, in this sphere. Having come out of the Cold War just a few years ago, America had entered a “more confusing world” where the objective wasn’t always clear as had been with something like World War 2 (where people acknowledged the gravity of the situation). Further to that, political divisions or disagreements were having a knock-on effect on public perception. To bring this back to the present, we can see the potential of this political divide crinkling American support for a “next step” as many Republicans weren’t long ago flaunting a “rather be Russian than Democrat” motto.
Public support is essential when a president has a paper-thin political majority or faces contentions. This is another reason why I feel a strong intervention from the US is less likely today than it was years ago. After 9/11, George W. Bush had the nation’s support, even if he would quickly squander it. Back in World War 2, Franklin D. Roosevelt was a president in his third term. Even though Truman’s reputation would for years be bashed by the Korean War, there was still general support for a policy of Communist Containment.
Vietnam, the follow-up to Korea, truly took on its perception as an abject failure when the public started seeing what was going on through the medium of television. With public marches and demonstrations, bolstered by the counter-cultural movement, a new picture of American interventionism and soldiers themselves (quite harshly) was ingrained in the public’s psyche. What if Vietnam had happened ten years before, however? Well, as already mentioned, Korea was a contentious affair, though the South remained free of Russian influence but it is reasonable to assert it wouldn’t have been as unpopular or ended in quite the fashion it had, heavily influencing an election cycle.
Is it bleak to conclude that Americans will support American intervention then only if success is assured? It seems to be the case though such luxuries are never realistically afforded them. Popular support, as a result of today’s media, rancour in politics, and recent dubious interventions, has become nigh-on impossible. The best a president can do, in this age, is justify the chances of success should an intervention occur, answer how the nation is a threat to US interest, exert all means of diplomacy, and run the usual course of air strikes. Though as much as history has taught us how any conflict resolves in the public’s imagination, it is also worth remembering how easily people forget history. In a 2019, YouGov poll, the people were vary much split on whether the Gulf War was justified, for example. So as an addendum, one must note that we can’t even assume a clear or factual basis for public perception when such crises arise.
There’s no easy way to do this. Each US President existed in a different context of the young nation’s history and had unique challenges to face; be it economical (with the Panic of 1837 or The Great Depression after 1929), wartime (World War 2), or domestic (slavery). Each had external factors preying on their ability to do the job; from congressional layout to crises (e.g. 9/11) and world-changing dynamics (inflation in the ’70s). Each had different cabinets of support and varying levels of opposition (publicly, politically, and commercially). Really, one could argue it’s not even fair to judge the likes of Washington (from a simpler but creative period for government) against say, Bill Clinton, operating under a much more complex system. However… we’re going to anyways.
How exactly? Well, by accounting for their successes in foreign policy, economics, domestic policy, agenda set, public persuasion, and so on and so forth… Yes, all that, but mainly by addressing the central question: did they live up to the challenges of their time? And don’t worry, we’ll provide justification for these rankings- some may shock you given past rankings on other sites (sorry Andrew Jackson fans) but know this- plenty of thought has been given for each choice- this wasn’t some mere cut and paste job with a few throw-arounds for controversy.
Also, we will be excluding two presidents from this list: Joe Biden and William Henry Harrison. Joe; because, well, he’s not completed a year yet- although if push came to shove, I’d rank him around 15 for a strong response to Covid 19, with partial responsibility for the disastrous end to the Afghanistan war. And William H. Harrison? He served only 30 days in office, dying from pneumonia which he likely contracted after giving a tediously long inauguration speech in the cold. A lot of lists place him around 40, which I consider harsh. So let’s do the honourable thing and just bash his grandson who later became president.
Anyways, without further ado:
43. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
One of three impeached presidents, Andrew Johnson assumed the job in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination and made a perpetual fool of himself by attempting to go back on much of what just been achieved in the Civil War. He opposed the 14th Amendment which granted citizenship to former slaves and acted in a cantankerous manner, causing great friction with Congress, who passed the Tenure of Office Act (restricting Johnson’s ability to fire Cabinet officials). He was only acquitted because no one saw any chance of his re-election (which they were right about).
42. Donald J. Trump (2017-2021)
The former Apprentice host sowed a great deal of division in the country, inspiring renewed racist fervour and idiocy amongst his cohorts and followers. His outlandish statements aside, he will be remembered for making the pandemic far more devastating than it needed to be by spreading misinformation; corruption and nepotism; and refusing to take election results seriously, leading to a national insurrection on the Capitol building in January of this year.
41. James Buchanan (1857-1861)
At a time when decisive leadership was needed, James Buchanan essentially sat out the slavery issue, setting the stage for the secession of the southern states upon Lincoln’s election.
40. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
Theodore Roosevelt wrote of him as a “servile tool of men worse than himself… ever ready to do any work the slavery leaders set him”. Pierce is best remembered for failing to secure sectional conciliation, supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and aiding the downfall of the Democratic Party for decades to come.
39. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
Named after something that literally sucks, Herbert Hoover failed to address one of the great calamities of the 20th Century: The Great Depression. His perceived lack of concern resulted in shanty towns being called “Hoovervilles” while his tariff act (fuelling an international trade war) only served to make things worse.
38. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
There was a time when this (literal) mad-man was once considered a top 15. In recent years, historians have re-addressed his legacy as that of an American Caesar whose Native Removal policy stands as one of the most heinous of policies ever committed to American soil. Sure, he was the father of the Democratic Party but that doesn’t acquit him of these horrendous charges. Sure, he was a “man of the people” and not one of the elites but his assault on the banks contributed to the Panic of 1837. So beyond these basic labels, why is he held to such lofty heights? (Also, Trump admired him.)
37. John Tyler (1841-1845)
John Tyler succeeded the month-long presidency of William H. Harrison, seeking to establish the legitimacy of his leadership. He even believed the President should set policy rather than Congress. To this end, he was referred to as “His Accidency” by the Whigs. Sick burn.
36. George W. Bush (2001-2009)
Iraq. The economic crash. Besides that, seems an affable enough fellow.
35. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
Harding is usually ranked in the bottom three but beyond his innate incompetence (which he at least admitted to), I don’t consider his (albeit corrupt) administration to be particularly damaging to the US. (He, at least, acknowledged that democracy was a “lie” without political equality for black citizens. He didn’t do anything about it but he acknowledged it.)
34. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)
Another spineless leader in the vein of Buchanan, Fillmore’s support of the 1850 compromise opened up the territories of the Mexican Cession to slavery and allowed for the return of escaped slaves to those who claimed ownership. Harry Truman called him a “weak, trivial thumb-twaddler who would do nothing to offend anyone”.
33. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
More like Van Burden, am I right? Van Buren continued Andrew Jackson’s policy of Native Removal and denied the application of Texas to the Union. His presidency was also mired by the Panic of 1837. (Interesting bit of trivia for you: Van Buren was a member of the Old Kindergarten Club for which to gain access you had to say “okay”, thus originating the term.)
32. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)
Hayes’ era essentially marked an end to Reconstruction and inconsistent civil service reform. He also championed the Gold Standard and broke the Great Strike of 1877. Nothing particularly striking or memorable or interesting here.
31. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
A mess of contradictions: owned slaves but wanted to ban the expansion of slavery into western territories conquered from Mexico; a military triumph in that war who wasn’t particularly keen on Manifest Destiny (expanding US borders); a decisive commander in battle who avoided tough decisions as President. Given his strong commitment to the union, historians wonder (had he lived) whether the Compromise of 1850 or the Civil War would have occurred.
30. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
The grandson of former President William H., he was committed to voting rights for African Americans but economically uncertain of how to handle the nation’s affairs, resulting in the 1893 crash.
29. William Howard Taft (1909-1913)
Once the promising successor to Teddy Roosevelt, committed to 80 antitrust suits against large industries, he disappointed his predecessor by reneging and falling into place among the more conservative members of the Republican Party. This led to old Teddy mounting a race against him in 1912 under the “Bull-Moose” party. Both would lose, leading to the Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s rise.
28. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897)
Two non-consecutive terms? Oh, you better believe it happened! If people expected Cleveland to have improved in his off-years, they were sorely disappointed though when he was dealt the hand of the 1893 crash which he failed to deal with adequately. This resulted in Democrats losing support everywhere but the Deep South.
27. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)
Harding’s successor has attained some historical reassessment on the part of classic Republicans who admired his small-government and laissez-faire economic approach. He helped restore the reputation of the White House following the corruption scandals of Harding’s cohorts but largely detached himself from the job; infamously sleeping during the day and avoiding mingling with guests. Upon his death, Dorothy Parker remarked “how can they tell?’
26. Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885)
Given some of his past associations in business dealings, people expected him to be more corrupt than he was. He fought the spoils patronage system he’d supported in New York and advocated tariff relief for businesses and tackled civil service reform. It doesn’t say much though when your reputation, at best, surmounts to: “well, I guess he wasn’t that bad”.
25. James Garfield (1881)
He only served a few months but contemporaries were impressed by his handling of Roscoe Conkling; a New York senator trying to push his agenda and men in high positions. Historians call him a “what if?”
24. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
Ford’s rise to power was particularly incidental, taking over for Spiro Agnew as VP before taking over the main post when Nixon resigned. A generally decent and uncontroversial politician, Ford, unfortunately wasn’t a great communicator, even if his pardon of Nixon was intended to help move a damaged nation on.
23. Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
Besides that whole Watergate thing, Nixon wasn’t a terrible president. Strategically minded, he approached the Cold War in a more pragmatic way than his predecessors or successors ever did, resulting in the first SALT treaty and the opening of relations with China. He even tried his hand at a health care plan and established the Environmental Protection Agency.
22. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
The son of John Adams served as Secretary of State and a senator before becoming president and as a representative after. It’s fair to say he’s best remembered for his later achievements there, focusing on the anti slavery movement. As the nation’s leader, he was generally considered to be too uncompromising to achieve much in an increasingly political age.
21. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
Alas. My favourite president in essence and character but unfortunately not one with the most impressive record, even though he was the only post WW2 leader to not launch a missile. A true Washington “outsider”, Carter’s reign was beset by out-of-control issues like inflation and (more in control issues like) poor congressional relations. In my opinion, he was ahead of his time but legacies rest on effective, perceptible changes and not just rhetoric.
20. John Adams (1797-1801)
Being one of the OGs is a surefire way to knock yourself up the list but Adams paled in comparison to Washington and Jefferson, signing the controversial Alien and Seditions Act which included powers to deport foreigners and make it harder for new immigrants to vote; strange cause for a newly built nation but then it’s hard to find a footing in those early days. He gets marks for not expanding the naval war with France into a greater conflict, however.
19. James Polk (1845-1849)
A lot of land acquisition went on during Polk’s term; Oregon, California, and New Mexico, notably. He also settled the Texas border dispute, established the federal depository system, and lowered tariff rates. Simply put, one of the most accomplished presidents there ever was. Critics charge however that his underestimation of the Mexican War’s effects paved the way for sectional conflict and the troubles that ensued over the next decade.
18. James Madison (1809-1817)
The war of 1812 was seen as unnecessary by some and as something of a 2nd war of independence to others. The new nation, either way, cemented its foundations in this test.
17. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
Reagan’s often ranked in the top ten and I can see why… kind of. A great communicator, Reagan brought hope to a nation deflated by inflation, Vietnam, Watergate, and perceived ineffective leadership. He amped the Cold War back up in its last days, oversaw a more prosperous era (while setting the stage with his trickle-down economics for a latter recession) and delivered some great jokes. Let’s face it though; he stumbled when it came to talking specifics, didn’t handle the AIDS epidemic well, and of course, that whole Iran-Contra thing. Sorry Reagan fans. If it’s any consolation, I still like him! What a character.
16. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)
Grant’s administration was wrought by scandals involving bribes and a whiskey ring, tarnishing his image for years to come (even though he didn’t personally benefit from the crimes). If we look beyond that, he was actually a pretty effective president who worked to stabilise the post-war national economy, support reconstruction, and crush the KKK.
15. William McKinley (1897-1901)
McKinley’s presidency marked the emergence of an imperial era for the US as he declared war with Spain over Cuban independence. He was also the first president to actively engage the media by holding press conferences and he went on national tours to speak with voters. A new day had come.
14. James Monroe (1817-1825)
Monroe helped further the nationalistic cause by reaching out to all parts of the then smaller US, separating their course and interests from Europe’s with the Monroe Doctrine. Florida was also acquired during his tenure.
13. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)
Despite being one of America’s most well educated leaders, Wilson held regressive viewpoints for race relations (even for his time). He’s ranked lowly in that regard but otherwise highly for guiding America through World War One and establishing the League of Nations, as well as banking reform, supporting labour and collective bargaining, and more.
12. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
I give some props for rhetoric and inspiring people but when it comes to actual legislative achievement, there’s not much to be said for JFK. And while, yes, he resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis with dramatic flair, he played a major role in starting it. And he set the stage for Vietnam. A great deal of his mythos has been born out of his untimely assassination. Again though, that inspiring stuff does count for something and let’s face it- it’s endured.
11. George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)
The senior Bush’s reputation has improved in recent years, probably as a result of people’s nostalgic yearning for a conservative who could be flexible. His 1990 tax hike might have irked his supporters after the reticence of his “no new taxes” election pledge but it was the right and responsible thing to do. Plus, on the world stage, he was very well respected for his even tempered, strategic diplomacy- too humble for most when the Berlin Wall fell and too cautious for others who wanted the Gulf War victory to lead onto further gains in Iraq (we later learned how that would work out). A very underrated president, in my opinion; he simply couldn’t sell himself well enough.
10. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
Clinton’s impeachment was largely based on petty partisan squabbles so I’m not factoring that in as much as others would like. On the whole, he did the job successfully, steering the economy to a surplus for the first time since Truman’s years. While he was initially slow on Bosnia and Rwanda, he later found his footing on the international stage, earning support from the likes of Mandela and helping to establish NATO.
9. Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)
Vietnam escalated to disastrous levels under LBJ so why is he at number 9? Well, under the auspices of Communist Containment, one could argue he was merely maintaining a longstanding foreign policy of the US but really, it’s because his domestic agenda was so progressive and realised. Only a year after pushing the Civil Rights Bill, he got the Voting Rights Act passed. Then, a flurry of the most impressive legislation committed by a liberal president, including Medicare. He was an intimidating, foul-mouthed beast of a man but he knew how to play the political game better than almost any other US president.
8. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
One of the OGs, Jefferson promoted a western expansionist policy with the Louisiana Purchase, effectively doubling the nation’s grounds. He also put an end to the long-standing problem of Tripoli pirates from North Africa, who were disrupting American trade in the Mediterranean. His passing of the Embargo Act of 1807, which suspended all trade with Europe, unfortunately wrecked the US economy and paved the way for the War of 1812 with Britain.
7. Barack Obama (2009-2017)
While many supporters were frustrated with the gridlock of congressional relations in Obama’s years and the supposed let-down in the wake of his meteoric rise, there’s no denying the achievement that was the Affordable Care Act. Not perfect, sure, but something that had eluded America’s leaders for decades. Besides that, Obama helped restore America’s image abroad and took some tough but much needed measures to restore the US economy after the 2008 crash.
6. Harry Truman (1945-1953)
Truman was never given an easy hand to play. He had been virtually kept in the dark by FDR while VP, not even knowing about the development of the Atomic Bomb. To drop that in August of 1945 was perhaps one of the gravest decisions a US President ever had to make. Shortly thereafter, he had to take quick measures to ensure the containment of communism where he could, mostly with success, though a period of uncertainty loomed at the end of his tenure with the Korean War. Initially not popular upon leaving office, his reputation was restored by the time of Vietnam due to the accountability with which he had held himself- a sign upon his office reading “the buck stops here”.
5. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
A military hero who ended the Korean War. A republican who continued the legacies of the New Deal and Fair Deal. Apatriot who opposed communism but would not give the red scare-mongering likes of Joseph McCarthy any time of his day. Yes, Ike was a popular leader who came as a natural choice for many in the post-war era. Perhaps his previous lack of political ambitions paved the way for him being the kind of president who could rule with sense, partisanship aside.
4. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
We’re into the major leagues now. Roosevelt ushered in the Square Deal which aimed to conserve natural resources, control corporations, and protect consumers. And… he was a Republican. Yes,, of the old sort- the kind that believed in containing big government and capitalism where it got dangerous. While something of a bloodthirsty scoundrel, apparently always itching for a fight and building up the US navy, he also brokered the end of the Russo-Japanese War (earning him the Nobel Peace Prize).
3. George Washington (1789-1797)
The first president is often ranked number one or two. While I admire his dedication to the job and setting the tone for the office by stepping down after two terms (where many wanted to make him essentially a king), it must be said that he operated in a time of widespread support and creativity for the new nation. He didn’t have the binds facing other presidents. Still, can’t really fault him on much.
2. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
Elected a record-breaking four times (dying early into his fourth term), FDR brought America through both the Great Depression and World War 2. His legacy is closely tied to the New Deal agenda, which set the course for liberal economic ambitions since, if never fully realised. Plus, he was also inspiring- helping to raise morale with his fireside chats and proclamations such as “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”. Upon his death, the people weren’t quite sure how another leader could occupy such a space.
1. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
No president has ever faced a test quite like the Civil War. Upon election, several southern states seceded resulting in America’s darkest hour. Lincoln was responsible not only for winning this war and reuniting the broken nation but for passing the 13th Amendment which abolished the original sin of America’s foundation: slavery. This would mark the great turning point in the nation’s history. Managing such a hefty task required a man of great intellect and greater moral fibre.
With just over a week to go until the official start of a new administration, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on the accomplishments of the incumbent, as we fondly did for Barrack Obama four years ago. Now, Donald J. Trump hasn’t exactly been everyone’s cup of tea for various reason including political bribery, racism, sexism, and an innate ineptness but in the tradition of a dignified transition, it’s only fair that we give him his dues.
Of course, upon completion of the above paragraph, we immediately remembered just how terrible a president and person this man was (and still is). So in the more appropriate spirit of actually qualifying the times we live in, we thought we’d instead list the ten worst things he’s done or affected in his tenure. There’s a lot so apologies if we missed out on anything. And while these are indeed numbered, we’re not necessarily ranking them.
1. The Muslim Ban
Trump ordered a ban on flights from seven Islamic majority nations straight away upon taking office. Having touted on the campaign trail that the Obama administration hadn’t called out “radical Islam” for what it was, he wanted to make an impression quickly on this issue. He faced backlash for this decision but handled it in good grace, firing the Attorney General Sally Yates, when she refused to uphold it on some vague, liberal human rights’ basis.
2. Withdrawal From The Paris Climate Agreement
Nobody was exactly surprised when this came to pass in June 2017 but it is worth reminding ourselves that Climate Change is still very much the most serious threat our species face. So, this wasn’t a step in the right direction.
3. Law & Order Rhetoric
Trump was endorsed by the KKK in 2016. This was something he really should have disassociated himself from but instead following Charlottesville in 2017, he remarked that there were “very fine people” on both sides. This ultimately made Joe Biden run for president, which thankfully worked out.
Trump’s rhetoric has, without a doubt, seriously enflamed the racial divide in America. Following the George Floyd protests of last year, he perhaps could have taken a stand and tried to heal a broken nation, as leaders should do. Instead, he resolved to run for re-election on a law and order basis, firmly signalling where he stood on civil rights.
4. Separation Of Migrant Children From Parents
Trump’s Great Wall agenda never took off in the way he promised, despite this being the centrepiece of his campaign in 2016. Nevertheless, keeping with his “no BS” image, he still managed to preside over the shameful separation of children from their parents at the border. The image of cages and lives permanently affected by the deluded sense of paranoia associated with immigration will remain intangible with his legacy.
5. Russia/Ukraine & General Undermining of Democracy
Although the Mueller Report didn’t result in the firework display we all hoped it would, it still proved what we knew all along; that there was a connection between the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election. Whether he was personally aware of it or not, Trump made every effort to contain this story, belittling the dignity of the investigative process at every step, even going so far as to fire the FBI director, James Comey.
Seeking to consolidate his preposterous image, he went too far in 2019, by trying to get Ukraine in on a deal to dig up dirt on Biden. Anyways, upon that leaking, the Democrats (who took power of the House in 2018) finally had the concrete case they needed to pursue impeachment. It may not have removed Trump from office but it gave him the black mark previously only posted on two other presidents’ folders.
6. Nepotism & Other Terrible Hires
Has an administration ever had so much turnover? From Sean Spicer to Anthony Scaramucci, nobody was able to keep their job in this White House. Even Steve Bannon, one of the “brilliant” architects of his 2016 campaign was cast aside. Trump has put the blame on their own individual incompetences and loyalty but really the common denominator is the boss who appointed them.
These people were also dumped for running afoul the special counsels, that are Trump’s family members (particularly Ivanka and Jared Kushner). One of the most obvious signs your democracy’s in the toilet is when your president starts appointing family members to privileged positions.
7. The Longest Shutdown
Upon retaking the House in the midterm elections, one of the first things in order was for the Democrats and the Trump Administration to agree on a budget. What resulted was a prolonged he-said, she-said situation with both sides refusing to budge, a slurry of Trump tweets, and the longest shutdown in US history, affecting pay checks for many from December 2018 trough January 2019. Again, in light of Trump’s need to appear mighty and triumphant, others had to suffer.
