Fact-Checking D’Souza’s Correlation & Causation Confusion


Hillary's America Poster Dinesh D’Souza’s new “documentary” made its debut this week. Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party is in limited release. Just one of the 268 movie screens in the Dallas Metroplex is showing it, and it’s only scheduled for 6 days.

The showing we saw was about half filled, and every single patron in the theater except my grandson was white and over 50. That surprised me, as I would have thought that the over 50 crowd was well aware of the historical facts D’Souza presented as if they were some huge secret. But as we were walking out I overheard one woman say in wonder, “I didn’t know all of those things about the Democrats!”

While some parts of the film are based on facts, much of it is speculation, propaganda, and political polemics wrapped around a gigantic conspiracy theory. D’Souza was educated in Jesuit schools in India before moving to Arizona as a high school exchange student, and then attending Dartmouth, where he was inducted into the academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa and earned a bachelor’s degree. After graduation he worked for a number of conservative organizations as a writer and editor, and was a policy advisor to Ronald Reagan in the late 1980’s before becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1991.

In 2010, he briefly served as president of a small Christian college. He was fired two years later after using a university credit card to stay in a hotel with a woman he introduced to hotel staff as his fiancé — which seems unlikely, as he was still married to someone else at the time.

As he points out in his new film, he is a convicted felon who can’t vote. But the story he weaves about being selectively prosecuted because “Obama wanted to shut him up” after he produced a previous film and book called Obama’s America doesn’t really match the facts. But it’s his life, and I suppose he’s entitled to tell his own life story any way he wants.

Kameron Badgers (L) and other extras playing a"Plantation Owner's Family" in Dinesh D'Souza's Stealing America

Historic scenes for Dinesh D’Souza’s new conspiracy theory “documentary” were shot in and around Ennis, Texas, and a local casting agency hired dozens of extras and background players for the dramatization. My grandson was one of them.

I went to see it for one reason — my grandson worked on the film. We knew when he took the one-day job through a local casting agency that it was a propaganda film designed to trash the Democratic party, but I thought it would be a good lesson in the First Amendment and how it applies to the acting business. He was a plantation owner’s son in the film, all dressed up in a great 1860’s costume. He and several other kids were filmed for a couple of scenes, but luckily for us, while you can see one arm and part of his shoulder, his face never made it into the final cut of the film.

The film is actually quite well made, and it’s beautifully shot. Some of the scenes — for example, a ghostly Klansman galloping out of a movie screen and bounding across a White House conference room in a scene about D.W. Griffith’s 1915 movie Birth of a Nation being the first movie screened at the White House — are visually stunning. And some of the actors who perform in the film are excellent.

Historical Facts D’Souza Got Wrong

My problem with it is simple. While it’s presented as “a true story”, not all of the information presented in the film is factually accurate. Without considering the many opinions that are breathlessly presented as facts, here are six statements from the film that are provably false.

