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
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
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
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.
Cornel West talks about everyday poets, being the best of the human species, hope, what wokeness really means, and revolution.
Institutions—governmental, religious, financial, even revolution itself—have a way of turning stale and sour. "Thank God for the history of the heretics and the blasphemers. That's my crowd," says Dr. Cornel West. Quoting from some of history and literature's greatest thinkers and doers, West presents a poetic lecture on the role of hope in America's past and its future, and how to make your voice matter.
This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism, a three-year initiative which supported interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. For more from Dr. Cornel West, head to cornelwest.com.
Reviving the “Lesbian Rule” (which Aristotle wrote about, and was proverbial in Shakespeare's day) can help us handle a new kind of weaponized-math threat (that Cathy O’Neil calls “Weapons of Math Destruction”).
2. O’Neil exposes software models as digital deciders that can be “opaque… and uncontestable (sic), even when they’re wrong” (a new kind of kinetic logic threat).
3. Aristotle believed laws can be “defective because of... generality.” So equity can “only be measured… like the leaden rule used by Lesbian builders… that rule is not rigid but can bend to the shape of the stone.” (Until ~1870 Lesbian didn’t mean female homosexual.)
5. Shakespeare pondered distinctions between justice, equity, and equality. See “The Lesbian Rule of Measure for Measure’s” inflexible rules, King Lear’s “social arithmetics,” or “false equality” and erring quantitative equations in The Tempest.
6. In our math-intoxicated times we’re often at the mercy of the rigid-ruled robo-judgments of algorithms. O’Neil details their math-driven harms across fields like finance, education, justice, and democracy.
7. Models and metrics seemingly offer objective and fair judgements, but they often encode “prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias.” And predictive models can perpetuate injustice (e.g., algorithmic discrimination in sentencing and recidivism models).
8. And metrics can distort—>what gets measured often gets gamed. For instance, one university instantly improved its research rating by paying adjuncts $72,000 for 3 weeks of teaching if they reassigned old research to their new university.
9. Plus, much resists quantification. For instance, hammering all the complexity of good teaching into one number risks being “a statistical farce” (e.g. this New York Public School teacher rating seesawed wildly).
11. Sometimes the smart-seeming move of focussing on the metrics and the math, misleads. What math-mesmerized experts forget is that not all logic works like math (here’s an example of locally valid steps not logically accumulating like math overall).
13. Lesbian Rule thinking now means asking: Is all the needed truth in the data? Are the relevant realities squeezed into the model’s rules? Biases countered? Exceptions handled? Redress enabled?
14. Per Aristotle, legal codes have long encoded the need for judges to tailor justice (situationally, equitably). Legal norms (mitigation, recourse, conflict-of-interest avoidance) provide good models for algo-ethics (aside: lawyers are among the few still trained in non-numeric logic).
16. O’Neil says putting “fairness ahead of profit” means explicitly embedding “better values into our algorithms" (+using audits, transparency, hippocratic oaths).
17. Algorithms offer great gains and efficiencies, but these rigid-ruled robo-judges are also clear and present dangers. We court disaster if justice remains blind to their systemic risks.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions
It's not just the dope suits. A review says leadership plays a huge role at both the agency level and executive branch.
NASA has been named one of the “Best Places to Work” among agencies in the federal government for the fifth year in a row. Here is a ranking of the best to last. So, what makes NASA earn such a top rank? Here’s a hint: it’s not all about the prospect of getting to advance human exploration.
NASA’s top rank comes from the annual report “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government,” produced by the Partnership for Public Service and the Deloitte consulting firm. The data was complied from the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). This review provides insight into what employees think about leadership, pay, innovation, work-life balance, and more.
So, what makes for a good place to work, according to this review? Well, overall workplace satisfaction was highly influenced by pay (no surprise there), skill matching to the mission of their job, and leadership. “According to our analysis, effective leadership continues to be the key driver for federal employees in 2016, as it has been every year since the rankings were first launched in 2003,” the review reads.
The reason why NASA is such a great place to work? “It’s because Charlie Bolden [NASA’s administrator] is a great leader,” Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and chief executive, told the Washington Post.
There’s another leader, who has quite a bit of influence on employee satisfaction, and that’s the President.
Over the years of the Obama administration, federal employee job satisfaction fluctuated. The first two years saw ratings reach an all-time high with a government-wide score of 65 out of 100 back in 2010. But the next four years were marked by budget cuts, pay freezes, and a partial government shutdown. The last two have seen an up-tick, as this most recent review shows. The Partnership’s analysis indicates that this was largely due to the Obama administration’s direction, placing “a greater emphasis on strengthening the workforce and improving employee engagement.” The government-wide score currently sits at 59.4 out of 100.
President-elect Donald Trump will be inheriting this federal workforce, which still ranks lower overall than the private sector in terms of employee satisfaction. It will be interesting to see how his leadership will influence these rankings over the next four years.
A federal district court blocks new overtime pay rules, setting up a protracted legal battle.
An overtime rule that would have made more than 4 million American workers newly eligible for overtime pay was blocked by a federal court. The rule, issued by the Obama administration, was supposed to go into effect on December 1st.
The rule was temporarily blocked by the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Texas on the heels of 21 states suing the Department of Labor to stop the change before implementation.
Last updated in 2004, the rule is intended to counteract the effects of inflation, as an increasingly smaller fraction of workers has been able to take advantage of existing overtime regulations. Currently, the law requires employees to pay workers 1.5 times their wage for work on top of 40 hours per week.
Vice President Joe Biden summarized the purpose of the changes that were to be implemented this way:
"You're deprived of your dignity when you know you're working much, much harder and much, much stronger than you're getting compensated for," he said.
The new rules would raise the threshold when companies can deny overtime pay from $23,660 to $47,500. Those earning more than $47,500 could still be eligible for overtime pay if they do not perform managerial or supervisory duties (a so-called "white collar exemption"). The new rules would particularly affect industries like retail or fast food, where employees are often designated as managers and made to work long hours for flat salaries.
The White House estimated that the changes would raise the pay by $1.2 billion a year over the coming decade.
Biden argued that the rules would either give employees more money or time to spend on other activities as well as with their families, especially if the employers choose to lower their additional hours rather than paying more.
"Either way, the worker wins," Biden remarked.
Business groups have not all come on board this plan, claiming it will increase bureaucracy and force many employers to convert salaried workers to hourly ones, reducing their hours and pay.
"With the stroke of a pen, the Labor Department is demoting millions of workers," said David French, a senior vice president for the National Retail Federation. "Most of the people impacted by this change will not see any additional pay."
The federal court's injunction on the rule was cheered by the Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who led the coalition of states fighting the new regulation.
"Businesses and state and local governments across the country can breathe a sigh of relief now that this rule has been halted," he said. "Today's preliminary injunction reinforces the importance of the rule of law and constitutional government."
The new regulations would cover up to 35% of full-time salaried workers, while currently only 7% are covered. The administration sees its impact mostly focus on middle to lower-wage earners.
"This, in essence, is a minimum wage increase for the middle class," explained Judy Conti, from the federal advocacy group the National Employment Law Project.
As the injunction on the rule's implementation is not permanent, its fate will be decided via lawsuits, already under President-elect Trump's administration.
Cover photo: Chipotle restaurant workers fill orders for customers on the day that the company announced it will only use non-GMO ingredients in its food on April 27, 2015 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)