8. Appointments To The Supreme Court
Trump had the privilege of appointing three separate judges to the Supreme Court and on an ironic basis too. The first was Neil Gorsuch, who came about because the Republicans felt it was unfair for Obama to appoint a new judge in an election year. The third was Amy Coney Barrett, who was quickly shoehorned in a few weeks out from election.
The second was Brett Kavanaugh, who was trialled over accusations of sexual misconduct by Christine Blasey Ford in 2018. After a (frankly) crazy testimony in which he defended himself, he was sworn in, but with no end to ridicule over his temperament. Trump’s picks have come under fire for just how extremely right-wing they are and although he will leave office, the impact of his decisions on the Supreme Court will unfortunately reside for decades to come.
9. Handling of Corona
Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama recognised the potential threat of a pandemic in their time. Obama had the framework in place to deal with one should it occur. It’s a good thing Trump kept it in place, right?
Perhaps the worst thing Trump has done in mishandling the Coronavirus is in making the restrictions a matter of political allegiance. His followers don’t wear masks and they congregate in large crowds. The other side do the opposite because they don’t respect freedom or something to that stupid effect.
In case that’s not enough to disqualify him as a medical expert however, let’s remember that he withdrew the US from the World Health Organisation, advised people to drink bleach, and got the virus, himself.
10. Inciting A Riot
It should be clear by now that Trump really isn’t all that keen on law and order but if it isn’t, just last week he decided to go out with a flare, by suggesting his minions march on the Capitol. In what amounted to the most bizarre, atrocious, and frightening moment in his presidency, the historic building and symbol of democracy in America was basically besieged, resulting in the death of four people.
Since then, he’s finally been suspended from social media, members of his cabinet have resigned, and Nancy Pelosi has called for Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment or in lieu, a second impeachment. With so little time left, I suspect neither will happen but I’d be happy to be proven wrong.
It was pretty clear upon taking office that Trump would become the worst US president of all time. We have qualms with others but never has a president been so inept on so many levels, with so much disdain for democracy. These have been just a few selections of his worst moments and tendencies however. Feel free to comment your own, as weprovide a few more dishonourable additions:
Time has a way of changing how we see things. With an ever speculative media and lowering of the bar in our general cultural zeitgeist, it’s only natural that our hearts soften and we yearn for an escape to the past, blissfully ignorant of the fires once ignited in us. We see things differently because we forget, we forgive, we re-evaluate, and re-prioritise our claims to what holds important today. In a broad sense, this has helped out former President George W. Bush a great deal.
Once the ire of liberals and humanitarians around the world, George W. Bush has managed to shift his appeal and image to that of a happy-go-lucky, maybe he wasn’t-so-bad-after-all kooky figure. Perhaps one of the most controversial US leaders of all time has somehow become the least controversial of the former living occupants of the Oval Office.
That might sound a little extreme but when you consider the current climate of divisiveness in the US, it makes sense. Obama and soon Trump represent polar opposites and are each pinatas for the other side due to their current relevance (and in Obama’s case, race). Bill Clinton… well, we wrote a piece on him earlier this year delving into his legacy but to surmise briefly- Epstein, Clinton Global Initiative, Hillary, women, etc. And then there’s Jimmy Carter. While he’s my favourite president, he’s few others’ and has remained a punching bag for “ineptitude” in conservatives and some liberals’ minds since he left office (unfairly I might add).
The Likability Factor
George, like his father, has mostly stayed out of the limelight since leaving office and for this reason, doesn’t grate people as much. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder, etc.) When he does appear in public, it’s usually for a non-partisan cause like supporting veterans or promoting humanitarian relief. When interviewed, he will explain and reassert his opinion that what he did in Iraq was important but he also seems content that “history will judge” his efforts. In other words, he’ll defend himself without becoming too defensive, like Bill Clinton has. Plus, he’s able to joke about himself (“most people didn’t think I could read, let alone write a book”) and has shown he’s not as partisan as once believed, becoming friends (or at least friendly) with Bill and Michelle Obama. Plus, he’s taken up painting which seems a bit quirky for someone like him.
So, in that sense, he’s re-established his likability factor which was probably his strongest asset against the rather dry Al Gore in 2000. This successful rehabilitation rendered a 61% approval rating in a CNN poll in 2018, compared to 33% upon leaving office. And he’s even been able to appear on Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen. I can only imagine Trump being invited to some wretched right-wing podcast in the coming years.
Likability is just one thing, however. Have his actual acts as commander-in-chief been vindicated? The answer is basically no, although the emphasis has shifted away from what was important in the 2000s. Where the war on terror once occupied the headspace of many Americans there is now a miasma of issues relating to what side you are on. While partisanship has developed bitterly over the last three decades, it’s so much more intrinsic to the nature of politics than even then. Basically, concerns for warfare abroad have been replaced with grisly notions of civil war at home.
That doesn’t mean Iraq is forgiven. In the 2016 Republican primaries, no candidate (except poor Jeb) backed their former leader’s venture into democracy. Four years before that, George wasn’t even present at their convention. So, the Republicans have basically tried to make their supporters forget he was ever a thing. The Democrats meanwhile, have pushed against their own for supporting the war effort back in 2002-3, using it as bait against the likes of Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. All in all, it would be fair to say, Iraq probably wasn’t a great idea.
On the other hand, some of Obama’s critics have argued he withdrew from Iraq too soon and that helped facilitate the rise of ISIS. His defence would counter some sort of pushback was inevitable and he was merely fulfilling the obligation of the American people but ultimately, enough room has been left for some blame there.
Afghanistan was a less controversial affair so that’s not been as much of an issue for George, besides relaying the popular assertion that he was a warmonger. And to many, he is seen as a war criminal who should have been trialed or impeached for what he did, particularly with regards interrogative measures in Guantanamo. He and his team have always asserted that they took any necessary precautions to avoid another attack on America, which they point out, didn’t happen. Critics remember the one time it did, of course, and argue that his administration took advantage of the patriotic frenzy following September 11th to pursue goals that were long in place, particularly with Saddam Hussein.
Ten years before, the Gulf War had been a triumphant effort. George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings had skyrocketed for the way he handled foreign affairs but he had played his cards with more caution, not moving beyond a liberation of Kuwait (to the dismay of many). Sanctions and warnings were placed against the Iraqi dictator and a resolution passed with bi-partisan support later on in the 90s which suggested there was actual cause for war should they put a toe in the wrong place (which Saddam did). Of course, principles and ambitions don’t mean much without proper strategy and when your intelligence amounts to nothing. In this regard, even George W. Bush admits things could’ve gone better. No WMDs were found and in 2007, he decided to send a surge of troops in order to relieve the chaos that developed in the aftermath of the liberation effort.
Establishing democracies is not easily done and the absence of a dictatorship does not immediately resolve all problems. Iraq developed into a mess, whatever the president’s intentions, and for this, it’s highly unlikely he will be forgiven.
With that said, it wouldn’t be fair to omit some of the accomplishments of George W. Bush. For one, his PEPFAR (AIDS’ relief) program in Africa was one of the greatest relief efforts America ever heralded, making him especially popular there. His Medicare expansion proved a fruitful endeavour. So too did his No Child Left Behind program, which aimed to hold schools with sluggish standards to account (though criticised for making teachers teach for the exam).
