Monday, February 19, 2018

Presidents Day Special: Interpreting Presidential Rankings

Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics released the results of a poll (conducted with Ipsos) of American ratings of past presidents. Rating presidents is a time honored historical game. There are some generally accepted conclusions – Lincoln was the best, Nixon the worst. There are always fun re-interpretations. Ulysses S Grant has his fans, as does McKinley and Martin Van Buren. Everyone loves Teddy Roosevelt (except H.L. Mencken of course.)

I of course have deep sympathy for all (or almost all) of those who have held our highest office. As Damon Runyon wrote of FDR, “He only did the best he could, no man could have done more.”

Sabato’s poll shows what regular Americans think of the last dozen holders of the office.

Table from Sabato's Silver Ball at UVA Center for Politics
My first thought on reviewing this list is a frightening one – and true. The list is a ranking based on looks. That is why JFK always comes out on top, followed by movie star Reagan, cool hand Barack, and Bill Clinton who was sort of a deep-fried JFK. At the bottom we have our baldest and most bloated president in recent history, followed by LBJ with his outsized facial features, and of course Nixon.

But really, what is the deal with JFK? Not just Democrats, Republicans also love him, rating him ahead of Eisenhower (to say nothing of Ford and Nixon.) He was an immensely attractive man, exemplar of a new generation, who – besides his looks – was witty and appeared to dispatch his office with aplomb. He was blessed with a beautiful and graceful wife and he died tragically and young.

With JFK’s assassination, it seemed America broke. We had the turmoil of the 1960s, the terrible war in Vietnam, and Watergate. In a college science fiction writing class about alternative histories, two stories in a class of a dozen, featured LBJ and the war in Vietnam (one by me.) We had been children when that war ended, but it cast a long shadow.

Watergate, the outgrowth of JFK’s GOP foil, may make another Kennedyesque Camelot impossible. JFK was a deeply flawed man. Besides the compulsive womanizing, he had severe health problems that left him in great pain and were controlled with significant pharmaceuticals. The press knew, but allowed the president’s private life to remain private. After Nixon, that was no longer possible. The presidency was brought out of the shadows.

We mourn the man, but we also mourn the moment.

Somehow in our collective memory JFK sits alongside Lincoln in our imaginary Mount Rushmore, while other figures – truly giant – have begun to fade.

Splitting Differences
It is interesting to compare the splits between the ratings by party. The average partisan difference is 2.07. The largest splits are over Obama and Trump, both over 5. Somehow this is not a surprise. The Democrats' rating of Obama is the highest rating of any president by any partisan group and their rating of Trump is the lowest. The Republican rating of Trump is the third highest of any president by partisan group (after Obama by Democrats and Reagan by Republicans). The Republican rating of Obama is the third lowest rating of any president by a partisan group (beating out only Nixon and Trump among Democrats.)

I made this Table, using the UVA/Ipsos poll.
The second largest partisan splits are over Reagan and Clinton at 2.88. The smallest partisan split is over LBJ, only .31 (more on him below.)

The Democrats appear to be easier on rating Republicans than vice-versa. The Democrats rate LBJ as the worst president from their party, and rate four Republicans ahead of him. Besides Reagan, the Bushes and Eisenhower are all rated just a bit below average.

The GOP only rates JFK ahead of Nixon (the Republican they rate lowest). Interestingly, Republican respondents go somewhat easy on LBJ, rating him middle of the pack as far as Democrats go – only a little worse than Democrats rate him. LBJ is interesting because (like Ford) Independents rate both of them significantly lower than the opposing party. This highlights the observation above, that for many people Johnson is where things started to go wrong for the United States.

It was Reagan who said the 11th commandment was, “Thou shalt not speak ill of they fellow Republican.” Perhaps a bit of that party discipline shows here the lockstep Republican preference for Republicans.

Gender and Generations
The poll also broke down ratings of presidents by gender and generation. On the gender side, there were several cases of men distinctly rating certain presidents higher than women did. Eisenhower has the strongest split, possibly men think – well he was a general so he must be ok. The male preference for Trump is hardly unknown, but there are comparable male preferences for LBJ and Nixon. Lest one think it is because women blanched at their homeliness, men also preferred JFK and Reagan. I have no idea why men rated these presidents higher than women.
Table from Sabato's Silver Ball at the UVA Center for Politics

The only president women rated higher than men did was Obama. Perhaps his model, modern marriage in which his wife was clearly outspoken and engaged (after the demure Laura Bush) was appealing.

The breakdowns of different generations’ presidential ratings is particularly interesting and may be the most significant of the survey. The survey notes that actually remembering presidents may play a significant role in rating them. The 55+ bracket overall rates presidents at 5.67, their lowest rating is Nixon at 4.36 (not bad considering they remember Watergate!) Except for Obama and Clinton, the 55+ cohort rates presidents from both parties higher than the other cohorts. And their ratings of Obama and Clinton, while the lowest, are not that low at about 5.5.

