collective memory & presidents – a guest post by raj ghoshal

This guest post is by Raj Ghoshal, an assistant professor of sociology at Goucher College. Previously we discussed presidents and collective memory in these two posts: Warren G. Harding is awesome & popular presidents kill people.

Presidents’ Day had me thinking about presidential rankings and collective memory. We commonly learn that a certain set of our presidents were great, while others were not – and for presidencies we (or our parents) didn’t personally live through, history textbooks and teachers are often the messengers. But how do presidential historians determine greatness? Are there sociological patterns worth noticing?

I looked at Wikipedia’s aggregation of U.S. presidential rankings by historians. A few patterns jumped out:

  1. Era matters greatly. Presidents who held office during broad periods of prosperity or national success are more likely to be considered great. Of course, presidents influence a country’s well-being, but the size of the era effects suggests historians are like the rest of us: they give individual presidents more credit or blame than they deserve. The first seven presidents, associated with the country’s birth and rise, are all ranked positively—this should be only 0.8% probable, if ratings are independent of era effects. The twelfth through twenty-first are all rated negatively, with the striking exception of Lincoln. (Perhaps Lincoln was genuinely greater, perhaps others could have been equally successful in leading through the Civil War, and/or perhaps his star dims the lights for those who came around him.) Presidents leading up to the Great Depression are rated poorly (#s 29-31), those in the era coming out of the Depression are rated positively (#s 32 to 36), and the mixed economic and social trends of the last five decades have yielded mainly average presidential ratings. Across these periods, the clustering is clear enough that individual differences between presidents are unlikely to be the sole cause.
  2. Presidential historians’ collective memory is stable, as the surveys show great consensus over time (this doesn’t mean that individual historians agree, since each data point is a survey). The only two cases out of all 43 where there’s even moderate evidence of changes in historians’ opinions after a president leaving office are Reagan and perhaps Nixon, and those changes are small, even though their supposed rehabilitations were widely discussed in the press (G.W. Bush’s standing among historians fell, but the drop came while he was still in office). While memory projects or changing norms can alter historical figures’ standing, this doesn’t seem to be very common with American presidents. More broadly, studying change is often interesting and revealing, but we should remember that change is usually the exception rather than the rule.
  3. For the five presidents where there’s data, future ratings closely follow the ratings a president had while in office. These five cases also suggest that historians tend to evaluate currently-in-office presidents fairly positively, at least at first. It’s impossible to disentangle this from era effects without more data, though.
  4. I didn’t look at how closely historians’ opinion follows public opinion, economic news, wars, or success in getting one’s agenda enacted, but those all probably matter too.

Feel free to use the comments.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 24, 2015 at 5:41 pm

5 Responses

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  1. A good presidency (or any leadership) is 20% self-determined and 80% completely out of the control of the individual.


    Lyndon @ Walsh Taylor

    February 24, 2015 at 6:19 pm

  2. You might be interested in these two works:

    The Double-Edged Sword of Grandiose Narcissism: Implications for Successful and Unsuccessful Leadership Among U.S. Presidents by Watts, Lilienfeld, Smith, et al. (2013)

    The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (And Doesn’t Want) Another Great President by Aaron David Miller



    February 24, 2015 at 7:21 pm

  3. On the issue of whether people believe whether other presidents could have led America through the civil war, I think the issue of causal power is relevant. Psychologists like Patricia Cheng who study the perception of causation have found that people take the baseline into account. For instasnce, if you tell people that a treatment was administered to fifty people, after which none of them had headaches, people rate the potency of the treatment on how many people had headaches to begin with. (This may not seem like a big deal, but a lot of early research on causal perception didn’t attend to this difference.)

    On the other hand, people associate unique treatments with unique diseases. Prozac may good at treating headaches, but that hasn’t been tested and because it’s difficult to develop drugs to treat headaches, people are going to assume that Prozac is less effective than Advil. Also Advil, by definition, is the drug that treats headaches. And Lincoln, by historical definition, is the president who led America through the Civil War. (The debate between Patricia Cheng and Peter White on causal perception seems analogous.)

    When it comes to great presidents, the question is–are people looking at different baselines (as in how many presidents had wars to begin with) or are people at thinking of associations (Advil is like Lincoln; Prozac is like Reagan). I think people generally have vivid stories in their mind about individual presidents, so people are focusing more on associations. That’s more rational, given it’s hard to do certain things like lead America through the civil war, and thus anyone who managed to do it seems exceptional. It would make for an interesting experimental study through.



    February 25, 2015 at 2:29 am

  4. It seems rather obvious that historians would overstate the importance of discrete persons and/or events over general trends. Wouldn’t a historian that did otherwise just be a sociologist? My understanding of history (or, perhaps, historianing) is that we can know what happened, but not why (apart from simply restating all the history leading up it) or what is likely to happen in the future. But maybe that is just a straw man.

    So while I agree with your main point, I have a problem with some of the analysis. You write “The first seven presidents, associated with the country’s birth and rise, are all ranked positively—this should be only 0.8% probable, if ratings are independent of era effects,” which I guess is strictly true, but I think you are conflating two kinds of era-effects. If our political system were better at selecting able leaders in its early days (as compared to the low points), then the effect must be attributed both to the electorate (for being wise and well organized) and to the leaders (for their good character and their availability). That kind of ‘era-effect’ seems quite different from a ‘the economy was good during the time so I must assume the President was good’ kind-of-effect, where the character of the person filling the role truly does not matter.

    Liked by 2 people

    Luke Sherry

    February 25, 2015 at 6:17 am

  5. Lyndon, yes. An interesting exercise is to imagine how Barack Obama would be regarded now if the November 2008 election had happened to be in November 2009.

    Luke, good point about multiple era effects – I think there are at least three types: (1) generally how good the era was/whether things were getting better; (2) factors that shape whether more qualified people got elected (as you point out); (3) historians’ assumptions about what types of systems yield better presidents. On (2), I’m with you on the theory, but I’m doubtful that systemic changes in who ends up being president can explain such large effects (especially since the biggest clear change is increased openness of the franchise now vs. 200 years ago, which I’d think would tend to yield better, not worse, presidents now). So I suspect #1 plays the biggest role.


    Raj Ghoshal

    February 26, 2015 at 4:06 pm

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