  1. Davy Crockett was an anti-slavery Republican. False. Davy Crockett died on March 6, 1836, on the final day of the Battle of the Alamo. According to Dinesh D’Souza, the Republican Party was founded in 1854, 18 years after his death. (There were two predecessor parties — the National Republican Party which dissolved in 1833, and the Whigs —  but in this film, D’Souza dates the founding of the Republican Party to 1854.) Mexico abolished slavery in the 1820’s, just before a large group of Texas settlers followed Stephen F. Austin into the state, bringing their slaves along. It took a couple of years for word of the ban on slaves to reach Texas, but once it did, the settlers tried to get the law changed – and when they couldn’t they staged the Texas Revolution. Davy Crockett left Tennessee to fight with the Texans at the Alamo. Crockett and his family owned slaves in Tennessee and in Washington DC, where he was first elected as a “Jacksonian” Congressman – a supporter of the pro-slavery Andrew Jackson, and was defeated when he switched sides to become an anti-Jacksonsonian (Whig) candidate before being re-elected two years later (again running as an anti-Jacksonian candidate). So, while Crockett may have been anti-slavery in his final years, he never belonged to the Republican Party, and died fighting in a pro-slavery cause. (Sources: Causes of the Texas Revolution, Slavery is the Real Cause of the Texas Revolution by BenjamLundy, 1836, Davy Crockett: Whig Politician, Davy Crockett Files in the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library)
  2. The Republican Party opposed the taking of Native American lands by force and the Trail of Tears. False. The Indian Removal Act was passed in 1830, and the Republican Party was founded 24 years later in 1854. Did some Congressmen and political leaders who later joined the Republican Party oppose the acts? Certainly – but the party itself did nothing to protect Native Americans, and a number of the genocidal practices (like distributing anthrax-laced blankets to women and children, or paying bounties for Native American scalps) passed with bipartisan support in Congress. (Sources: Primary Documents in American History)
  3. The Republican Party was founded to abolish slavery. Mostly False.  Here’s how Wikipedia phrases it: “The main cause was opposition to the Kansas–Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise by which slavery was kept out of Kansas. The Northern Republicans saw the expansion of slavery as a great evil. The first public meeting of the general “anti-Nebraska” movement where the name “Republican” was suggested for a new anti-slavery party was held on March 20, 1854.” So while it’s true that many in the new party were abolitionists, their main complaint was the expansion of slavery in the new territories where the U.S. was expanding.  Between 1854 and 1864, the official position of the Republican Party was “containment”, not abolition. That is, they wanted to stop slavery from spreading to the new territories and states, by containing it to the states where it was already institutionalized. The party first advocated the abolition of slavery in 1864, and then only in the Southern states that had taken up arms against the U.S. Like the Emancipation Proclamation, the Republican Party platform of 1864 did not call for slaves held in Northern or Midwestern states to be freed. (Sources: Wikipedia — note scroll down on the page to the sub-head “Republican Party”)
  4. No Republican ever owned slaves. False. During the Civil War, five states had at least partial representation in the CSA and US Congress. The “second” set of Congressmen seated in the US Congress during the war from Kentucky were seated as “Unionist” Congressmen because they did not accept the party’s “containment” platform. All 10 of these seated Congressmen — who voted with and caucused with the Republicans, and many of whom ran as Republicans after the war —  owned slaves between 1854 and 1864. William Henry Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State used slave labor on his Orange County, New York farm. The family of Abraham Lincoln owned slaves in Pennsylvania during Colonial times, although Lincoln did not own any while he held public office. And there were certainly some members of the party — those who voted for containment — who owned slaves. But there is no way to prove how many members of the Republican Party owned slaves without comparing the party’s membership roles between 1854 and 1864 with slave sales records or census data. 50,000 slaves in Kentucky and Delaware, who were not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation, were not freed until the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865 — some of them owned by elected officials.
  5. The Republican party has always been the party of low taxes, free trade, limited government involvement in education and family life, and fiscal responsibility. False. Among the party’s earliest priorities in Congress, were passing major legislation that included the first income tax (in August, 1861), many excise taxes, paper money issued without backing (“greenbacks”), a huge national debt, homestead laws, limits on parental rights, and financing for education and agriculture. (Sources: Politico, Conner Prairie)
  6. More Republicans than Democrats voted for the 1964 Voting Rights Act. False. Democratic Representatives and Senators cast a total of 199 votes in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, while Republican Senators and Representatives cast a total of 163 votes in favor of the act. However, it is true that because of the way the issue of segregation divided the country, and because most Southerners in Congress were Democrats, a higher percentage of Republicans voted in favor of the act when compared to the percentage of Democrats who voted in favor of it. Here are the numbers from the Congressional Record:
  Democrat Republican
House 153 of 244 (63%) 136 of 171 (80%)
Senate 46 of 67 (69%) 27 of 33 (82%)
Total 199 163

Correlation Does Not Equal Causation

In his 1906 Chapters from My Autobiography, Mark Twain popularized the famous statement attributed to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

D’Souza weaves his on-screen story out of all three. It isn’t the historical inaccuracies that make the film so misleading, it’s that D’Souza deliberately implies that because two things happened in sequence, one caused the others. Logically, this isn’t true.

Every college student who suffers through a statistics or marketing class has the phrase “Correlation does not imply causation” drummed into them to emphasize this critical point. To be clear: just because one thing happens before, or in close proximity to another event, it does not mean that one causes the other.

Just because I stepped on a crack, and my mother later broke her back, it doesn’t mean that my stepping on the crack caused her to do so. Most people figure that out by the age of seven or eight.

This logic error has been around for so long there’s a Latin phrase (cum hoc ergo propter hoc, Latin for “with this, therefore because of this”) that is defined as the false cause hypothesis. A similar fallacy, that an event that follows another was necessarily a consequence of the first event, is sometimes described as post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin for “after this, therefore because of this.”)

In this film, the primary false cause hypothesis is that the “big switch” where the Democrats moved to the left, abandoning old racist policies while the Republicans moved to the right, adopting many of the policies formerly held by the Democrats was a ploy by the Democrats to use (and abuse) African-American voters by covering up the party’s racist past.

