The politics of remembering the 1918 pandemic and forgetting the 2020 pandemic?

By Phillip G. Payne

Library of Congress / Public domain

During our 2020 election, the pandemic has forced Joe Biden to run a modern version of a front porch campaign, reaching out to voters over the internet from his home and gradually assuming a low-key campaign of engaging voters in person.  Similarly, incumbent Donald Trump has struggled to re-establish his trademark rallies after abandoning daily televised press conferences from the White House.  One can safely assume that these are not the campaigns they imagined.  Biden, the reasoning often follows, also is promising a return to the pre-pandemic days — a return to normalcy echoing the campaign slogan of Republican Warren G. Harding who defeated Democrat James Cox for the presidency in 1920 during the last front porch campaign.  Trump also searches for another iteration of Make America Great Again, his 2016 nostalgia slogan. Both campaigns struggle to adapt to a new media landscape and a social climate defined by a pandemic, social unrest and economic uncertainty. Similarly, Harding’s message resonated with voters anxious and fatigued by change. In 1920, however, Harding’s normalcy message was not about the pandemic flu of 1918 (aka the Spanish flu) that killed over 50 million globally.  It was barely mentioned.     

Harding’s front porch campaign was not forced upon him and the Republicans by an unexpected event, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced 2020 candidates to look for new ways to campaign. Indeed, Harding purposely decided to campaign from his front porch to take advantage of mass media and new technologies. His front porch campaign was part of the message, not a backup plan forced by the pandemic. 

Harding did not set out to avoid discussing the 1918 flu. The public did not demand answers for the government’s response to it. If that had been the case, Harding knew how to talk about something without taking a strong position. Although contemporaries criticized Harding for butchering the English language, Harding was a newspaperman who knew how to communicate to the public. Like other newspaper editors in the early 20th century, he built his newspaper business on boosterism with a motto of “boost, don’t knock.” In his editorials, Harding told stories of useful neighbors, small businesses, local teams and nearby history.  History textbooks often emphasize Harding’s slogans of “America First” and a “Return to Normalcy,” which were very much a part of his campaign. But often overlooked is that these were just part of Harding’s message. During his front porch speeches, he wove historical stories as voters visited Marion, Ohio. He often told them a story of the history of their group or town —how they fit into the national story. Their contribution to the nation’s progress; how they contributed to the greater good, to the public virtue (a phrase Harding used during the campaign). Harding sprinkled these speeches with some specifics, but the overall narrative often sounded similar regardless of the group he addressed. 

What is interesting is that as Harding wove these stories of history, local, national and recent, was what Harding forgot. Contrary to what we might think, in 1920 Harding did not indulge in historical amnesia. What he sold might have better fit into myth than academic history, but Americans were not forgetting the recent events when they voted in 1920.

Harding bloviated and waffled, to be sure, but he mixed in the issues of the day, sometimes in frustratingly vague ways, but he did address them. The nation was in turmoil. It had been for years. The Great War had just ended.  Americans vigorously debated the virtues of isolation, the Treaty of Versailles, and membership in the League of Nations. The Great Migration saw thousands of African Americans leave the segregated South in search of opportunities in war work, only to be greeted with riots and lynchings in the North and West.  Harding addressed the issue in Birmingham, Alabama, where he said that qualified African Americans should be allowed to vote. During the war, Americans approved Prohibition, marking the success of a decades-long campaign to ban alcohol, a decision that not all Americans agreed with, and set the stage for a decade-long battle to repeal it.  Similarly, 1920 marked the culmination of the long battle for women’s suffrage. Harding waffled on women’s suffrage until it was approved, and then his campaign hosted a “social justice day” for women voters promising to support equal pay for equal work among other reforms. The outgoing President Wilson had suffered a stroke, and his administration had fallen into disarray, offering little to no leadership. The economy suffered, partly from the Wilson administration’s lack of a plan to convert it to a peacetime footing, so 1919 saw massive strikes that scared middle-class voters. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, fearing a Bolshevik revolution like the one in Russia in 1917, conducted raids during the first Red Scare. Harding promised a return to constitutional government and presidential restraint. All this, perhaps, makes it understandable that voters by-and-large “forgot” the “Spanish flu” of 1918. Given the timing, for many the tragedies of the war merged and overlapped with the hardships of the pandemic and the economy.  

