This Is When Your Politicians Have Lied About History

Breaking News
tags: lies

Allen Mikaelian is an editor, writer, and erstwhile historian living in DC. These charts were first published on Mr. Mikaelian's blog, Flat Hill, where readers can find other fascinating charts.

Politifact is perhaps never better than when it dives deep into a historical statement made by a politician or partisan commentator, cuts through the chaff, gathers expert opinions, and delivers a satisfying final judgement ranging from “True” to “Pants on Fire!” Some might accuse them of dismissing all the nuance and uncertainty of historical knowledge in favor of their clean and clear rating system, but when a politico claims that “The Taliban have been there for …  hundreds of thousands of years” or that the founding fathers were actively involved in cockfighting or that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican (againand again), nuance isn’t really necessary.

I started collecting Politifact rulings of historical statements not just for the satisfaction of seeing abusers of history called out, but to explore how politicians and their supporters use history. My selection is an unscientific sample of Politifact’s unscientific sample, but exploring these statements through visualizations was highly entertaining and caused a few questions to jump out. Why are the discussions of taxes, budgets, and debt so prone to historic comparison and hyperbole? Why would historical arguments appear so frequently in discussions about education? How many times will Politifact have to refute the claim that the Civil War was “not about slavery?”

A word about the data  

I selected statements that made direct reference to a historical event or person, that contained a historical comparison (for the first time ever, never in our nation’s history, etc), or for which Politifact consulted history or a historian to help settle the issue. In borderline cases, I asked myself if the statement was one that I felt required a historian to determine veracity. Although I believe that history can bring deeper understanding to any topic, you don’t necessarily need historians or historical research to check a fact like whether the climate has gotten warmer or whether a senator voted yea or nay on a particular bill two years ago. If you want to know why, history can almost always help, but Politifact doesn’t always have ask that question to make a ruling. More on this in the About the Data section below.

Oh, and I categorized these statements according to the point the speaker was trying to make. So if he was using Lincoln to make a point about abortion, I filed it under “family planning.” This will make some statements look oddly placed at first, unless you read the full Politifact ruling (which you can do by clicking on a circle).

Tips for navigating the charts: 

●  Every circle is a statement. Hover over a circle to see the statement, speaker, and ruling. Click on a circle to reveal a link to the Politifact page discussing this statement. Pages open in a new window. 

●  Hover over “Collapse all” and you’ll see a box with a minus sign. Click there, and all the topic areas will collapse into one row. Hover over “Expand”, click the box with the plus sign, and you’ll see a long list of subtopics—scroll down to see all. 

●  If you want to completely reduce all degrees of truth and falsehood into a simple binary, you can find a collapse/expand box by hovering over the words “Shades of Truth.” It’s just to the left. Sort by any row or column. 

●  Hover over the row or column header, and a small sort icon will appear. If you get lost, click reset at the bottom of the viz.