D’Souza repeatedly talks about how the Democratic Party “covers up” its own history, or “sweeps facts under the rug” to hide its racist past. That simply is not true. None of the Democrats I know — and I know many as I often volunteer to raise money and awareness about Democratic issues and candidates — are unaware of their party’s past association with slavery and all the other practices of the past. Most of us wouldn’t be Democrats today if the party hadn’t changed. I certainly wouldn’t be volunteering for a group that advocated racial segregation, racial profiling, banning people because of their religion, eugenics, or any of the other heinous acts D’Souza claims Democrats secretly support.

The fact of the “Big Switch” is that Democrats were once the conservative voice of landowners and big business, while Republicans were the voice of the average person. But Democrats changed as more and more labor union members and minority voters joined the party, starting in the 1930’s, largely because of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. As the Democrats became more liberal, the Republicans scrambled to become more conservative. The result is that if you compare the party platforms of the two parties over a hundred years between the Civil War and the 1960’s, you’ll see almost a total switch in policy as one moved left and the other moved right.

D’Souza’s new film says that voters like my parents and Hillary Clinton who were once “Goldwater Republicans” became Democrats because the Democratic party lied to them. That isn’t how I remember it. I remember my parents becoming increasingly unhappy with the unfairness of the segregated South, and increasingly respectful of the ideals of John F. Kennedy and the northern liberal wing of the Democratic party. They switched parties a few months before Kennedy’s death a few blocks from my grandparents home in what is now the Uptown section of Dallas. I don’t believe they were coerced or lied to in order to make the switch. They talked about it, prayed about it, and made the decision together because they thought it was the right one.

Should You See This Film?

I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wants factual information about either Hillary Clinton or the Democratic party. But if you’re the sort of film student who watches Leni Riefenstahl films to see how a well-written propaganda film can be used to promote political ideas, then by all means, catch it while you can.

Just make no mistake: D’Souza is doing exactly what the Nazi propagandist did. Both of them used their considerable talents to stir people’s emotions and harness them to a cause, and in my opinion, neither cared very much about accuracy or facts.

Here’s what one reviewer on the Consequences of Sound website had to say about the film: “To pick a fight with a filmmaker like Dinesh D’Souza, or a film like Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party, is to give the two respective burning trash fires more credit than either warrants. After all, he can’t even get the title of his well-released smear piece quite right; there aren’t many secrets in Hillary’s America, and to be perfectly honest, there isn’t a ton of Hillary either.”

Variety says of the film, “Dinesh D’Souza follows up the right-wing documentary hit ‘Obama’s America’ with a piece of ahistorical liberal-bashing that slides from propaganda to paranoia.”

On the other hand, Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck loved it. So I suspect that the audience for this film is more likely to decide whether or not to see it based on their individual pre-determined political agenda. I simply hope that most of those who see it won’t fall for the Orwellian graphics and theme and mistake propaganda for fact.

Photo credits: I downloaded the image of the movie poster for Hillary’s America from the movie’s website. It was offered as a free download, with no copyright limitations posted on the page. I took the on-set photo of the plantation family, a group of Dallas-area actors who worked on the film, with the permission of the on-site production assistant and the actors pictured.

Note: Someone asked that I link to some of my sources, so I updated this post on March 17 to add those links.

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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17 Responses to Fact-Checking D’Souza’s Correlation & Causation Confusion

  1. Justin says:

    David Crockett actually was a National Republican and he was actually opposed to slavery.

    • debmcalister says:

      Davy Crockett changed parties several times, and died fighting in the Texas Revolution, which was fought primarily over the Anglo settlers desire to own slaves. So if he was anti-slavery, he didn’t do a very good job of researching the cause that took his life before volunteering. (I am married to the descendant of an Alamo defender, and have been a member of the Daughters of the Texas Revolution group since I was 18, so the history of the Texas Revolution is something I know quite well. I was also lucky enough to study history under Lon Tinkle, author of 13 Days to Glory, the definitive historical work on the Alamo and the causes of the Texas revolution.)

      Thanks for visiting the blog and leaving your comment!

      Regards, Deb

  2. Joseph Hight says:

    Thirteenth amendment was ratified in 1865, not 1965. Must be a typo. Last state to ratify it was Mississippi in 2013.

  3. EA says:

    I could not find any “Republican” Congressmen from Kentucky in the years from 1854 to 1864 on Wikipedia. Could you provide a citation of Republican Congressmen from Kentucky who were slave owners during that period, please?

    • debmcalister says:

      You are correct. The Kentucky delegation was seated as part of the “Unionist” party during the Civil War. 8 of the 10 Congressmen seated during the war owned slaves, according to documents in the “Kentucky in the Civil War” Archives at the University of Kentucky. Here’s the Wikipedia link you asked for — I will edit the article to reflect the correct party affiliation.