Anyways that’s that. So… there was also his slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 which brought his approval ratings to an all-time low and led to accusations of racism on his part. Gay marriage also became a red-hot subject for the 2004 elections under his tutelage, but not in a positive sense. And yes, the 2008 financial crash. Now, of course it’s not fair to place the blame solely on his administration. That bubble had been expanding since the 90s. However… only a year into his presidency, after successive years of a surplus, America was in recession. And he provided, as Republicans always dream of, a massive tax cut, going against much of the work Clinton had built on. Some of this comes down to political perspective but surrounding yourself with controversy and chaos rarely bodes well for one’s resume.
Historians, in their presidential rankings, generally place George W. Bush close to the bottom 10, if not among them. As briefly touched on, this was not an easy or steady presidency. In his defence, it never was going to be with the attacks of September 11th. He was dealt, undoubtedly, a tougher card than his predecessor and had to make some tough decisions, that could’ve gone either way. In this respect, I’m more sympathetic than most. If we think of these world leaders as playing on a chess board, partially obscured with fog, then it can be pretty difficult to navigate your next move.
With that said, it hasn’t gotten any worse since 2009 for George. His party may have severed ties with him (on an official capacity) but the majority seem to have taken a shine to this man. Maybe it’s because they forget easily. Maybe they think he was a good guy, waylaid in his efforts. Maybe they suspect Cheney was really in power. Maybe it’s because he seems so amiable compared to the current occupant. Maybe his candour, since leaving office, appreciated by the likes of Obama, has become symptomatic of something lost in US politics today. There’s all sorts of possibilities.
It’s not necessarily a good or bad thing that this legacy is changing so quickly. Commonality and closing the political divide is certainly important; in that respect, when he teams up with Bill Clinton, it’s understandable why people are happy to see him. On the other hand, he who forgets history is likely to repeat it and in some measure, it feels a bit insulting to trivialise this man’s legacy given the death toll and destruction afflicted under his watch. Popularity, in other words, is no replacement for competency.
Maybe, to toe the line, it’s as simple as one of us thinking what we would have done in his shoes since unlike so many other world leaders, he seemed like one of us.
We are a week out from the Iowa caucus now and my hopeful 2015 self should be starting to re-emerge in full blossom. Bernie Sanders is leading. Not only there. But in New Hampshire. Momentum is growing. The attacks are escalating on him, yes, but they don’t seem to be having the desired effect. And yet, I’m filled with trepidation when anyone speaks the warm and effervescent words “President Sanders”. I should stop them. I raise a finger as if to offer counsel but I just cant. Hardship must be learned in the battle fields.
I speak metaphorically, of course, with a dash of drama thrown in. After all, the 2016 election wasn’t that long ago. I still remember it well. I remember thinking: Holy cheese and crackers, he could really do it. If social media’s anything to go by, nobody’s voting for Hillary. Like that Kevin Spacey character from House of Cards, she can remain a part of the old Washington tapestry. Kevin Spacey sure does seem like a nice guy in interviews though…
What a fool I was. Not only did it turn out that my liberally-infested social media actually accounted for f- all in the grand scheme of things but apparently Kevin Spacey was also somewhat demanding on film sets. Ah, to have that cocky gleam brought back to my eyes; that penchant for hope that made 2008 a magical year for so many. But alas, it is not 2008. It’s not 2016. It’s 2020. We’ve seen the election of Donald Trump. We’ve seen Brexit come to pass. We’ve seen Bolsanaro turn a blind eye to the Amazon fires in Brazil. We’ve seen similar fires ravage the landscape of Australia and be ignored by political leadership. We’ve seen both Game of Thrones and Star Wars butchered to death. We should probably just give up and hope Sleepy Joe doesn’t make a faux pas in the debate against Donald Trump.
It would be easier that way but even though I’m skeptical of what I read on social media these days, I am hopeful to a reasonable degree. Why? Because somethings have changed for the better since 2016. Hillary may have got the nomination back then but the momentum of the party came from the rallies of Bernie Sanders. Three years later, we were given a wide and much more liberal-leaning Democratic field than we could have imagined, debating the best ways to tackle the climate change crisis without a major candidate’s proposal falling below the Greenpeace B grade. The year before, the Democrats also took the House back with cultural change highlighted in the election of representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.
Despite becoming a household name, Sanders has had, in some respects, a tougher climb this time around however. Whilst a breath of fresh air in 2015/16, by the time candidates were declaring early last year, he was one of several leftist options. Warren was leading him for the most part. Even, Kamala Harris managed a strong ascent for awhile. Joe Biden, of course, became the presumptive nominee even before he had announced. Plus, the rise of woke culture meant he had to deal with the impossible contention of being “another old white man”; a deal breaker for some people we can’t find a politically correct word for. He also had to account for some volunteers of his sexually harrassing others in 2016, as if he personally shepharded every single person involved in his campaign. The criticism was feeble and his moral consistency never wavered; that’s why he managed to succeed.
In recent weeks, the attacks have gotten more desperate. First, Elizabeth Warren affirmed that in a private meeting in December 2018, Sanders had told her he didn’t believe a woman could be president. She quickly tried to downplay the importance of this, which seemed unfair considering anyone alive would know how big a splash this would make. Sanders outright dismissed the validity of this statement anyways, leaving speculation to hang in the air although to many, Warren’s allegations came across as calculated given her falling poll numbers. Then Hillary Clinton, most calculated of all politicians, said that “nobody likes” Sanders, criticizing the culture around “Bernie Bros” and calling him a “career politician”. This may have boosted his numbers, if anything because a) people saw this as a child-like insult, b) people countered that he had done in excess of 30 rallies for her in 2016 (far more than she did for Obama in 2008), and c) not that many people like her (even Trump probably thought to enter the backlash for a minute before returning to his Mc Cheese Burger). And then, Bernie had the audacity to share a video of popular podcaster Joe Rogan saying he’d “probably” vote for Sanders, which many pointed out, was wrong because Joe Rogan has said made some controversial comments about trans people in the past. Bernie’s team responded by saying that just because he valued the endorsement does not mean he agrees with everything Joe Rogan says. I mean, it was hardly an endorsement from the KKK.
So, the attacks don’t seem to be landing. The latest polls show Bernie leading Buttigieg and Biden in Iowa. There is a good chance he could win the primaries and go onto becoming the Democratic nominee. His battle with Trump will be a whole other challenge thereafter. I don’t believe there are any proper controversies that are worth taking this man down. Unfortunately, I’m not part of the crowd with the loudest voices. Taking into account those cases above, anything seems to be on the cards for a stir. Bernie could lose half of his online California following by dismissing a vegan sandwich as “gross”. Maybe he’ll stand on a grasshopper? Who knows? For now, most people seem to be wising up to the vapid nature of woke criticism but just remember any previous election in US history; things get dirty and viscous. Is it worth discarding an A candidate if we discover a little tip-ex over the minus part that follows? Is it worth jeopardizing the future of the party over impossible standards and loose lips that okay, sometimes say the wrong words (or the right words the wrong way)?
The idea of “President Sanders” is not an impossibility. It is not going to be a walk in the park either. Just as the Republicans have united to win elections when unity was called for, so should the Democrats follow suit. And I mean this too for if Warren or Biden or Buttigieg (somehow) gets the nomination. The hope that defined Obama’s rise twelve years ago was a noble but surface concept; the jaded US of today needs something a little more tangible.
