10 Widely Believed Political Myths
In the wake of another election cycle, it’s probably a good idea to take a breath, step away from the rhetoric, and take a good hard look at the truth. When politics really heats up and passions flare, it’s easy to get caught up in a message, rather than pay attention to what’s really happening. Though there are way more than ten U.S. political myths, the following happen to be ten of my favorites.
It is amazing that this one still lingers in the public consciousness as much as it does, especially considering so many of the things Al Gore really has said that are so far from reality. Part of the reason could be that Gore himself has joked about this on several occasions.
But the truth is that he never said this. In 1999, he gave an interview in which he stated that as a member of Congress, he had pushed legislation to create the internet, meaning develop it so it could be used on a much wider scale. Anyone who saw that interview – or even remotely understands Al Gore’s career as a congressman – knows that he was not claiming to have invented the internet any more than Colonel Sanders would claim to have invented fried chicken.
This one is even more pervasive than number one, in the sense that so many people continue to believe it, and associate the statement with the former vice presidential candidate from Alaska. Again, the confusion stems from an interview in which then-Governor Palin stated that there were parts of Alaska where people could actually see Russia. She said this in answer to a question about her experience in foreign policy.
A few nights later, the popular comedienne Tina Fey said the now famous, “I can see Russia from my house,” while imitating the candidate on Saturday Night Live. Governor Palin’s actual answer was admittedly not a good one. She could have spoken more articulately about the fact that she had to deal with two international borders. However, what is most remembered (even by intelligent people) is the line from SNL rather than what the real Palin said.
It happens countless times in the history classes of middle school, high school, and college, when they study the late 18th century in America. A stuck-up (and probably misinformed) history teacher/professor smugly informs his students that even though Republicans led the charge against slavery after the Civil War, the poles have since reversed and Democrats are now in favor of racial equality while Republicans are closeted members of the KKK. However, any historian truly worth his or her salt knows how ridiculous this notion is.
We don’t even need to look that far back in American history to prove this to be false. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is a perfect example. Was it the racist Republicans trying to stop civil rights legislation from being passed? On the contrary, it was Democrats in Congress who proved to be its biggest obstacle. Famously in 1964, a group of 19 senators, 18 of whom were Democrats, managed to filibuster the bill for 54 days.
Not recent enough? Consider the “racism” behind the appointments of the only black member of the Supreme Court, the first black Secretary of State, and the first black female Secretary of State. All of these were appointed by Republican presidents. In fact, when it comes to slavery, the right to vote, ending segregation and many other issues, any careful study of American history will turn up Republicans fighting for equal rights for African Americans while Democrats try their best to maintain the status quo.
So why does this myth persist so much? The answer is easy in this case. Republicans are associated with conservatives, and conservatives generally oppose programs such as government assistance and affirmative action. This is not because they are racists, but because they believe in the principles of self-sufficiency and equality. No candidate for a job or a school should be judged by the color of his skin over the content of his character. Sound familiar?
In the Twentieth Century, the United States was involved in five major wars: World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the first Persian Gulf War. Of these five, American involvement in the first four started while a Democrat was President. Woodrow Wilson made the decision to join the Allies in World War I; Franklin D. Roosevelt called on Congress to declare war against the Japanese, which prompted Germany to declare war on the US; Harry Truman inserted the US into the Korean Conflict as part of his doctrine to contain communism (he also ended WWII by ordering the dropping of two nuclear bombs); Lyndon Johnson did the same in Vietnam. George H. W. Bush led the US into war against Iraq after it had invaded Kuwait. All of these presidents, with exception of Bush, were Democrats.
As for the wars that have taken place since September 11, 2001: most people know that George W. Bush, a Republican, led the US into war against Iraq and Afghanistan. However, what many people forget is that most Democrats in Congress (including Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry) were very much in favor of – and voted for – both of those wars.
It was only when the war in Iraq became politically unpopular (mostly due to the failure to find weapons of mass destruction) that they began to change their tunes and start accusing the President and the intelligence community of deceiving the American people. It is also worth noting that Democratic President Barak Obama has ended the war in Iraq, but has escalated the war in Afghanistan and increased American involvement in other countries in the Middle East, such as Libya and Pakistan.
All of these wars had their proponents and dissenters on both sides of the political spectrum and they all came about because of the unique circumstances of their times, but it is simply wrong to characterize either party as pro-war or anti-war.
Obviously, there were certain things about Bush’s presidency that reeked of conservatism: tax cuts, rebate checks, Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito, and some others. However, it smacks of ignorance to characterize a president who increased federal spending more than any president in almost fifty years as a conservative. Sure, he had the 9/11 attacks to respond to, and that required more spending, but a conservative would have cut other programs to pay for it. Bush did not. In fact, Bush brought about new federal programs, such as No Child Left Behind, and increased spending on dozens of already existing programs, foundations, and causes. One of his pet projects, preventing and treating AIDS in Africa, cost US taxpayers over $15 billion. Money well spent? Maybe. Rightwing conservative? Not even close.
This myth is one that really only rears its ugly head once or twice every four years or so. However, such a huge deal is made over it at those times that it is worth mentioning on this list. Yes, it is true that if, God forbid, the president died in office, the vice president would complete the term as president. However, very few people consider this when voting.
In fact, a vice presidential candidate has little-to-no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of the presidential election. There have been exceptions, of course, but just take a look at our last four veeps: Dan Quayle, Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden. Does anyone really believe that the president won because of any of these people? It is much more likely that they won in spite of them. Sure, people love to point to Sarah Palin and blame her for John McCain’s loss in 2008, but the fact is that McCain’s poll numbers actually rose after his choice of Palin was announced. They later crashed shortly after the US economy did the same.
