A Memorial Day Weekend Reflection on Political Memory

Why do we remember politicians as being against things they were for, and vice versa?

Happy Memorial Day Weekend! Do you think you have a good political memory? Try this little five question quiz.

Which US President dramatically cut federal criminal penalties for marijuana possession, was a forceful advocate for expanded food stamps and affirmative action, and worked closely with Congress to create the Environmental Protection Agency?

(a) John F. Kennedy
(b) Lyndon Johnson
(c) Jimmy Carter
(d) Richard Nixon

The share of GDP devoted to social spending increased from 22% to an unprecedented 26.7% in just the first three years of what UK Prime Minister’s Rule?

(a) Clement Atlee
(b) Ramsay MacDonald
(c) David Lloyd George
(d) John Major

As governor, he signed a bill that expanded access to legal abortion, over two million of which subsequently occured on his watch. He also passed the biggest tax increase in the history of his state. Who was he?

(a) Mario Cuomo
(b) Patrick Lucey
(c) Terry Sanford
(d) Ronald Reagan

As President, he delighted the wealthiest Americans by pushing for a decrease in the top income tax rate from 91% to 65%

(a) Ronald Reagan
(b) Gerald Ford
(c) Calvin Coolidge
(d) John F. Kennedy

After their election in 2010, the UK Conservative-LibDem coalition inherited a record annual government spending level of about 670 billion pounds. They introduced what was widely termed “austerity” fiscal policy, with government spending in the first year doing what?

(a) Decreasing by about 70 billion pounds
(b) Decreasing by about 40 billion pounds
(c) Decreasing by about 10 billion pounds
(d) Increasing by about 20 billion pounds

The answer to all 5 questions is (d). Seriously. The “heartless” Richard Nixon wanted to end hunger among the poor, and the “liberal champion” John Kennedy was the millionaire’s best friend. “Tight-fisted” British Tories have expanded social and other spending and conservative icon Ronald Reagan signed off on big tax increases (and not just as governor) and expanded access to abortion.

Many people’s memories of politicians erase the contradictions, complexities and compromises of governance that are invariably characteristic of elected leaders. Often this is in the service of current political agendas (e.g., “Ronald Reagan never raised taxes so let’s not betray his legacy by doing it now!”) or emotional needs (e.g., the desire to see one’s own “team” as perfect or the other “team” as thoroughgoing monsters).

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman might add that our inherent cognitive laziness also plays a role. Not really knowing a specific fact such as John Major’s record on social spending, many people substitute in their mind something they do know (Major was a Tory and Tories often oppose social spending) and become confident that they recall an event or policy that in fact never happened.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

36 thoughts on “A Memorial Day Weekend Reflection on Political Memory”

  1. Presidents and governors reflect their times and constituencies as much as their ideologies. Nixon’s America was a much more liberal place — and one with much different problems than Obama’s. (Seen a river catch fire lately?)

        1. That’s outrageous. I’ve been submitting my subscription fee faithfully.

          (Fortunately, the submissions have never been cashed.)

  2. But I’ve been struck to hear conservative radio yappers declare that Reagan never — never, never, never — raised taxes. People who know better. At least it’s confirmation of just who lies for money.

  3. I’m reminded of a poll showing that, to the extent blacks agree with the Republican party on any issue, they mistakenly attribute that position instead to the Democratic party. This is the same sort of thing. It’s hard keeping your eyes open, and not letting your opinions color your perception of the facts, even replace that perception.

    “But I’ve been struck to hear conservative radio yappers declare that Reagan never — never, never, never — raised taxes.”

    Yeah, that would be stupid, of course he raised taxes. Just didn’t get the spending cuts he was promised in return. That’s the main reason Republicans now are determined not to trade tax increases to get spending cuts: There’s no point in entering into grand bargains that require you to give something up, if you never get what you were supposed to receive in return.

    1. Sure about that? When he was elected governor of California, he just raised taxes and blamed Pat Brown’s deficit (fairly, I’d add).