In 1992, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History… suggested that with the end of the Cold War, humanity had reached an end/block point to the ideological evolution of the 20th century resulting in a broad acceptance of Western liberal democratic values. It was a stupendously general claim to make and one that would be criticised as new problems rose to take the place of the old. But if you take a step back, you’ll see how it is sometimes crucial for our understanding of history to get a broad overview before splitting stones because back then the US had very much started a new chapter of its story.
Hindsight is key for any proper historical evaluation. This article will simply not be able to capture the essence, key themes and ideas of the last decade; at least, not in a lasting way- primarily because, we don’t know what’s going to be important six months from now, let alone in 20 years. New information always becomes available and our core values change with each generation. Obama may be considered left of centre today but for future generations, he could be positively right-wing. Heck, Richard Nixon (the most flabbergasted of Republican presidents) established the Environmental Protection Agency.
Enough dawdling though; this context is important for the purpose of humility but it does not advance the story of the 2010s. What was this decade all about? How did America get from point A to point B? From Hope to Trump.
A New Generation
The millennials came of age this decade. Cast in the shadow of global austerity measures and economic hardship following the Financial Collapse of 2008, theirs (I say theirs, ours really) was a generation fraught with a unique level of anxiety. Many degrees were becoming increasingly less advantageous as job opportunities dried up and the unpaid internship net widened. It’s no wonder why, in this context, a sea of resentment festered; particularly against Boomers who wreaked prosperous opportunities in less tech-automated times whilst ignoring the most pressing issues facing the youth of today. As such, we’ve seen more people living at home for longer, trying for MAs, and adapting to a range of career positions; fluidity and creativity all the more pertinent.
Did the Obama administration fail this generation then by following in Bush’s lead in bailing out the banks? Intentions are certainly important; Obama did save America from the brink of a depression but the seeds of discord were planted in 2009 and the early 2010s. If millennials were to be denied the opportunities of their fathers or grandfathers, they’d at least strive to make their voices heard- which they very much have; for better and worse.
With regards the better, they (and Generation Z) have called for increasingly liberal stances on issues such as student fees, climate change, and health care. Whilst not altogether effective yet, the knocking on the government’s door has been getting louder and louder in recent years. How else would one explain the sensation that is Bernie Sanders; a candidate who probably wouldn’t have prospered this way in the 2000s. In another area, they have been more effective; calling for increased diversity in workplaces, media, and arts. Today’s music, TV, and film scene is a lot less white than it was 20 years ago.
With regards the worse, millennials are often seen (seen, don’t cancel me) as petty and entitled by the older generations (who in turn, have seemingly forgotten their responsibility to rear and guide their children). Is there truth to this? It’s a wild stereotype that’s limited but keeping in mind, the general overview from the intro, I’m inclined to believe that for all the good done with social media justice, there is an equal and lamentable drive for over-reaction. It is far too easy to get a rise out of people on social media or to have their television or film contract reassessed due to some stupid but ultimately unimportant remarks made in the past. On college campuses, speakers are protested for merely holding non-liberal views and as a result, many fear the very idea of free speech is under threat (especially when the term “hate speech” gets added to the mix). Outrage is an industry in and of itself.
Millennials can be said to be tolerant of anything but intolerance. Again, generally. At first glance, this may seem amicable and perfectly reasonable. Look at the strides made by the LGBTQ community this decade; today, people assess sexuality and gender in a far broader context than ten years ago. On the other hand, judgment has become popular and forgiveness is in short supply. This is not meant to advocate some false equivalency of opinion between liberals and conservatives but rather to point out that to effect change among certain groups, it is sometimes wise to speak rather than shout, listen so as to at least be cordial. This is as much a question of generational divide as it is political ideology; a great gulf has split people on subjects ranging from health care to gender neutral bathrooms. I believe we should let decency prevail where political correctness fails because there are numbers to be gained from the other side, especially in 2020.
With all that in mind, I don’t think millennials can be faulted for their intentions. Climate change does need to be addressed and for this reason alone, there is more hope to be found with 20- to 30-somethings than with our elders. The question looming over the 2020s on this issue, among others (like gun control) will be did they manage to tackle the problem effectively as well as righteously.
The Culture Wars (On Steroids)
To explore this generational/ideological gulf further, we must assess why and how everything became so political. What do I mean? What talk show today doesn’t feature a joke about Trump? What books or movies or genres of music do well with one camp or with another? This isn’t exactly a new idea- the culture wars have long been prevalent in American society but nowadays, even a movie like Star Wars: The Last Jedi is read by some as a feminist assault on traditional cinema. The reactions to divisive projects like this are often downright ridiculous but they do have origins tales of their own; for just as diversity promised to enrich America’ cultural experience, there were those who felt the pendulum was moving a little too fast and in places with a little too much force (e.g. female reboots, politically correct re-workings). With the recent reaction to John Legend’s version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, it’s fair to say that “woke culture” (to broaden this horizon) was given a bit of a slap in the face. The condemning of past opinions too (like John Wayne’s on race relations), while right, also seem trivial and petty. Will it be a case that liberals have to learn to pick their battles or will a dignified if self-righteous sense of morality prevail?
Of course, the culture wars don’t matter to most people and outrage (built on Twitter feeds) has never truly reflected the actuality of common opinion. Clickbait journalism and not-even-trying-to-be-objective-anymore news stations have amplified once barely prevalent tensions. Controversy sells and as long as people relinquish their sacred duty for critical thinking (on the left and right), the battleground will continue to get muddier.
It’s also become harder to blend opposing facets of oneself. You vote Blue so you must adhere to every liberal constitution, right? Your favourite movie is Moonlight andyou drive a hybrid? Where the divide between Democrats and Republicans has intensified on the actual issues, so too have the values associated with social liberals and conservatives. It may not come across on your social media field but there have been gay republicans and fervently religious but vegan democrats. Contradictions may arise if you take everything literally but people aren’t just what they wear, what they vote, or what they listen to. The idea of groupthink and identity politics may be useful for our understanding of certain privileges and economic disadvantages but it is fundamentally important to remember the individuals (sometimes) trapped within.
From Hope to Trump
So far, we have largely explored the emerging tide of liberal values among millennials as well as their shortcomings. While their voices may be heard across social media and campuses however, the real power now lies with a bizarre authoritarian right wing. Is this a reaction to political correctness? A reaction to an America older white people don’t recognise? To the failure and stalling of democracy? Obama? It’s hard to pin it down to one reason but most people would agree it is indeed a reaction.
Let’s go back to 2010. The economy is poor and health care legislation has been passed. The Republicans have amped up their objection to an 11. Will they undo Obama’s key piece of legislation? No. But they will use it as bait to take back both the House and Senate later that year and for the next six, make Obama’s presidency as much of a struggle as possible. Every time, a shooting occurs, they will keep focused and ensure protection of the NRA… I mean, the 2nd Amendment. Every time, a liberal piece of legislation comes forward from Obama, they will block it because they understand it to be good politics; the attack strategies of the last twenty years have worked, so why not? Thus, Obama is confined to foreign policy measures and acting where he can. To many, he appears weak.