Nowadays, presidential candidates typically choose a young upstart (Paul Ryan or Gore) or an elder statesman (Cheney or Biden) to “sure up the ticket.” That’s political speak for “someone who won’t screw things up.” And what happens after the election? Usually nothing much. The vice president is supposed to preside over the Senate and cast a deciding vote if there is ever a tie – but this is very rare. He spends most of his time standing in for the president at certain official functions, championing the president’s agenda, and raising money for his party. Every president is different, but since the VP has such little power under the Constitution, it’s safe to say that other advisors, and certainly cabinet members, are the ones who really matter.
There are a couple different ways of looking at what constitutes a “fair share.” Perhaps as citizens of a country, we should all put in an equal amount of money to keep the country safe and the public works running smoothly. Not fair enough? Okay, maybe as citizens, we should all put in an equal percentage of the money we earn in order to keep things up and running. That sounds better actually, since if I make more money than someone else, I can afford to pay more.
Unfortunately, our country doesn’t do either of these. The United States income tax system is so complex that even if we could understand it completely, it still wouldn’t be fair. In the year 2006, the top 40% of highest income earning households paid 86% of all federal tax liabilities. The other 60% paid only 14%. Now, maybe the higher income earners should have to pay more, but is this even close to a fair share? Looking further, the top 10% paid 55% of the federal income taxes. Nearly half of America’s households paid no tax at all!
There is a strong argument to be made that the richer a person is, the more he should pay in taxes. But the notion that the rich aren’t paying a fair share is ludicrous. That being said, some people like to point out that many wealthy people pay a very low tax rate (below 20%). This is because they are living off investments called capital gains, not because they are somehow cheating the system. They don’t earn salaries, so they don’t pay income taxes. The rate for capital gains is lower so as to encourage people of all classes to make investments, which help the economy grow. This myth is one that people simply don’t have the facts on but they love to shout the loudest about.
Most people know a few things about Ronald Reagan. They know he lowered taxes, that he grew the military, that he stared down the communists in the USSR, and that he was president during a great economic recovery in the United States. All of these things are true, which have made him a conservative icon bordering on worship by many.
However, what many people fail to take into account is the enormous debt that Reagan allowed the country to accumulate. He actually presided over eleven tax increases in federal spending. Conservative pundits are quick to point to the Democratic congress he was forced to work with, but if he had been the model of conservatism that he is idolized as today, he would have hit that legislation with a big fat VETO. All in all, his economic policy did bring about recovery, but there was a lot of debt and a lot of tax increase to go with it – two things conservatives love to hate.
Conservatives also praise his hands-off approach to many facets of the government’s day-to-day operations. However, this philosophy backfired in a big way when the Iran-Contra Scandal came to light. Reagan gave his national security team too much freedom, which led to their breaking the law. Eleven members of his administration were eventually convicted in taking part in the secret sales of weapons to Iran to fund anticommunist forces in Nicaragua. Iran had been holding several Americans hostage at the time. Just imagine the reaction if a president from either party allowed this today. Selling weapons to Iran? Are you kidding?
He is often remembered as the president that got us out of the Great Depression and led the country through World War II. However, there are many historians and economists who would definitely beg to differ. In fact, there is just as much evidence that suggests FDR’s New Deal policies actually deepened and lengthened the Depression. And much of the massive expansion of government that came about because of the New Deal ended up being successfully challenged in court. FDR responded by trying to appoint additional judges to the Supreme Court. The lasting impact of Roosevelt’s economic policies is, at best, debatable. It is far more accurate to say that getting involved in World War II is what ultimately got the economy moving again.
As for FDR the wartime president: this is the guy who had his government locking up American citizens (men, women, and children who were born in the United States) because they were of Japanese descent. Can you imagine a conservative trying to do this today? Many progressives throw fits these days over trying to round up illegal immigrants, much less U.S.-born citizens who have not even been accused of a crime. Roosevelt was a tough president, who served during very difficult political times, but he was not the ideal progressive that we like to make him out to be.
This is number one on the list because so many people are so offended by the idea that there are citizens out there who would rather not vote in an election, yet still consider themselves good citizens. Many regard not voting as a sure sign of being a bad citizen. “It is the duty of every American to vote,” they say. “There are too many people in the world who do not have this right. So we must vote while we still can!”
The truth is that the right to vote is exactly that, a right. We can do it, or choose not to do it.
As citizens of the United States, we have many rights that are considered sacred. Do we have to take advantage of all of them? Last time I checked, the right to free speech and free press does not compel me to speak or write for a newspaper. The right to free exercise of religion does not mean I must go to church at the risk of not being allowed to worship freely at some point in the future. I believe very firmly in the right to own weapons, as is guaranteed by the Constitution, but I have never even held a weapon, much less own one. If I happened to change my mind on this because of unforeseen circumstances, I can sleep well knowing that this right is guaranteed for me to exercise when I choose to do so.
And what about the people who do vote? How informed on the candidates are they? Many people laugh or shake their heads when Jay Leno, Howard Stern or Bill O’Reilly interview people at random (often college students) to quiz on current events. It is hilarious to see how ignorant so many people are, until we stop to consider that these people are just as capable of voting as the rest of us. And they often do! Should they vote just because it’s their right to do so? Of course no one should stop them, but should we really encourage them? I happen to believe that an uninformed vote is much more dangerous than no vote at all.
And stop saying that if people don’t vote then they have no right to complain about whose in office. Check that First Amendment one more time. They can complain about anything they want.