    2. I can’t believe you’re gullible enough to believe Republicans actually want to cut spending. Every time Republicans have had control of the Federal treasury in my lifetime — every time, without fail — they’ve cut taxes, then spent like they’re starring in a remake of Brewster’s Millions.

  4. I’m not sure that saying Kennedy was the millionaire’s best friend is fair. The argument at the time was that noone really paid 91% instead they paid lots of money to tax lawyers who brought it down to around 65%. The idea was that they would stop bothering with the tax lawyers and simply send off the 65%.

    Instead they hired the tax lawyers to reduce it to 35%. So we reduced their rates again and got Mitt who stated that if he paid a dollar extra he did not deserve to be president.

    1. I gather you admire Kennedy and not Romney. If their positions on taxing the rich had been reversed, would you defend Romney and criticize Kennedy instead? If you are like most people, you probably would not, which is one of the phenomena I am describing in the post that affects our memories…wanting to color out the blips in one’s team but not excusing them in others.

      1. Those are apples and oranges, I’d say. First of all, there’s a qualitative difference between cutting a 91% top marginal income tax rate and making 35% as the top marginal income tax rate permanent. Saying that high end income should be taxed at 65%-70% is not the same as saying that it should be taxed at 35%.

        The Federal Budget of 1962 was a totally different beast (more than half being spent on defense, a small fraction on the social safety net) compared to the Federal Budget of 2012. Also, in practical terms, the 1964 tax cuts barely impacted federal revenue (because they were enacted during a period of economic growth).

        Mitt Romney’s tax cutting proposals were criticized because they didn’t add up and were considered code for slashing welfare spending by quite a few people (because that was the only way you could make them add up, other than cutting defense spending, which nobody expected out of a Republican candidate).

        Also, there are those of us who think that JFK was probably indeed a bit overrated as a president; a halo effect from presiding over an era of economic growth immediately following a recession.

        1. Katja — I am not saying the policies are the same at all (Remember the only claim was that the wealthy were happy to get their taxes cut). Rather, I’m using the conjecture as a jumping off point to ask a commenter whether if someone likes a politician is that person more prone to explain away the pol’s departures from one’s views than if one doesn’t like them. For example, there is an Oliver Stone-esque faction that can’t admit to themselves that Kennedy got the US into Viet Nam and therefore says that he was assassinated because he was going to pull out of Southeast Asia. When in fact the thousands of “advisors” he sent there was completely in keeping with his anti-Communist foriegn policy views.

          (and BTW I am also in the camp who thinks JFK is an over-rated president — the modal survey answer of US boomers is to rate him as best in history! Big fan of his brother and nephew though).

          1. And that makes three of us. Hmm…”a halo effect from presiding over an era of economic growth immediately following a recession.” What other President, so beloved of boomers, might that apply to?

            But Keith–you should specify the nephew. I’m pretty sick of the one who doesn’t understand science and misuses statistics.

      2. Keith–If their positions were reversed, then Kennedy would not have been the Kennedy I knew, and Romney would not be the Romney I know, so IMO that hypothetical is not a good way to make your point.

        I think what you need is a situation where Kennedy took a relatively conservative position, while Rommey takes a relatively progressive position. My guess is that you’ll find some of those for Kennedy–after all, he was a member of the moneyed Eastern Establishment–but you’ll search in vain for any progressive position from Romney with which to make the comparison.

        1. you’ll search in vain for any progressive position from Romney with which to make the comparison.

          Health care in Massachusetts?

          1. But wasn’t Romney’s plan in Massachusetts based on a program originally published by the Heritage Foundation in the early 90s as a Republican alternative to the Clinton plan? Recycling Republican ideas may be pragmatic, but seems like a stretch to call it “progressive.” Now if only Romney had introduced statewide single-payer, then you’d be onto something…

          2. I know this is an oversimplification, but …

            No, Health care in Massachusetts was not a Romney progressive position. He was overrun by a progressive legislature. He vetoed many of the provisions they passed (Mass. Governor had line-item veto power), and all his vetoes were overridden. He “compromised” with the legislature where possible to protect the insurance companies and to minimize the impact on businesses. That’s a right-wing approach to accommodation with the progressive majority.