Obama’s team is not willing to give up that easily however. There are cards to play and victories do emerge, even if they take time. One such victory was the assassination of Bin Laden in 2011, which undoubtedly helped push the re-election campaign along nicely. Beating Romney the following year also cemented his popularity, meaning he could argue his case to the public more frequently. The Iran Nuclear Deal and Gay Marriage followed in 2015 and all things considered, Obama had done a pretty good job with what he was given. So why was there such a fundamental shift in 2016?
For one, people underestimated just how important the appeal of Obama, himself, was. Hillarys politics may not have been miles off his but she simply couldn’t inspire the loyalty he did; he was one of the greatest orators of all time. As well as that however, Obama was unable to translate his messages across as those of the Democratic establishment. After all, they lost handily in 2014, even before Trump entered the picture. Perhaps because, for all their gesticulation, they couldn’t advertise themselves half as well as the GOP. Confidence it seems can be as toxic as it is appealing. That’s where Trump comes in.
Trump won, not because of the substance of his arguments but because of the way he projected them and himself. The Republican field toppled in the debates of late 2015 and all the while, throughout the primaries, we fooled ourselves into thinking this was some kind of joke. Brexit should’ve rang alarm bells. Trump getting the nomination should have too. But like an age-old tragedy, we followed the path blindly and suffered as a result.
If Trump wasn’t a traditional conservative, it didn’t matter at all. As stated earlier, Nixon established the EPA; so clearly this party’s open to whatever. And just like that, they all relinquished honesty and their duty for the sake of power (… Paul Ryan). The Democrats, on the other hand, may not have exactly appeased their camp but they did little to persuade voters, who could be turned, why theirs was a better one to join. Many liberals simply took to labelling Trump supporters stupid, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and so on. This continues to be a mistake, in my view, and a crucial one differentiating many working class people struggling with every day economic opportunities from the elitist self-righteous liberals who know nothing of them.
Trump’s impeachment may get rid of the man but it won’t get rid of the problem because he’s as much a symptom of the ills dominating the bi-polarity of politics this decade as obtuse NRA support or further tax breaks for the 1% are. In a strange way, it’s odd that it’s taken so long for a clown to ascend to the throne considering the acrobatics and pantomime politicians perform but if anything should be clear to the Democrats now, it is that their battle will not end in 2020. Complacency has always been their problem.
A New Left
There is a spark of hope to be found in the Democratic Party however as we end the 2010s. For just as the right has moved beyond any nuance of centrism, the left has recognised its need to stake its own ground too. The campaign of Bernie in 2016 mobilised a movement the corporate Democrats simply didn’t understand; one that has already flourished with the election of candidates like Alexandria Occasion Cortes last year and the adoption of more liberal stances in the election field this year. The party is undergoing a period of transformation, having essentially spent the last 30 years meeting their adversaries in a compromised middle. Whether this will prove wise remains to be seen. Two schools of thought are currently battling it out to see who can take back those Trump voters; the more centrist likes of Joe Biden and the others like Bernie/Warren. Again, we see the political and the cultural dominoes of America falling in tandem.
As I’ve often stated in pieces on this site, I believe the issues should remain central to Bernie’s and other’s campaigns, not the bait Republicans masquerade as issues (e.g. patriotism) nor the scandals that get blown out of proportion (e.g. Hillary’s emails). So far, they seem to be on track but as the other elections of the 2010s have shown, the Republicans aren’t bad at winning.
How strange the Clinton-Blair years now seem to us in a world turned upside down. Forests are burning, debts are rising, automation threatens millions of jobs, racism appears more openly acceptable, and James Corden has a chat show. The 2010s have been a scary time and they’ve only gotten more so; the fresh fruit of the Obama years now rotten to its core. Were we misguided by hope as we may be now? Possibly. I think, more likely however, voter apathy and perennial compromise by liberals beset on preaching without acting led to desperation.
In times of economic upheaval and vulnerability, radical ideologies become all the more appealing. That is not to say we will face a direct parallel with the 1930s and devolve into a fight between fascism, democracy, and communism but this sharp split is somewhat reminiscent. It will play out dramatically in next year’s election, which will be about much more than electing a new president; it’ll be about ratifying the course American culture will head in under the auspices of ideological, generational, and human values (or as Joe Biden put it, the “soul of America”).
The 2010s are yet foggy and there was a great deal more I could have explored (e.g. foreign policy, keyboard warriors, police brutality, #metoo, etc.) but a feint trajectory permeates this hew nonetheless; one linking our apathy and disinterest to upheaval and renewed activism. The people of today speak of politics far more than they did ten years ago. This is both a good and bad thing.
There are nearly 20 declared Democratic candidates for next year’s election and yet one key figure remains aloof and undecided. Yes, hanging out there, somewhere in the horizon with a winning smile but a shadow cast in a question mark is none other than Joe Biden. You know him best as Obama’s other half but he’s also served in the past as a Senator for 36 years with a host of positions including Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He’s got the best experience of any of these Democratic hopefuls, charisma, and something most politicians lack; a genuine personality. So why not declare? Well, let’s get straight to the first and most pertinent stumbling block and fair warning, it’s a touchy subject…. okay, sorry.
Joe Biden’s been caught in a whirlwind of controversy this last week over a number of women claiming his “personal touch” to be a little invasive and inappropriate. This is by no means an explosive or recent discovery. In the past, many commentators and comedians like Jon Stewart have squirmed at Biden’s holding of shoulders, heads, and hugs for prolonged periods. It’s never been described as sexual harassment as such but rather just uncomfortable and strange. In the context of the #metoo era, perceptions have of course shifted however and Biden is now being asked to account for these instances.
In a statement last Wednesday, he explained that any handshakes or hugs were always given as marks of “affection, support, and comfort”. He said he was not sorry for his “intentions” but acknowledged that “social norms are changing” while promising to be “more mindful” in the future. On Friday however, at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Construction Conference, after hugging the IBEW president, he joked that “he had permission” and then later made the same joke when others joined him on stage. (A bit sloppy, yes.) Well naturally, some people took this in jest and others with more affront, such as Tarana Burke (founder of #metoo movement) who said the jokes were “disrespectful and inexcusable” and that it was not enough for him to be “mindful,” he needed to make an effort to apologize properly.
Is this an overreaction? Part of me wants to say yes and defend Biden outright. After all, sensationalism in today’s media is driven by headlines rather than analysis. Most people who catch a whiff of these headlines, I hope, would delve deeper and read a bit into it. But words like “allegations,” “accusations”, and so forth have such a weight to them now that I fear Biden will be dragged into the company of far worse offenders. He certainly did himself no favors with his jokes but he did, at least, respond and yes, I do think “intentions” matter. I don’t think most people honestly consider this man to be a true creep like say, the President of the United States.
Biden’s of a different generation and age; a fact some commentators don’t think matters given the gravitas of this cultural change we’re experiencing but context is always crucial. Our backgrounds shape us, for better or worse. Biden, has suffered the loss of a wife, a daughter, and son in his tragic past and often made a connection with people in hard times through words or hugs. Most politicians do this, albeit to lesser extents. He’s 76 as well so his customs and mannerisms may be off tilt with younger generations.
