The political lessons of the 1918 pandemic
Why the best way of thinking about 2020 may be the election of 1920
Unexpected natural disasters have a way of revealing undiagnosed pathologies in a country's economic, social, and political systems.
For the United States in 2020, the still-unfolding COVID-19 viral calamity has exposed the upside-down nature of work and reward in our society. Millions of low-wage, low-status workers are holding supply (and sanity) chains and critical everyday processes in place while the wealthy escape to their vacation homes and many in the middle class get either a taste of round-the-clock daycare or a reminder that many of their jobs maybe aren't that important in the first place. While other countries have pledged indefinite financial support for all citizens, the U.S. Congress passed a series of woefully inadequate measures seemingly designed to plunge the country into a turbocharged Great Depression.
Worse, President Trump's decision to take counsel from crackpot law professors and his useless son-in-law instead of public health professionals means that many states are only now taking the steps necessary to contain the spread of this awful virus. Despite the brief polling sugar high from a rally-around-the-flag effect, the president and his obeisant red state governors own the response to this crisis. With unemployment headed to levels not seen even in the 1930s, as many as 200,000 Americans condemned to die agonizing deaths in hospital isolation wards and millions trapped in houses away from friends, family, and any source of joy, there will likely be a reckoning in November.
How significant the ruling party's punishment will be depends on a number of factors. Political scientist Alan Abramowitz's "Time For Change" model of post-WWII presidential elections featuring an incumbent shows that two factors — second quarter economic growth, and the president's net approval rating in June — are decisive in the incumbent party's fortunes.
Let's say, for example, that President Trump's approval rating eventually floats back down to the net -7.7 mark where it was on Super Tuesday, what we might now think of as the last normal day any of us will experience for months. Let's also say that second quarter economic growth comes in at -5 percent, which is significantly less dire than what economists now think is likely. What currently looks like a best-case scenario in these variables for Trump would yield something in the range of a 388-150 Electoral College landslide for the Democratic nominee in November, according to Abramowitz.
However, these models simply cannot account for the Black Swan nature of this crisis, or whether President Trump's base will ever acknowledge his administration's role in leaving America defenseless to the ravages of COVID-19. It is certainly possible that he will successfully emit some kind of blame miasma at other targets — Democrats for impeaching him, governors like Andrew Cuomo for not acting quickly enough, Congress for failing to pass a sufficient relief package, the Obama administration for whatever he can — and get away with it. But that strategy seems likely to run into limitations given the likely scale of human and economic suffering that is in store for this country.
To get a better sense of what awaits the GOP in November, we might also look at how natural disasters effect parties-in-power around the world. Here, the data is mixed. Some studies have shown little effect. And sometimes, as with Hurricane Sandy just before the 2012 election, incumbents seem to benefit. A 2011 paper presented at the International Studies Association conference by Constantine Boussalis, Travis Coan, and Parina Patel looked at the effects of natural disasters like hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes on subsequent elections between 1980 and 2007. They found that incumbent parties and leaders are most likely to be punished by voters if a) the state lacks the capacity or wherewithal to respond appropriately and b) enough time — but not too much time! — has passed for voters to assign blame to the incumbents.
The United States, the richest and most powerful country in the world, certainly possesses the wherewithal to respond capably to this disaster. But thus far the federal government has failed comprehensively to prevent the spread of the virus, to provide the needed testing, to distribute the necessary protective equipment for health care workers, and to put the kind of cash in people's pockets needed to avoid large-scale economic displacement. It is hard to identify any feature of this crisis that has been competently managed by these White House ineptocrats.
Is COVID-19 a "natural disaster"? In some ways yes, but the closest analogue to our current situation might actually be located more distantly in our own history: the 1920 presidential election. That year the incumbent, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, ailing and nearing the end of his second term, did not seek re-election. The country was just emerging from the terrible ravages of the 1918-1919 Spanish flu epidemic which had killed between 17 and 100 million people worldwide, including about 675,000 Americans, as well as from the aftermath of World War I. Perhaps worst of all for Democrats, the economy plummeted into a sharp recession beginning in January 1920, with industrial production plummeting by a third and unemployment spiking to nearly 12 percent over the following year. While public opinion polling did not exist 100 years ago, it is hard to imagine anything other than decisive opposition to the Wilson administration and its policies.
The 1920 election therefore features the convergence of all three variables — a sharp economic downturn in the second quarter of the election year plus an unpopular incumbent president who presided over the application of difficult and painful measures to fight off an exogenous shock in the form of a flu pandemic. Really, there is absolutely nothing remotely as similar to this year as the 1920 election.
What happened? Republican Warren Harding, campaigning on a "return to normalcy" (sound familiar?) won more than 60 percent of the vote and a towering majority in the Electoral College. Republicans added massively to narrow majorities in both chambers of Congress. It was a thorough repudiation of nominee James Cox and the Democratic Party. Republicans would go on to preside over the Roaring Twenties, winning the next three presidential elections and maintaining unified control of Congress until 1931.
There's one more structural similarity. Woodrow Wilson was the only Democrat to win the presidency between 1896 and 1932, and one of only two Democrats to win the office between the end of the Civil War and the Great Depression. His original election in 1912, like Donald Trump's in 2016, was a fluke produced in part by third-party spoilers. In 1912, it was former president Theodore Roosevelt, who split the Republican vote all over the country with incumbent Republican President William Taft.
Democrats have won the most votes in every presidential election since 1992 with the exception of 2004. Only bizarre and antiquated institutions like the Electoral College prevent us from seeing that we are already likely in the midst of a long period of Democratic dominance of national politics. In that sense, even before COVID-19 crashed the economy and menaced millions, the president was probably facing an uphill battle.
Will President Trump lose by Harding-Cox margins? Of course not, not in today's hyper-polarized political environment. He could still win. But unless he somehow rises to the occasion of this crisis and does real, recognizable good instead of play-acting as the president for half an hour every day at his press conferences, he's in deep trouble.
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