past is prologue

Are We Repeating the Pandemic Election Year of a Century Ago?

Warren Harding and his First Lady Florence, a.k.a. the Duchess. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In an intense election year like this one, it can be comforting to find historical analogies to provide perspective and guidance. The entire politically aware population remains transfixed by the 2016 election and its improbable result. But it was too close and too ambiguous to offer much in the way of prophetic value for either Trump or Biden partisans.

Among those who hope for a Trump comeback against the polls and the odds, Harry Truman’s 1948 upset win has been a go-to source of inspiration. And now, novelist Thomas Mallon has given Biden supporters an even more optimistic example with a few striking similarities to our current era: the 1920 presidential election. Here’s how he introduces the comparison in his New Yorker essay, which was published this week:

When considered against the electoral circumstances that exchanged Wilson, a Democrat, for Harding, a Republican, some of the tumults of 2020 appear to be a centennial reiteration, or inversion, of the calamities and longings of the 1920 campaign. Then the country — recently riven by disease, inflamed with racial violence and anxious about immigration, torn between isolation and globalism—yearned for what the winning candidate somewhat malapropically promised would be a return to “normalcy.” Early in 2020, the term remained useful to supporters of Joe Biden, with its suggestion of Presidential behavior once more within the pale. The word’s nostalgic tenor soon enough made it anathema to left-wing Democrats, and the cyclonic circumstances of the past six months may have made it feel obsolete to Biden himself, but it is still what he is talking about when he calls for removing Donald Trump: “Will we rid ourselves of this toxin? Or will we make it a permanent part of our national character?”

The idea that 2020 is a centennial revival of 1920’s travails should be comforting to Biden supporters because “normalcy” candidate Harding won by a huge landslide. His 26-point popular-vote margin over Democrat James Cox (Harding won 60 percent to Cox’s 34 percent) has never been matched in the entire post–Civil War history of presidential elections.

Mallon’s general hypothesis is that in the turmoil following World War I and the Spanish-flu pandemic, all occurring in the shadow of a highly controversial president who remade the global image of his country, the electorate chose the aggressively bland Harding who straddled divisions in his own Republican Party and oozed reassurance to the point of putting audiences to sleep:

[T]he prevailing mood of the country was troubled. The recent past weighed heavily on voters, who wanted to forget or suppress it …

The country feared that this immediate past was already turning into prologue. Nothing abroad had been settled. After the Versailles Treaty was rejected by the U.S. Senate, the European Allies had to arrange its implementation by themselves, negotiating disarmament and reparations with the Weimar Republic at a conference in Spa, Belgium, which the [Washington] Star’s correspondent compared to “a pack of wolves snarling over a carcass.” Americans had increasing reason to fear that the war would never really be “over over there,” and that their doughboys would soon be heading back.

While Wilson was unable to pursue the third term he clearly coveted due to a debilitating stroke (which left his wife, Edith, virtually in charge of the country), his policies, and particularly his frustrated desire for U.S. accession to the League of Nations, hamstrung Democratic nominee and Ohio governor James Cox. But to an extent, Mallon does not acknowledge, the “normalcy” Harding represented was a natural Republican majority that returned after two Wilson terms. Democrats won a plurality of the vote in the 1912 election because Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Progressives temporarily split the GOP. Wilson was reelected in 1916 (again without a majority of the vote) mostly thanks to a pledge to stay out of the horrible European war — a promise that he violated just weeks after his second inauguration.

Wilson’s insistence on permanent entanglement in Europe’s conflicts and his party’s ambivalence toward Prohibition (introduced by the 18th Amendment) divided Democratic voters and produced the 1920 debacle. As Mallon notes, a lot of today’s leading public concerns were present in 1920 as well, including a backlash against immigration, racial violence, and the flu pandemic that formally ended mid-year. But as he also notes, none of them, not even the pandemic, were really major campaign issues. So yes, 1920 is partially a predecessor election to 2020, but today’s distinctive passions mostly existed in the shadows.

Fortunately, Mallon does not press Wilson-Trump parallelism very far. Other than racism, it’s hard to identify any similarities between the erudite former college president known for Calvinist moralism (“Go back to thy gerund-grinding, Woodrow, thou insufferable prig,” southern populist Tom Watson acidly commented after Wilson’s late-career entry into politics) and the crude, amoral Trump. The idea of Joe Biden being a latter-day Warren Harding is slightly more plausible (Biden’s pandemic-compelled reticent general-election campaign superficially resembles Harding’s very deliberate “front-porch campaign”), though he doesn’t seem to share the Ohioan’s vices (including inveterate adultery; Harding’s mistress Nan Britton is as well known to history as his ambitious and public-minded First Lady Florence (a.k.a. “the Duchess”).

Ultimately, the 1920 presidential election became famous for the swirling issues of the day that did not seem to determine how it turned out, including the massive expansion of the electorate by the 19th Amendment granting women the vote, which was ratified less than three months before Election Day. Mallon notes: “The sudden absence of the contentious issue became one more ingredient of normalcy; the women’s crusade contributed to it by going away, like the war and the flu.”

The issues that divide Americans so deeply today aren’t “going away” any time soon, even if the disturbing incumbent with his taste for authoritarian gestures is sidelined. Yes, “normalcy” may return in a presidency held by a career centrist whose administration would be the tenth he’s dealt with since he first came to Washington in 1973. But as was indeed the case in 1920, many suppressed conflicts over policy and culture will remain to flare up again. As this year’s reigning cliché suggests, it’s the new normal.

Are We Repeating the Election Year of a Century Ago?