Update, 2/26/16: New statements added, including the worst. Also, the Supreme Court vacancy and more Ronald Reagan. Now 938 statements.
Politifact is perhaps never better than when it dives deep into a historical statement made by a politician or partisan commentator, cuts through the chaff, gathers expert opinions, and delivers a satisfying final judgement ranging from “True” to “Pants on Fire!” Some might accuse them of dismissing all the nuance and uncertainty of historical knowledge in favor of their clean and clear rating system, but when a politico claims that “The Taliban have been there for … hundreds of thousands of years” or that the founding fathers were actively involved in cockfighting or that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican (again, and again), nuance isn’t really necessary.
I started collecting Politifact rulings of historical statements not just for the satisfaction of seeing abusers of history called out, but to explore how politicians and their supporters use history. My selection is an unscientific sample of Politifact’s unscientific sample, but exploring these statements through visualizations was highly entertaining and caused a few questions to jump out. Why are the discussions of taxes, budgets, and debt so prone to historic comparison and hyperbole? Why would historical arguments appear so frequently in discussions about education? How many times will Politifact have to refute the claim that the Civil War was “not about slavery?”
A word about the data before we cut to the charts. I selected statements that made direct reference to a historical event or person, that contained a historical comparison (for the first time ever, never in our nation’s history, etc), or for which Politifact consulted history or a historian to help settle the issue. In borderline cases, I asked myself if the statement was one that I felt required a historian to determine veracity. Although I believe that history can bring deeper understanding to any topic, you don’t necessarily need historians or historical research to check a fact like whether the climate has gotten warmer or whether a senator voted yea or nay on a particular bill two years ago. If you want to know why, history can almost always help, but Politifact doesn’t always have ask that question to make a ruling. More on this in the About the Data section below.
Oh, and I categorized these statements according to the point the speaker was trying to make. So if he was using Lincoln to make a point about abortion, I filed it under “family planning.” This will make some statements look oddly placed at first, unless you read the full Politifact ruling (which you can do by clicking on a circle).
Tips for navigating the charts:
- Every circle is a statement. Hover over a circle to see the statement, speaker, and ruling. Click on a circle to reveal a link to the Politifact page discussing this statement. Pages open in a new window.
- Hover over “Collapse all” and you’ll see a box with a minus sign. Click there, and all the topic areas will collapse into one row. Hover over “Expand”, click the box with the plus sign, and you’ll see a long list of subtopics—scroll down to see all.
- If you want to completely reduce all degrees of truth and falsehood into a simple binary, you can find a collapse/expand box by hovering over the words “Shades of Truth.” It’s just to the left.
- Sort by any row or column. Hover over the row or column header, and a small sort icon will appear.
- If you get lost, click reset at the bottom of the viz.
Next up, a view of the same data by speaker. Here you can assemble your dream team of ersatz historians and see how they stack up. The search box on the side will bring up all matches. Text is simplified, with no punctuation except for hyphens as spaces. Remove names by hovering and clicking the red x to the right. All else should work as in the first chart above.
The next viz highlights themes I was especially interested in or that seemed to occur with some frequency. This chart does not show all of the 900+ statements in the first two. Of course, I wanted to see and compare politicos’ uses of Ronald Reagan, the Civil War, the New Deal, and the nation’s founding (grouped here as National Origins), but I also became interested in the rhetorical flourishes of first time in history, biggest in history, and anything that claimed something unprecedented. These are grouped under Historic Precedent! and overall the speakers didn’t do too badly, according to Politifact. Many of the false rulings came from the oft-repeated Republican talking point calling Obamacare the biggest tax increase in all of history, a claim Politifact has repeatedly slapped down.
The uses of Ronald Reagan are fascinating, with both left- and right-leaning speakers claiming him as a touchstone if not a lodestone. The statements concerning the United States’ founding people and documents are several, and how they fall on the Politifact scale can be depressing. This chart is still a work in progress; I may have missed classifying some statements and there are likely other categories worth highlighting.
The last viz throws all the subtopics into one chart, not grouped by their parent topics. You can use the filter on the side to select topics for comparison, and all the sorting should work as in the examples above.
I’ll keep adding to this data set as an election year diversion, and hope to do another viz devoted to the use of history in the 2016 campaign. I’ll also take requests for tags and groupings, and if you know of a Politifact ruling involving history that doesn’t appear here, please let me know!
About the data
Politifact has an API, which is just one more reason to love it. The API delivers detailed search results in XML or JSON and that makes it dead easy to capture the data in a table or database. Unfortunately, you can’t search by keyword, only by subject, and the Politifact subjects are a bit inconsistent and incomplete. This is not their fault! They have other things to worry about.
So to get a full set of history-related statements, I resorted to scraping search results using Google Docs’ Import XML, XPath, and Regex (for cleanup). The scrape of the search results gave me a pointer for a scrape of the individual pages, which dropped all the info into tidy columns. I searched for obvious things like history, historian, and historical, and for things like unprecedented and first time. After I realized I had a bumper crop of Reagan-related statements, I searched for the other 20th-century presidents as well. Also, Lincoln.
That part was all pretty well automated, and fun to set up. Then a lot of the results had to be ruled out manually. And as alluded to above, I had to think about when history starts. I didn’t want to automatically include references to anything that happened in the past, so how far back do we go before it becomes history? There were lots of gray areas here. I asked myself repeatedly, If I were checking this fact, would I need to ask a historian? This was helpful, if a bit circular. I’m sure other people would have made different choices.
Doing this helped push my thinking about the uses of history. Do you need a historian’s input to assess the truth of the statement Obama is a socialist? I think so. I think you’d need to know a little something about the origins of the movement, how it has been practiced in the past, and how it has changed before calling that statement definitively False. When Politifact checked up on Ted Cruz’s statement about carpet bombing Syria, even though it looked like a simple matter of defining the terms, they talked to a military historian to ensure that they were not missing something in asserting that carpet bombing is indiscriminate, by definition and by precedent. So sometimes I included statements that didn’t appear at first glance to be historical, but which needed some reference to history to make Politifact’s argument complete.