That’s all just pause for thought, more than anything though. Before we #cancel Biden, we need to examine what value is to be attained in judging people’s morals and conduct retrospectively. If it’s for the cause of attaining a better 2020 candidate for the Democrats, then maybe there is something there. After all, the party has become more liberal and with so many alternatives on board, why should we accept the obvious choice like so many did with Hillary in 2016? There’s a few reasons:
Some of these candidates suck, are disingenuous, and do nothing but pander to the liberal waves like Kirsten Gillibrand
The aforementioned level of experience
He has the highest polling
He can appeal to moderates who might otherwise side with Trump
He’s charismatic and likable; marketable too
Association with Obama
There’s definitely reasonable debate on whether or not he should run. I would agree with Ross Douhat (New York Times) that, if he does, he should run on his record rather than against it. Any sharp left-wing moves will be preyed upon by the media, his fellow candidates, and online trolls and then mocked by Trump. There is a section of Trump’s base to be swayed too who actually do care about labor unions, health care, and other important issues, which Biden can speak to with precision as others might vaguely address. Plus, if nothing else, it’ll at least give Democratic voters some alternative to the growing liberalism represented by candidates like Booker, Sanders, Warren, and O’Rourke. Then, they can’t whine come November 2020.
Biden has always been “awkward”, prone to gaffes, and toneless remarks (e.g. wishing he “could” have done something about the Anita Hill sexual harassment trial in the early 90s, despite then being chair of the Judiciary Committee.) His record is not squeaky clean. He’s even run twice before and failed. In the Democratic Party’s quest for greater wokeness however, it can’t be worthwhile to decry and discard every ally who’s ever done wrong. When the bar is set this high, the likelihood for success becomes increasingly narrow and the bigger picture gets lost. The Republicans understand this much, if anything. I also don’t want to see Trump re-elected because his opponents couldn’t find their Messiah.
In the last few years, American politics have become increasingly preoccupied with style over substance, in the avenue of political correctness, the culture wars, and identity politics. The latter issue hasn’t been discussed much yet on this website because hey! who needs to hear from another white male about race and gender issues? This may seem like a cheap joke or key point, depending on your point of view, but it cuts right down to why this has become incontrovertibly linked with political discourse today.
Identity politics (and how it’s stirred in conversation) breeds off a culture of resentment among alienated groups (privileged and disenfranchised, generally) while at the same time remaining all the more relevant, in times when a US president can’t even be bothered to condemn the KKK. Its genesis lies in the history of oppression of minority groups (Blacks, LGBT+, etc.) and the effective silencing of their voices resulting in what many believe to be a necessary template for defense. Its faults, as some would argue, lie in the abuse of where it’s applied and the mentality of “victimhood” it encourages; giving a victim the leverage of identity over an opponent in debate. Naturally, it’s a sensitive topic to discuss because discrimination isn’t some abstract idea for many people but to make some steady progress, let’s examine the criticisms and defense channeling this conversation.
Criticism of Identity Politics
Let’s divide the critics into two types: a) rhetorical and b) practical.
The former have problems with the rhetoric identity politics inspires. They charge that it inspires groupthink, which in turn compromises individual thought on complex issues and furthers the gulf between left and right. In common discourse, we expect minorities to side with liberals all the time, even though many of the matters dividing the Republican and Democratic parties have little to do with identity, e.g. gun control, climate change. We assume race and sexuality plays a major role in a Black or Gay person’s life which may be statistically sound but at times, possibly comes across as condescending and untrue. As the popular political commentator Dave Rubin has noted, “you as an individual are much more than your immutable characteristics.”
Plus, experience does not necessarily establish authority in an argument. We may not be able to fully appreciate another person’s struggles and yes, it may at times appear insensitive to even engage but debates should be run on good ideas, regardless of one’s “immutable characteristics”. This notion blossomed considerably when echoed by Obama in a speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of Mandela’s birth in July (when he said opinions should not be dismissed just because they are white or male).
Practical critics think along these lines too but with goals in mind- i.e. beating Trump in 2020. As Sheri Berman opined in a Guardian piece (“Why Identity Politics Benefits The Right More Than The Left”): “Is our ultimate goal ensuring the compatibility of diversity and democracy? Then promoting the overlapping interests and identification that enable citizens to become more comfortable with differences and thus more tolerant and trusting, is absolutely necessary.” Left and right have been painted as stark opponents in the culture wars. A tough point, some liberals seem unwilling to accept, is that not all Trump’s supporters are racist white males. Okay, there are definitely some racists. And yes, a lot of his support was from white males. Their support did not rest solely on identity politics however. It derived from other places; chiefly, economic misfortune- a shared characteristic for people of all identities in many situations. In short, as Bernie Sanders would hound, the media needs to pay more attention to the issues!
In Defense of Identity Politics
Okay, so that’s all very good but racism, homophobia, and sexism are everyday issues affecting millions of lives. There are oppressive methods in place preventing Blacks from voting (by conservatives gerrymanders and legislators). There is a double standard for women and inequality of opportunities in many job sectors. LGBT groups are routinely subjected to the nastiest treatment and commentary for merely being who they are. So, in many respects, identity politics is something that has been thrust upon these groups rather than something they’ve sought out and just as the right are known to parry off cries of offense with deflections like “oh you’re just being PC”, is it not possible that identity politics helps their cause a little when it comes to such enduring prejudice?
In his article, “In Defense of Identity Politics”, Paul Von Blume writes that American society has been mechanized to the umpteenth degree to reinforce the status quo of white male privilege. When expressions like “just plain American” or “melting pot” are bandied about, he argues that while they may be “well meaning,” they really just brush over the historical “exclusion” of millions of its people. Direct, aggressive racism or prejudice in general does not necessarily tie this altogether. White privilege is maintained out of fear that the promotion of less enfranchised persons may lead to a decline in their quality of life (a concern that pervaded the “turbulence” of the 1960s). Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of Sociology at Georgetown University and Peterson opponent), has noted this much, writing for the New York Times in December 2016 that “the interests of the white working class have often been used by white political elites to stave off challenges to inequality and discrimination by black folk and other minority groups”. (It should be noted however that he’s been criticized for pushing identity politics to the extreme, referring to Jordan Peterson as a “mean mad white man” during a debate on political correctness).
White men like me will never fully appreciate the Black, Women, or Muslim experience, as diversified or as shared as it can be. In many respects, our culture and systemic prejudice has necessitated such labels as identity be used in the mainstream. It catches people’s attention when a meme or hashtag or article goes viral, encapsulating all the frustrations of “mansplaining”, whitewashed history, or privilege. It’s all very understandable but at times, overtly sensitive to the point debate gets shut down; e.g. with the above case between Peterson and Dyson, the former debater was immediately cast under suspicion (or an attempt was made) just because he was a white male arguing against political correctness. At times, this isn’t fair but there will always be exceptions in every case that define how we must study it. For example, a panel of all male commentators discussing abortion would seem ridiculous to most but of all females, rather reasonable. Also, “All Lives Matter”?
It’s a trying discussion which transmogrifies the collective into the personal experience. For all practicalities’ sake though, in light of recent political developments, it has become a “serious nuisance” underlying almost every political debate. In order for the Democrats to make some ground on those stubborn Trump supporters, there needs to be some attempt at reconciling the majority with the minority, whose interests don’t necessarily deviate from one another’s. The 2018 midterms and the 2020 election should return to the boring stuff that makes up most sane countries’ elections; economic opportunity- and that means to help all citizens advance, be it on an individual or group level.