Did the public forget the 1918 pandemic because they assumed the next plague was around the corner? It could be that one of the reasons the 1918 pandemic was forgotten is that it seemed normal, more extreme but normal.  Americans in 1918 lived in a society in which plagues, wars and famines regularly killed. Dealing with horror was a part of life that also included tuberculosis and polio (with iron lungs). Antibiotics were a decade away and wouldn’t be widely used for a couple decades. The public health response and subsequent debates sound familiar today.  Park, theaters and other public venues shut down. People kept their distance. Some doubted the science and protested the social and economic costs. Although the pandemic was largely forgotten in a few short years, its legacy is that local and state governments developed public health infrastructure  — the sort of policies that fail to attract public attention but save lives.

Societies remember in a lot of ways, and part of that process are the rituals of politics, elections and governance.  Laura Spinney, in her book on the 1918 pandemic, has written that “Memory is an active process. Details have to be rehearsed to be retained, but who wants to rehearse the details of a pandemic?” (292)  Memory, Spinney goes on to argue, needs a beginning, a turning point and an end. Pandemics don’t offer victorious heroes to celebrate; they lack the mythical component that can become part of the narratives of war or the type of history that Harding offered voters in 1920 when he discussed their history as part of the American pageant.

In 2020, for most Americans, epidemics and pandemics have been a remote thing from other parts of the world, not something that forced them to stay home and shutter the economy. As they watch the COVID-19 pandemic unfold, American voters experience it through a different medium than did those a century earlier during the 1918 pandemic and with different expectations. The internet brings the news (with the increasingly blurred line between it and entertainment) into our homes and now into our pockets on the computers we call phones. Politicians and corporations celebrate the front-line workers in our war against the disease, creating heroes and narratives around medical workers and essential workers who might shape current political realities and future memories. President Trump evokes war-time powers, citing an invisible enemy and a foreign invasion. The 1918 pandemic has a new life in our collective memory as the anniversary sparked new scholarship, and technology has made it easier for us to engage quality history in venues like podcasts, books and such or, more darkly, find misinformation leading us to forget what just happened.

When comparing 1920 and 2020, context is vital. In 1920 people lived in a different world. We can learn from their experiences, but it is not the same. 

In 1920, American voters looked past the pandemic while also looking to put war and other troubles behind them.  In doing so, they set the stage for the Roaring ’20s with the good and the bad that brought. Harding’s front porch campaign of choice evoked a mythical past brought to voters by the promise of a technologically prosperous future.  Harding’s front porch appeared before voters on movie screens and his speeches were heard on phonographs. In 2020, Americans are still confronted with politicians who promise to restore a past, make America great again, or to bring back the relative tranquility of the Obama administration.  However, they do so in the middle of the crisis — not in its aftermath — and they do so in an information age.  Politicians looking to recreate the success of the front porch campaigns would do well to look at how the campaigns were waged and why they worked in a past context. 

Phillip G. Payne is a professor of history at St. Bonaventure University, where he has taught since 1998.  He is the author of Dead Last:  The Public Memory of Warren G. Harding’s Scandalous Legacy (Ohio University Press, 2009)  and Crash!:  How the Economic Boom and Bust of the 1920s Worked (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015) in addition to articles on diverse topics.         

Bibliography

Barry, John M.  The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (2005).

Honigsbaum, Mark. “A Once in a Century Pathogen’: The 1918 Pandemic and This One.”  New York Review of Books. March 17, 2020.

Pasquantonio, Victoria. “Have Americans Forgotten the History of this Deadly Flu?” Nov 16, 2018.

Spinney, Laura. Pale Rider:  The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World (2017).

One comment

  1. This is a superb paper and a great venture into the role of memory in politics. Reminds one of gilpin s study if civil war memory and Gisselle in the Great War Michael Riccards

    Like

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