The 18-34 cohort has at best blah ratings for presidents outside their living memory except for JFK (that magic really has lived.) They are huge outliers on Reagan, seeing him as a bit below average.

Can I just say that it kills me that fully formed adults with jobs and advanced degrees were born after Reagan left office – time is inexorable!

Overall the farther back you go, the more my generation (35-54, caught in the middle) converges with the 18-34 cohort. On more recent presidents they are closer to the elders. In overall ratings, my generation’s average ratings are 5.07 while the 18-34s is 4.64. The only recent presidents they rate as above average are Clinton and Obama (who comes in at a whopping 6.96 – they really liked him.)

The obvious interpretation is, as I mentioned, that simply remembering who presidents were. But it is also possible, that having entered the workforce in the face of a huge recession and watching their nation struggle with a pair of endless wars, they maybe younger generations are more skeptical of authority and their national leadership. But their tremendous affection for Obama and their continuing to carry the Kennedy flame suggests that they are not so cynical that they cannot be inspired.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

VPWriting6: (Increments + Exponents)Impact = Excrement

I am still struck by my observation the other day at how a mere 500 words a day can amount to serious output. It makes it seem like being a writer should be easy. If you wander over to TerrorWonk (or right here on VeepCritique) you'll find a number of my entries, usually 500 words-ish, most of which I can crank out in an hour.

Hail the awesome power of increments!!!

However, to take one of these blog entries and make it publishable requires a lot, lot more. The increase is exponential. I would need to triple check references, verify the soundness of my arguments, and really polish the language. Further, there is an additional time investment on both the front end and on the back end. On the front end, I need to keep up on various issues to write thoughtfully about them. If I just dash something off, that's fine, but if I want to get it published then I really need to make sure I'm writing something worth reading. On the back end, to get something published one needs to engage editors. That includes finding appropriate publications, scanning them for content to make sure I'm not saying what has already been said and finally pitching editors. This last, crucial bit goes better if you actually have a relationship with said editors. That too, takes time.

This process also involves triggering the all-powerful self-doubt that most writers recognize - which makes slow going even slower.

So getting something published for real turns a one hour project into a day. I have an hour in the morning for writing, but not a whole day. Now, if my ambition were simply to knock out a decent op-ed a week I could do it. Alternately, I could blog volumes!

But, I have ideas for books and they take time. If I could put down a solid thousand words a week towards a book I could have one done in a year or so. I think that's optimistic because if my writing time is about 10 hours a week and I need to do research, this strikes me as very difficult (the exponents I just mentioned), but maybe. People do it.

But this brings us to the final factor.

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.
Dr. Samuel Johnson
Would I like my written work to have some impact on the affairs of the day? Yes.
I would also like to get something out of it. I can get an academic book published. I've heard them described as very heavy business cards. If you want your book to sell and have impact you need to publicize it. At the same time if you are using your book as a business card (a very plausible strategy by the way) then it is marketing you - in which case it is part of your efforts at promotion.

What I mean is, if any of what I write is going to matter to the world or to me, I need to be marketing it, I need to promote it. I clearly stink at this.

One part of marketing would be to write short articles so that people start to see my name, so that editors are familiar with me, so that people start to follow me on social media.

I can blog away, and I don't plan to quit, but I will literally have a half-dozen readers. But if my outside writing is taken up by finishing the books, when does the promotional activity happen? (Remember, I have a day job!)

When I say excrement I don't mean my writing is bad. It's fine. It's that multiplied by zero impact it really all adds up to not much of anything.

Of course, it doesn't help that I spent my writing morning puttering around with a blog entry about how much trouble I have writing... that's on me.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

VPWriting 5: Bad Writing Days

I took Tuesday off and had three goals for the day. I accomplished two of them, so in some ways that’s a win. I went to Costco (which is a pretty heavy duty endeavor) and I got on the treadmill and ran. I did not finish a draft of a proposal for a third book idea I have. I couldn’t get up early, just exhausted, and then after the Costco trip and lunch with me wife (who was working from home) I was wiped. I just couldn’t get the writing going.

Pixabay has great free pics. I liked this one and seems to fit this post.
The proposal was due today. I lost a lot of motivation to get it in when I saw the stipend. It would get me a few months off to write – not that year I need. But I still wanted to get it submitted, because you never know and the exercise is worth doing in its own right.

Wednesday, I had my wife drive morning carpool so I could go into work late. The writing came along nicely. I had a decent working draft of the proposal (I finished it up today.) Of course at work on Wednesday the work writing was dry. I have a not an ongoing paper that I simply could not untangle. Today I had some other stuff to attend to but I’ll try again tomorrow. However, I have another work paper that I really need to get cracking on.