      However, of the 10 “Unionist” Congressmen from Kentucky, 9 ran as Republicans after the war, so I believe I was correct in my description of them. There was no intent to mislead.

  4. Two things I paid attention to in the film because I was also interested in –

    1 The Republican Party was founded to abolish slavery. I actually believed this to be true, but at the 29:20 mark of the film, D’Souza says “The republican party formed from opposition to the idea of extending slavery in the territories.” So he got that right.

    Your 5th and 6th points are correct. In support of your 6th point:

    http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2010/may/25/michael-steele/steele-says-gop-fought-hard-civil-rights-bills-196/

  5. William Henry Seward may have used slave labor on his Orange County, New York farm, but they were owned by his father: “The elder Seward did in fact own slaves. Slavery was not abolished in New York State until 1827. However, Samuel Seward sent his slave children to school along with his own biological children. Therefore young Seward spent plenty of time in contact with the family servants, and later claimed to prefer the “conviviality of the slave kitchen to the severe decorum” of his father’s front parlor. In his autobiography Seward wrote “I early came to the conclusion that something was wrong with slavery and that determined me to be an abolitionist.”

    http://www.sewardhouse.org/history/william-henry-seward

    It’s disingenuous to use a sentence implying William Henry Seward had anything to do with the ownership of slaves if he didn’t.

    • debmcalister says:

      Thanks for the correction. I had understood that Steward did not free the slaves he inherited, and opposed expansion of the “peculiar institution” into new territories. I have not read the work you cited, and look forward to reading it. Always something new to learn!

      Regards, Deb

  6. Mike says:

    Very well-written. I only wish that you had included the sources of your facts. Not that I am disputing your facts, but it is all too common, these days especially, to denounce another persons view on facts by administering our own facts, but by not including sources, it all seems suspect.

    • debmcalister says:

      Good point. I will add them in most places. Some, like The fact that Davy Crockett fought at the Alamo in a pro-slavery rebellion, don’t have a specific source. I mean, everybody “knows” that he fought and died at the Alamo, right?

      My husband is the descendant of an Alamo defender (Tapley Holland) and the outlawing of slavery in Mexico is taught to every Texan in 7th grade Texas history, as is the fact that this was one of the primary causes of the Texas Revolution. So I’d call that “general knowledge” and didn’t bother getting a specific reference for it. I’m sure I can dig one up, however.

      I will add the other links or sources this weekend. Thanks for the comment!

    • debmcalister says:

      As promised, I added links to some sources for the article. Again, thanks for the comment!

      • Charles Spearman says:

        where are they ? i dont see them anywhere here? did i miss links ?

      • debmcalister says:

        Links to sources are at the end of each of the fallacies in the blog post. If you are not seeing the links, perhaps you are looking at an archived copy of the blog post, and need to refresh the page.

  7. Vershon says:

    William Henry Seward became the Whig Party’s gubernatorial nominee. Though he was not successful in that race, Seward was elected governor in 1838, winning a second two-year term in 1840. During this period, he signed several laws advancing the rights and opportunities for black residents, as well as guaranteeing fugitive slaves jury trials in the state, protecting abolitionists, and using his position to intervene in cases of free blacks enslaved in the South.

    After several years practicing law in Auburn, he was elected by the state legislature to the U.S. Senate in 1849. Seward’s strong stances and provocative words against slavery brought him hatred in the South. He was re-elected to the Senate in 1855, and soon joined the nascent Republican Party, becoming one of its leading figures.

  8. Fantastic write-up, and thanks for doing a bit of background work fact checking this pseudo “documentary.” I, too, was surprised that my audience was pretty full and most everyone in the theater was over 50. Every single person was white. Disclaimer: I didn’t actively WANT to see this movie but I felt like I needed to review it. Spoiler alert: I didn’t like it. I really enjoyed reading this post!

  9. George says:

    Nice review and fact checking. Saw the movie last week with a right wing friend. Of course, the right wing friend considered most of what was presented to be facts. I counted three “experts” in the film who were interviewed by D’souza’s, and all supported his claims against the Democrats. I asked my friend why not include other “experts” in the movie to provide another point of view? His reply was that none would be willing to be in a D’souza movie.

    In addition to the principle “Correlation Does Not Equal Causation” I think the film made the mistake that very strong claims only require a little evidence. Proving LBJ’s civil rights motivations based on a few questionable quotes is insufficient in my opinion. It seems many on the right (and even Trump) have this problem. They support and reinforce their views based on flimsy evidence. I like what Carl Sagan used to say, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” .

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