Presidential approval ratings are frequently cited in the media as some sort of gauge of how well a President is performing in the eyes of the citizens. Even today, I have seen various media outlets informing me that Trump is sitting at a 36% approval rating, nearly equalling his all-time low of 35%, with the implication that this is supposed to mean something about Trump or his presidency. It is my hypothesis that approval ratings say far more about the state of the American public than about the President. They tell the story of a fickle populace that oscillates between tribalism and jingoism, providing an array of largely meaningless data that uncritical media operators can cite to back whatever narrative they want to push on any given day.
To further delve into this, let us turn to historical data provided by Gallup that track approval ratings from the Truman presidency up to the Obama presidency. Among the most revealing elements of that dataset occurred during the George W. Bush presidency, in September 2001. We see that it spiked from just about 50% to a whopping 90%, the highest presidential approval rating ever recorded by Gallup, topping the 87% mark set by Truman in June 1945. In the case of Bush, this was followed by a collapse to 25%; in the case of Truman, it was followed by a nosedive to 22%, which remains the lowest presidential approval rating on record.
What did Bush do to see his approval ratings jump from a little over 50% to 90% in September 2001? Nothing. There is even videotape of him literally doing nothing in front of a kindergarten class when he receives the news of the September 11th attacks. George W. Bush did absolutely nothing to earn a 40% jump in approval ratings. All that changed was the American people went from being tribalistic, with half of the country despising Bush, to being jingoistic, ready to uncritically throw in behind Bush as he plotted his counterattacks against Al-Qaeda.
As time wore on, Bush’s ratings slipped back below 50% by 2003, as American politics descended, once more, into two-party tribalism, before he received another approval rating hike at the outset of the Iraq War. Finally, the American people were going to feel vindicated, or so they thought, and, once again, got in line behind their imperialistic president. For all the talk in the 2016 presidential campaign of what a disaster it was to invade Iraq, at the time, the American public was hungry for war, and this hunger proved significant enough to secure Bush a second term, as his approval rating closed out 2004 in the vicinity of 60%.
These movements in approval ratings are not the stories of Bush; they are the stories of conceptions of patriotism being co-opted by tribal entities, such as the Democratic and Republican parties, and of this tribalism occasionally yielding to jingoistic fervor when it is time for America to flex its muscles abroad. This did not begin with George W. Bush, either. To see, let us return to the case of Harry Truman, back in 1945.
We saw that Truman entered office with an 87% approval rating. What was going on around the time of June 1945? For starters, Hitler committed suicide in April 1945 and his successor, Karl Dönitz, surrendered unconditionally on May 8, 1945. All of this came on the heels of Franklin Roosevelt dying in April of a cerebral hemorrhage, a tragedy around which the American people could rally behind their new leader.
It should be stated that Truman did not win the war. The Invasion of Normandy that eventually led to the Allied victory commenced a full year before Truman’s peak approval ratings, on June 6, 1944. The last gasp of the Germans on the western front, the Battle of the Bulge, ended on January 25, 1945. In the Pacific theater, the war was all but won, as the Japanese had been defeated in decisive naval and land battles at Saipan, the Leyte Gulf, the Philippines, and Iwo Jima. Truman inherited the Battle of Okinawa, to position bombers close enough to Japan to strike the Japanese at home.
With the specter of Hitler and Nazi Germany vanquished, and as the Japanese were beaten back from all parts of the Pacific, Truman’s approval ratings slipped, then tumbled into free fall following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (a choice that was as debated then as it is today). Following this free fall, Truman’s ratings rose and fell with the vicissitudes of the political climate at home and abroad.
I must reiterate that these presidents, and, by and large, the rest, did little to earn their approval ratings. If George W. Bush can see an almost 40 point gain in ratings overnight, this suggests I could wake up tomorrow to learn of some tragic bombing only to see Trump’s ratings surge to 76%. If Kim Jong-Un sinks an American ship, is Trump all of a sudden going to be a better president? No, and, in light of this, does Trump’s 36% rating really mean anything? Did Bush’s ~50% rating prior to the September 11th attacks mean anything? Did it mean something about Johnson that he entered office with a 20 point higher approval rating than Kennedy had at the time of his assassination?
Nowhere in these movements of approval ratings do we find anything resembling critical thought. Why should Bush receive a 40 point spike in approval ratings because a terrorist group launched an attack on targets in the United States? Is the rational response not to question why Bush and his predecessors had engaged in dubious foreign policy choices that led to someone feeling the need to attack the United States? Even if you disagree with that assertion, is it not rational to question the president’s competence for being in charge of the federal government when such an attack occurred? Could a more competent president with a more competent staff have prevented it?
This lack of logic is played out again in the Iraq War. Why were the American people so charged up for a war that they ultimately came to despise, that ultimately led to Bush seeing his approval ratings tank all the way down to 25%? Where was the critical thought? Where was the suspicion directed toward war profiteers for engineering and carrying out the Iraq War on the American people’s dime? How did jingoistic fervor overcome partisan bickering and sage warnings from a previous president on the dangers of the military industrial complex to drive the war machine forward into a quagmire that, years later, almost nobody wanted?
I believe it is because approval ratings, themselves, are distraction tactics. Assigning meaning to fervor or partisan bickering is a method of suppressing progress and manufacturing consent. If the measurement of a president’s performance is based on fluctuations in global politics and violence, then the president is no more than a piece of iconography, and we may as well be measuring the approval rating of the American Flag. If we use these numbers to justify or critique decisions about so-called American interests, then we are not engaging in a rational discourse of policy. We are letting special interests and an insipid mainstream media frame the discussion, to suggest the will of the American people is in line with whatever agenda it is they are pushing that day.
As for me, I disapprove of the president, much as I have done for every president I can remember. I disapprove of the Democratic and Republican parties. I disapprove of them because I disapprove of the oligarchy they serve. No politician at any level will have my approval if he or she takes corporate money in any form or puts special interests above the interests of the American people. Why? Because I’m part of the American people, and I want my interests represented. I do not want greedy and immoral oligarchs to continue hoarding more wealth, disenfranchising more people, and doing more damage to the environment, year after year. No bombing, natural disaster, international tragedy, or diplomatic flare-up with a foreign entity is going to make me suddenly forget that the American political system is rotten, or make me suddenly start approving corrupt and malevolent people.
This piece was originally published on Medium.
Correction: This piece previously stated that the Battle of the Bulge, ended on January 25, 1944, but has since been corrected to accurately reflect that it ended on January 25, 1945.