Or, at least, a good number of conservative bloggers seem to think so. Last week, John Hawkins over at RightWingNews put out a poll question to over a hundred conservative bloggers to name, in any order, the top 20 worst figures in American history. 43 of the bloggers responded (we weren’t asked, nor does it appear as if any of our colleagues from Virginia were asked either) and you can see the results of the poll here. The results were, to put it mildly, interesting.
The list was not restricted to political figures – it was simply a list of worst Americans. Now, John has come out and said he thinks the poll came out the way it did because of how he phrased the question, but in any event, it was still striking that of the 25 figures that received enough votes to make the list, 19 of them were on there for political reasons. 12 were Democratic politicians (only 1 Republican made it, Richard Nixon). 23 of them are from the 20th/21st centuries, with only 1 from 19th and 1 from the 18th century.
What bothers me about the list is that it is indicative of a mindset that has infected politics – one that has been around a long time, and that gets exacerbated whenever we get into a really difficult election season. It is the mindset that those who disagree with you are evil, malignant and malicious creatures who are desperate to take over the country and remake it in their warped image. Both sides fall victim to this – whether it’s Democrats accusing George Bush of plotting 9/11, of starting the Iraq war to benefit his rich oil buddies, doing nothing during Katrina because he hates black people, etc. or whether it’s Barack Obama is a secret muslim, manchurian candidate who was really born in Kenya and is trying to turn America into a Cuban style communist paradise.
One of the difficulties of the dynamics we have in American politics is trying to differentiate between what the founding fathers would have characterized as “men or measures.” The debate back then was as common as the one today – which is more important in politics, the policies we adopt or the people we choose to represent us and create those policies? The question still comes up for every individual voter when they pull a lever in the voting booth. Some people don’t care who the politician is, so long as they have the right letter after their name. Those voters believe in the “measures” said of the old debate, and assume that as long as they vote for one of the major parties, they’ll get that bundle of policy choices the party espouses. Others care less about the policy and more about the individual. They want people of character, honesty, integrity, and intelligence in office and they are willing to choose whichever candidate they think is the best for the job regardless of policy. Those voters make up the bulk of the independent category.
But regardless of the party or the philosophy behind the choice, what we find very often is a willingness of all sides to villify their opponents. Instead of simply disagreeing with the other side, recognizing that they have the same goal as you do but simply a different way of achieving that goal, and finding ways to compromise and work together, politics gets dumbed down into a Star Wars-like pitched battle between good and evil. That’s how lists like this one get made. How anyone can call Jimmy Carter the worst figure in American history I have no idea. He shouldn’t even be on this list. Yes, his presidency was a failure, but he was not an evil man. He was not responsible for unnecessary deaths, guilty of treason, or irredeemably violent. He was just a poor president. That goes as well with all of the politicians on this list, except perhaps Nixon. And he would only belong on the list because the damage he did to the American political landscape echoes to this day.
On a personal level, I have done my best to never let politics get in the way of dealing fairly and forthrightly with folks on both sides of the aisle. I consider Ben Tribbett over at Not Larry Sabato a friend, and I’ve had a lot of good conversations with many of the Democrats in the Northern Virginia general assembly delegation – almost as many as I have had with Republicans. Frankly, I think more folks on my own side of the aisle dislike me more than the Democrats do, which always strikes me as amusing. But in the end, I have always felt that if I choose to like or dislike someone, it won’t be based on their politics. It’s a shame that this isn’t a universal feeling.
It would be great if all of us could, in the future, view our political opponents – not enemies, but opponents – as people. They may disagree with us, even vehemently, but in the end, we are all working to make Virginia and this country a better place. We may not agree on how to get there but our goals are the same.
After the jump – if you’re interested and because this kind of thing is fun – here’s my list of the 20 worst figures in American history, in general historical order. My list includes a variety of figures, some of whom were clearly more evil or depraved than the other, so they shouldn’t be compared to one another – simply looked at for how bad they were individually.
Benedict Arnold - Attempted to turn over West Point to the British during the Revolutionary War. Name is synonymous with treason.
Thomas Jefferson – While he had a few good qualities, he was an unabashed hypocrite, spendthrift and engaged in a variety of questionable activities in his personal life. Publicly, he led the behind the scenes efforts to discredit George Washington, provided secret material to the French during the quasi-war period at the expense of the Adams Administration, and worked to undermine the Adams Administration while serving in it. An inveterate liar, he frequently spoke behind his political opponents backs and is primarily responsible for the rise of political parties in American politics. His presidency saw the dismantling of the Navy, which left us woefully unprepared for the War of 1812.
Aaron Burr – Killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel (although that wasn’t entirely bad – had Hamilton lived he would likely have made my list) and attempted to start up his own empire in the southwest United States after his political career failed.
James Buchanan – No other President did as much to bring about or as little to stop the Civil War as Buchanan. His presidency was the absolute worst in American history. It saw the secession of much of the deep south while he did nothing. His collusion with Chief Justice Taney in the Dred Scott decision that rolled back multiple political compromises that had kept the Union together for thirty years was unforgivable.
William T. Sherman – His policy of engaging in total war in the South during the civil war destroyed huge swaths of the South, many areas never recovering fully. His actions made an already vicious war even more terrible for tens of thousands of Southerners who were guilty of nothing more than having been born South of the Mason-Dixon.
John Wilkes Booth – Assassinated Abraham Lincoln – the single-most damaging thing ever done to the South during the Civil War. Makes Sherman look like an angel.
Nathan Bedford Forrest – Founder of the Ku Klux Klan and southern partisan in the Reconstruction era.
Al Capone – Was the biggest and most famous of the Chicago gangsters of the 1920s, ran most of Chicago’s liquor rackets and was responsible for a variety of mass killings, including the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.
William J. Simmons – Founder of the modern Ku Klux Klan.
Theodore G. Bilbo – One of the most racist public officials in history. Served as governor of Mississippi twice and US Senator from Mississippi for two terms. Actively cultivated his white supremacist beliefs and did his best to defeat any kind of civil rights legislation while he was in the Senate.
The Rosenbergs – Traitors who provided American nuclear secrets to the Soviets, thus causing the arms race and lengthening the Cold War.
Charles Manson – Led a family of serial killers on a wave of violence across California in the 70s.
Jim Jones – Charesmatic leader of a pseudo-religious sect, that lead the deaths of 900 Americans, committing suicide at his order, the single largest non-accidental loss of American lives until 9/11.
Lee Harvey Oswald – Assassinated John F. Kennedy
James Earl Ray – Assassinated Martin Luther King.
Ted Bundy – Raped and murdered over 30 women in five states, including attacks on four sorority women in one night, and including teenagers and preteen girls.
Bob Irsay – Moved the Colts out of Baltimore.
Jeffrey Dahmer – Killed over a dozen men and ate them during his reign of terror in the nineties. Has become the quintessential modern serial killer.
Aldrich Ames – Traitor who provided significant classified material to the Soviet Union which resulted in the deaths of many Soviet defectors and agents working for the CIA.
Timothy McVeigh – Responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, worst domestic terrorist attack in history
Honorable mentions: Benjamin Franklin Bache (journalist), General Jeffrey Amherst (gave smallpox blankets to Indians), Andrew Jackson (attempted genocide against the Indians), Roger Taney (Wrote Dred Scott, colluded with Buchanan), H.H. Holmes (early serial killer), Willam Calley (Vietnam war criminal), Paul Watson (pirate), Fred Phelps (Westboro Baptist Church founder), and whoever invented Jersey Shore (’nuff said).