Top 5 most controversial figures in American history
Who were the most divisive Americans?
- 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
Photo by Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images
President George W. Bush Addresses Nation On 9/11 Anniversary. 2006.
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
Photo by Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images
President Obama Delivers Remarks On Executive Action Immigration Reform. 2014.
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
Credit: Mike Powell /Allsport
Michael Jackson performs during halftime at Super Bowl XXVII. 1993.
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
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.
1. Richard Nixon
Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers
President Richard Nixon meets with Elvis Presley. 1970.
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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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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