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Top 5 most controversial figures in American history

Who were the most divisive Americans?

Richard Nixon on a television screen. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
  • Many of the most polarizing Americans were presidents.
  • Being controversial created complicated legacies.
  • Pop culture can also cause strong division.

Controversy is not always bad for you. Case in point, most of the people on this list are well-known political figures who have made a strong imprint on the country's life. While President Trump is certainly a divisive figure to many, the full extent of his impact on America is yet to materialize. And as incendiary as some of his tweets might be, he's definitely not the first leader to act on opinions that exploit and exacerbate major ideological rifts. Here are 5 people who courted controversies that are still affecting the United States of today.

5. George W. Bush

President George W. Bush Addresses Nation On 9/11 Anniversary. 2006.

Photo by Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images

If you judge by Wikipedia, the former U.S. President George W. Bush is undoubtedly the most controversial person in the history of the country. While 2019 stats are not available, the community encyclopedia reports that Bush's page is edited almost twice as often as any other page on the site.

Why is "W" such a magnet for revisionary thinking? While he has become to some an almost beloved figure after leaving the office, in part thanks to taking up painting, his tenure as the 43rd President was very polarizing. Gallup reports that over his two terms Bush's average approval gap from Republicans to Democrats was 61 points. This means that generally 61% more Republicans were supportive of what he was doing than Democrats. In the period from 2004 until 2005, this gap was even worse, at 76%, with only 15% of Democrats (against 91% of Republicans) approving of Bush's decisions, like going to war in Iraq.

Besides getting the U.S. involved in costly and largely unwinnable wars that have crippled its own economy, other decisions made by George W. Bush that have been dogged by protests and argument include establishing the special prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and his administration's poor response to 2005's Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

4. Barack Obama

President Obama Delivers Remarks On Executive Action Immigration Reform. 2014.

Photo by Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images

The president who followed "W" into the Oval Office was perhaps an even more divisive figure. Barack Obama's decisions and background contributed to an ever-growing partisan approval gap, pointing to the expanding division in the country. Obama had a 65% difference between positive job ratings from Democrats (88%) and Republicans (23%) during his first year in office.

What was so controversial about President Obama? The first African-American president had to contend with deeply entrenched racism, a growing economic inequality in the country, and a Republican Congress that would not compromise on almost anything. Obama's support for an overhaul of the country's healthcare system, dubbed Obamacare, was another lightning rod that made him a target of constant attacks.

President Trump, of course, who is still fond of criticizing Obamacare, has already surpassed Obama partisan approval gaps in his tenure, "achieving" a 79% difference between Republican and Democratic support – a fact that underscores the continuing growth of polarization within the country.

3. Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson performs during halftime at Super Bowl XXVII. 1993.

Credit: Mike Powell /Allsport

You might wonder how the late singer Michael Jackson makes it to this list but quantifiable proof exists of his continually controversial status. Over 15 years, Jackson's Wikipedia entry has been edited less than George W. Bush's but more than those for Jesus and Obama – a testament to the cultural power of pop stardom.

Called the King of Pop, Jackson was undoubtedly the world's most famous entertainer during the 1980s and 1990s and his legacy still draws worldwide examination. Just recently, the documentary "Leaving Neverland" premiered during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. This HBO film makes the case that Jackson was a sexual abuser of children.

2. Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson.

Portrait by Ralph E.W. Earl. 1837.

Serving as president from 1829 until 1837, Andrew Jackson was seen by his detractors as a dangerous demagogue and a man who did not respect the system of checks and balances mandated by the Constitution. He was also infamous for his decisive role in the deaths of thousands of Native Americans who were forced into horrific mass migrations during his term.

Removal of Native Americans was Jackson's top legislative priority and resulted in such acts as the relocation of the Cherokee Nation in 1838, called the Trail of Tears. Four-thousand Cherokees died during the journey. Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole people were also moved under duress, accompanied by state and local militias away from their traditional lands. On the way they encountered disease, starvation, and exposure to the elements.

Known first as a war hero, Jackson portrayed himself as a fighter against a "corrupt aristocracy". He was also an owner of hundreds of slaves and a duelist – a fact that added to his reputation for violence.

Map of United States Indian Removal. 1830–1838.

Wikimedia.

1. Richard Nixon

President Richard Nixon meets with Elvis Presley. 1970.

Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers

No list of this kind would be complete without Richard Nixon, who was President of the U.S. from 1969 until 1974. Nixon's Watergate Scandal has become the golden standard of American political scandals and is likely to forever plague the legacy of the 37th President. Nixon's associates were discovered to have broken into Democratic campaign headquarters during the 1972 Presidential race, setting off a chain of coverups that ended up in Nixon's resignation from his job – the only time so far this has happened in American history.

Even before Watergate, Nixon wasn't really a universally beloved leader. His paranoid personal style resulted in numerous abuses of power, including using the FBI to wiretap 17 government officials and journalists. This has overshadowed some of the achievements of his administration, like the creation of the EPA and passage of the Endangered Species Act as well as the Clean Air Act.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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