  5. As someone who is old enough to remember Nixon, I have from time to time pointed out to people that the socialistcommunistmarxist Obama is actually well to the right of Nixon on domestic policy. The usual reaction is for the listener to look at me like I’m crazy. But it really shows how distorted the entire debate has become. If Obama were around in 1968, he would have been a center-right Republican. If Nixon were around today, he’d be considered a fringe leftist, out there with Kucinich. Truly weird.

    1. I suppose it’s possible that Obama would have been a Conservative then and Nixon would be a Leftist today. But don’t you think it’s more likely that they’d still be pushing in the same direction, from just a different point on the field? Nixon’s bone-deep hatred of cultural elites and virtuoso appeal to culture-war politics would put him right at home in today’s GOP.

      To imagine that Reagan would be a Democrat today is to suppose that the players on a football team are going to switch sides after they make a first down. You won’t understand the game if you think that their goal is to move the ball to their own 40-yard-line. Their goal is to move the ball toward the other side’s goal, and they fight that same battle at whatever position on the field they happen to be.

  6. And there was Nixon’s “negative income tax” trial balloon. (Imagine how life in this country, and our economy, would be different if *that* had gone through.) But it was mostly a counter to other War on Poverty type proposals, so I think people are right to point to the context of contemporary discussion on these issues. IIRC, the idea came from Milton Friedman, no less. Imagine that coming from Kudlow or Holtz-Eakin today!

    As far as Reagan on taxes and spending cuts goes, my mind always turns back to the scene in Stockman’s Triumph of Politics where he takes a list of very specific cuts to Reagan and walks him through the list. Almost every time, Reagan says, “no, that would hurt so-and-so people, we can’t cut that.” Who knows how much of what he said was personal and how much was political, but what it really shows is that generalizations are cheap and easy. They may make you popular at the time and later, but when you look for specifics that would achieve what the generalizations call for, life looks very different.

  7. Share of GDP on social spending in any civilized country isn’t about the politics of the leadership, it’s about the state of the economy. Goes down when the economy is doing well, increases sharply when the economy tanks. So I’m not sure that one works so well.

    1. Agreed that social spending should track unemployment, health, and other demographic factors.

      Likewise this quiz presents a 20 billion pound increase as “not a cut”, and maybe it isn’t but we can’t tell just because the number went up. The right way to determine if social spending has been cut is to look at unmet need not pound figures. My understanding is that the Tories changed social programs so that the rate of spending increased more slowly than it would have had prior policy remained in place. That is a cut.

      As a crude example, if I reduced unemployement benefits 10% and the unemployment rate doubled I’d see an 80% increase in unemployement spending. Since my policy change didn’t (hopefully) cause the mass unemployment it is more accurate to say I cut benefits 10%, since that’s what *I* did.

      I think the other questions are more fair, but I also don’t think it makes sense to consider a policy choice that was made without being presented with the policy or policies advocated by the opposition.

      1. Joe grimm wrote: Likewise this quiz presents a 20 billion pound increase as “not a cut”

        The question makes no such argument and doesn’t mention the word cut at all. It gives four answers and asks people to choose which is correct. Answer d is factually correct, period (See this blog’s motto…). You are entitled to your own opinion of what the policy should have been, but a fact is a fact, and the fact is spending went up by about 20 billion pounds and most people don’t know that.

        1. Let’s examine these facts a bit more closely.

          To begin with, 13 of those 20 billion pounds came from the expiration of the VAT tax holiday, raising the VAT rate back from 17.5% to 20%. A VAT is, of course, a regressive tax [1] that hits the poor far more than the rich. Its regressiveness is traditionally countered in Europe by redistributive measures that more than offset the regressiveness, but the Osborne budget slashed welfare benefits instead of increasing them.

          Spending did go up primarily because of (1) increased debt service and (2) increased total welfare spending (even with per person welfare spending being slashed, the recession had more people depend on welfare).

