Half the country doesn’t think Watergate was a real scandal!? Why?


Nixon, letting people know that he was not a crook. (Associated Press)

Over 40 percent of the country, including more than half of people under the age of 35, think the Watergate scandal was just a symptom of political wrangling and mud-slinging -- what we might now call politics as usual. But, why?

Timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the resignation of President Richard Nixon, CNN/ORC International released a poll Friday evaluating Americans' attitudes toward the scandal that led to Nixon's downfall. And the differentiation on ages jumped out at them.

There's a big generational divide over the significance of the scandal, with a majority of those older than 40 describing Watergate as a very serious problem and those under 40 saying it was just politics.

Here's the breakdown on that question by age group:

For those under the age of 35, a majority say that Watergate was just politics. For those over 35, it varies a bit -- but there's still a healthy percentage that apparently considers the affair to have been mostly a political maneuver by Democrats.

Clearly (or, so we would have thought) the events of Watergate and Nixon's involvement with them were exceptional even by our high bar for scandal. So we developed some theories about this unexpected result.

More than half of the country wasn't alive during Watergate.

Obviously no one under the age of 35 was alive during Watergate. But neither were a number of people over the age of 35 (specifically, those 35-40). As of today, less than half of the population was alive in 1974 -- the tail end of the scandal. And, given that newborns might not have had a strong sense of what Nixon's resignation meant, it's worth narrowing that down even more. Only 37.5 percent of the country in 2012 was 10 years old or older in 1974. And that percentage has dropped since.

Opinions of Nixon have improved (very slightly).

Evaluating opinions on a president over time is a bit tricky, given that most polling firms stop polling on them once they leave office. Gallup, however, does sporadic retrospective polling on former presidents, and was kind enough to share that data with The Fix.

Once the presidents leave office, opinions tend to improve, for understandable reasons. Nixon is still the least-favorably viewed former recent president, but he's doing better than he was in 1974. When Nixon left office, his approval rating was 24 percent. In Gallup's polling since, he's averaged 33 percent approval -- although that's ranged from the upper 20s to the upper 30s.

It's interesting to note how that has changed by age group over time. Remember that the age groups have evolved; 1993's 18-29-year olds are 2010's 35-46-year olds. In recent years, the group most likely to evaluate Nixon's presidency favorably have been those who are most likely to think Watergate was just about politics.

Everything is a -gate.

When MSNBC reporter Alex Seitz-Wald saw the poll results, he raised an interesting point.

This isn't specific to Obama, of course. The "-gate" suffix is a favorite of those hoping to cast an event in a negative light, as it has been for years. (Even abroad, a spoiled meat scandal in China earlier this year was dubbed 臭肉门, "Foul Meat-gate.")

It's hard to quantify this. Searches for "-gate" don't yield much. And we hate to rely on anecdotalism, but it's obvious that 1) the "-gate" suffix was meaningless before 1970 and that 2) it is used more broadly than to describe the events that brought down Nixon.

Younger people are skeptical of politics.

There's one more theory worth pointing out. The CNN poll itself found that confidence in government has never been lower in its history of polling. Which jibes with other polling that finds people are very skeptical of the state of American politics.

In a survey earlier this year, Pew Research found that a quarter of Millennials didn't believe that there was any substantial difference between the two major political parties, and that another 39 percent said there was just a "fair amount." Among older respondents, the answers were a little more generous. (Pew's descriptor of the oldest group of respondents? The "Silent generation" -- a term derived from comments by one Richard Nixon.)

If you don't remember Watergate, and if you don't think Nixon was that bad, and if you think that political parties are all the same and government is broken, and if everything is a something-gate, you can see how one particular scandal might seem more like part of that cynical picture of American history than as something exceptional.

And if you do think politics is broken, there's a key event that probably helped lead you and your peers down that path: the Watergate scandal.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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