US politics is big news. As a global superpower, American elections are followed by people from as far afield as Australia, China, or Argentina. You and everyone you know probably have an opinion on what’s happening with any election, with the White House, with Congress.
But here’s the thing: some of those opinions may be based on flawed assumptions. Assumptions that are so widely repeated on news channels and websites that they’ve become set in stone. These are the great, towering myths of American politics; the myths believed by voters, political scientists, and even politicians. We’re here to take a wrecking ball to the biggest of them.
10. The US Electorate is Angrier than Ever
The US electorate is angry. Really angry. Fed up with depressed wages, vanishing prosperity and a divided government, they’re angry enough to want to tear the whole system down. How else do you explain the rise of Trump, or the unexpected insurgency of Bernie Sanders?
Know what percentage of the US electorate identifies itself as ‘angry’ at the way the government works? 24%. That sure sounds like a lot, until you start to look at the historic trends. Turns out this isn’t the angriest the electorate has been. In fact, it’s not even close.
That honor goes to 2013, and the height of the government shutdown. At that time, 35% of Americans claimed they were angry with the federal government. But that yuge number didn’t appear from nowhere. From the end of 2011, all through 2012 and 2013 and even into 2014, the electorate was generally angrier than it is now. Since that includes the 2012 election, we might reasonably assume that if anger was driving the rise of Trump and Sanders, that would have been the year when candidates like them hit their peak.
The problem is actually our perceptions of public anger. Polls show 62 percent of Americans believe a vast majority of other Americans are angry at the government.
9. Politicians are All Liars
Why are the public supposedly angry? Jeez, just look at the politicians! Lying, self-serving, money-grabbers who will say anything to get into power. George HW Bush raising taxes, Obama failing to close Guantanamo…show us a politician and we’ll show you a liar.
Those examples up there? Those are the exceptions that prove the rule. A 1984 Princeton study of all past presidents found that candidates usually keep 75 percent of promises made on the campaign trail. That includes guys from Jimmy Carter to FDR to Richard Nixon. A further follow-up study then found that broken promises are usually down to a disobliging Congress, rather than a lying president. In other words, politicians generally try to keep their promises nearly 100% of the time.
But that was in the old days, right? What about in the here and now? Well, believe it or not, politicians are still trying. Politifact’s ‘Obamameter’ has the number of promises kept or kept with some form of compromise at 70%. Only 22% are listed as ‘broken promises’, with another 8% still in the works.
8. It’s Rare for a Party to Have More than 2 Terms in Power
We hear it time and again after eight years of either the Republicans or Democrats. Change is certain because we almost never have 12-plus years of one party. As political scientists like to remind us, since 1945 this has only happened once: when George HW Bush took over from Ronnie Reagan.
There’s a good reason political writers use that “since 1945” bit. Remove it and you realize we’re actually living in an exceptional time. For the vast majority of American history, long periods of one party rule has been the norm rather than the exception.
Of the 220 years of the Republic from 1789 to 2009, 132 were spent under periods of prolonged one party rule. Occasionally, these periods lasted for insane lengths of time. Between 1801-1825, the Democratic Republicans were the only guys in the White House. From 1861-1913 the Republicans were out of it for only eight years. That’s essentially over 40 years of living in a one-party state, with only Grover Cleveland to provide some balance.
Even our modern era hasn’t been immune. It’s worth remembering when FDR died in 1945, he was already starting his 3rd term. Democrat Truman then served two terms, meaning extended one party rule doesn’t really end until 1953. After that, you still have the three terms of Reagan and George HW (1980-1992) and may yet have a three term-plus Obama/Clinton administration (2008-2020). Not so rare after all, huh?
7. Independents Could Set Up a 3rd Party and Win
More Americans currently identify as Independents than at any point in US history. As Republican and Democrat membership falls, more and more are pivoting to the center. This has led some to argue that a truly centrist candidate could easily take the White House and establish a viable 3rd party. Hooray for more choices!
There’s just one problem: Most Independents can’t agree on anything. Studies have shown that 47% of self-proclaimed Independents always vote Democrat, while 41% always vote Republican. In other words, the vast, vast majority of Independents behave in exactly the same way as declared partisans do.
The remaining 12% of Independents includes some who truly vote either way, but even more whose views are so far-left or ultra-right that even the extreme Tea Party in the GOP or Sanders wing in the Dems can’t support them. Get them all under one banner, and you’d probably have the most dysfunctional party in American history.
6. Terrorism is a Big Issue for Voters
9/11, the San Bernardino attack, and now the Orlando nightclub massacre have shown Americans how vulnerable they really are to terror attacks. Unsurprisingly, many think now think terrorism is a big issue for voters. There’s some evidence that fears of terrorism can sway elections, and many think offering a hard line against jihad may be Trump’s best path to the White House.
The trouble with this is that terrorism really isn’t on voters’ radars. Since January 2001, polling firm Gallup has been tracking what voters identify as the single biggest issue facing the country. At time of writing in June 2016, the number of voters who consider terrorism and terror attacks a critical issue stands at a miniscule 4%.
The caveat here is that these numbers haven’t been updated since Orlando, and are prone to change. In the immediate aftermath of Paris and San Bernardino, for example, it leaped up to 16%. However, long term trends show that from mid-2006 until San Bernardino, the number of Americans listing terrorism as their number one concern rarely went above 5%, and often dropped as low as 1%. That it’s back down to 4% suggests this is the standard baseline for concerns.