          Austerity seems to be a perfectly appropriate descriptor for such a budget. This is not a moral judgement; one could even make an argument that it was a perfectly rational choice [2], but it still meant austerity for millions of British people.

          [1] While some goods, such as food and children’s clothes, are exempt from the VAT, overall it is still regressive.
          [2] An opinion that I do not share, but one that is hardly indefensible.

          1. Katja: You are welcome to call it austerity, to criticize it, to denounce it etc, many people have. But for my own part, it’s just a quiz question to which many people would think a-c were the right answer when in fact the correct answer is d, full stop. This would surprise many people, and that is the only point of the quiz and of the post…the post does not maintain/argue/propose/insist/deny/refute that Kennedy/Reagan/Major/Cameron/Nixon or anyone else is good or bad, right or wrong, moral or immoral. Those subjects are all worth long debates, indeed worthy of a thousand books…but the post is just a simple demonstration of how our memories differ from facts.

          2. I understand that, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Your explanation was that this exercise was about politicians acting “out of character”, so to speak. There’s nothing out of character in Osborne’s 2010 budget. It raised taxes on the poor and cut welfare benefits. It walked like a Tory budget, swam like a Tory budget, and quacked like a Tory budget. There’s no reason to put austerity in quotes in the question, either.

            I am in fact not criticizing or denouncing it here (though I could). My point is that it doesn’t fit the pattern, not that it was evil.

          3. @Katja: My post was about what people think they remember versus what actually happened. I think most people would think they remember answers a-c for all the questions when the correct answer is d on the all the questions. For the specific question we are discussing, I don’t think many people will now and even less so in 5 years say “They raised spending, but re-allocated it in such and so ways that were regressive”, I think they will now and in future say incorrectly that they cut spending when in fact they didn’t. I don’t see that as a comment on the merits of the policy one way or the other, I see it as a comment on human memory, and I find it interesting on those terms.

            p.s. The reason “austerity” was in quotes BTW was because it was a quote, as in he was widely termed “The Texas Tornado”. I am not a post-modernist…quote marks for me don’t mean irony, they mean I am quoting.

    2. paul wrote: Share of GDP on social spending in any civilized country isn’t about the politics of the leadership

      I rather think that Clement Atlee, who increased NHS spending by an astonishing 1.5% of GDP would have a different view, and I don’t know any historians who assume that Churchill would have done just the same as a passive captive of economic conditions if he had been elected in 1945.

      1. Keith

        You are definitely right for structural change, and most especially for Labour 1945-51, a complete step change in British politics, even Thatcher could not reverse it.

        Perhaps for simply the spending cycle, the argument that social spending rises with the economic fall is stronger. I am thinking Thatcher in the 1980s, with 3 million unemployed, and the resultant increase in unemployment and disability benefit.

  8. I suppose the complexities of our lives require that we simplify historical nuance to received mythologies less than two moves deep, but that is what counts for “history” in the minds of most of our citizens on the right as well as the left….good thoughtful post.

  9. Brilliant examples.

    Being a twit, I note that I got them all right. I suspected the pattern after the first 2 & was sure after Reagan. EPA was a giveaway, I know about the top US marginal tax rate, & I know about Reagan and abortion. I was faking it on the UK questions based on the pattern of d and contrarian. Question 2 is pretty guessable given the upward trend in social welfare spending (mostly pensions). Also the first MacDonald government lasted for fewer than 3 years so what were the first three years of his rule ?

    I didn’t know about Nixon and food stamps (I did know about Dole and food stamps and it sure took guts for a senator from Kansas to fight for subsidized food purchases).

    1. I wonder whether that was Dole’s bravery, or whether that he came from a food producing state?

      FDR was a political genius. By resting food stamps inside the Dept of Agriculture, and thus allying it with one of the most powerful and durable of American lobbies, the food producers’ one, he ensured its longevity.

      So was Bob Dole simply obeying the dictate that if you are from a midwestern farm state:

      – you are for corn ethanol (thinking of the young senator from Illinois, one Barack H Obama?)
      – you are for anything that supports domestic consumption of, and export of, far products

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