The reason terrorism is so low on people’s lists may be because they’re more-worried about the economy. Since 2008, over 30% of voters have consistently identified the economy as their number one concern (bar, again, during the immediate aftermath of San Bernardino). Terrorism just isn’t even close.
5. Immigration is a Uniquely Important Issue in America
In 2009, the US Census Bureau estimated immigrants made up 12.5 percent of the US population. Coupled with figures that show white children will soon no longer be the majority of new babies, immigration has become a hot topic in America. The 2016 election is heavily influenced by it, politicians duke it out on border-crossings and the public frequently names it as one of their top four worries. American worries about immigration now seem almost uniquely urgent.
Look across the Atlantic, though, and it becomes clear immigration really isn’t such a major issue. Compared to their counterparts in the UK, Americans are so relaxed about immigration they’re practically horizontal.
In the US, fewer than one-in-ten voters consider immigration the most-important issue facing the country. In the UK, a staggering one-in-four do, almost double the number who name the economy as their top issue. On mainland Europe, feelings run even higher. Across the whole of Europe, 52% want immigration to decrease, the highest level in the world. In North America, the figure is only 39%. Immigration may be important to Americans, but it’s certainly nowhere near being an uncommonly pressing issue.
4. Republicans are Red, Democrats are Blue
If we know anything about politics, we know that Republicans have red as their color, and Democrats have blue. That’s why you get phrases like “red state” for GOP territory, and “purple state” for swing states. It’s a system as old as the parties themselves.
Well, not quite. The whole ‘Republicans = red, Dems = blue’ thing is a bit more recent than you probably think. How recent? So recent that the system wasn’t officially put in place until the 2000 election.
Honestly: this political shorthand literally everyone in the US knows has been around barely longer than Facebook or YouTube. Before that, television stations broadcasting elections would basically make it up as they went along. If you went back to 1980 and turned on CBS, you’d see a big map of America showing the few states Jimmy Carter carried as bright red against Reagan’s collection of deep blue.
This original setup was thanks to the UK. When color TV first started broadcasting election maps in the 1970s, early networks used blue for Republicans because British Conservatives are blue, and red for Democrats because the UK Labour Party is red. When the 2000 election rolled round, the New York Times and USA Today switched the colors to liven things up and TV news followed suit. Since that was the election that lasted for weeks, thanks to the shenanigans in Florida, voters got used to seeing those colors and they stuck. 16 years later, it feels like they’ve been that way forever.
3. The Party Decides the Nominee, Not the People
We all know the primary process, whereby each party’s voters picks a candidate, is far from democratic. Since the popularly-elected George McGovern crashed and burned the Democratic Party in 1972, party elites have kept a firm grasp on the nomination process. That’s why Bernie Sanders failed to unseat Hillary Clinton. There’s even a popular political science book called The Party Decides.
If there’s one thing the 2016 election has achieved, it’s to blow this myth wide open. Whether you’re reading this at time of press, or a decade in the future while browsing the TopTenz archives (in which case: hi from the past!), you’ll probably know what we mean when we say a single name now refutes this idea: Donald Trump.
In 2016, the Republican Party tried its best to decide the nomination. They really, really wanted Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio to be in the top spot. They really, really didn’t want Trump there. The party threw everything it had into influencing the voters, and yet it all came to nothing. Trump clinched the nomination with astonishing ease. If the party really wanted to ignore the will of the voters, they’d dump him. The fact he’s still there shows the primary process is way more democratic than many people give it credit for.
2. GOP has Fiscal Constraint, Dems Spend on Social Programs
At their heart, Republicans and Democrats are separated by economic ideology. Republicans think government should waste less money and urge fiscal restraint, while Dems think it’s government’s duty to care for the poor by spending on welfare programs. This difference shapes the two parties’ images. You’d be hard put, for example, to find someone who claimed the Republicans were spendthrift while the Dems were miserly with social programs.
Only that’s exactly what research says.
Since 1977, deficits have consistently been a higher percentage of GDP under Republican presidents than under Democrats – a good indication of unrestrained spending. Follow that link and look at the chart: the deficit rose sharply under Reagan, fell sharply under Clinton, climbed again under George W Bush, and then dropped under Obama. While there are many good reasons for this extra spending (the 2008 crash under Bush II, for example), it doesn’t change the fact that Dems have consistently driven the deficit down for over 35 years.
Part of that may be due to the Dems failing one of their core constituencies: those who believe in government spending to alleviate poverty. An analysis of party spending over the past 40 years shows that the Dems have on average spent less on social programs than their Republican counterparts.
1. Big Money is Corrupting Politics and Elections
For decades, people have been complaining that the two parties are in the pockets of Wall Street Candidates are forced to shill in exchange for fundraising capital, and becoming president simply requires throwing money around until you win. The whole system is a sham.
You know what doesn’t happen in a system rigged by big money interests? A businessman with zero Wall Street backers trouncing a candidate whose super PAC is throwing millions and millions at the electorate.
By early February 2016, it was clear that Jeb Bush was outspending Donald Trump to a ridiculous degree. The Washington Post estimated his super PAC spent a shocking $5,000 dollars in Iowa for every vote. By contrast, Trump spent a comparatively small $300. The Jeb! Team were also ploughing millions and millions into TV spots and airtime. Trump’s ad spending barely entered the tens of thousands. Yet Jeb’s campaign is the one that crashed and burned.
On the Democratic side, the fact that Bernie Sanders was able to cobble together enough small donations to come close to beating a ‘big money’ candidate who was once leading him by 40 points shows anyone really can have a shot at running for president. The money in politics myth is exactly that: a myth.