In the past hundred years, two particularly deadly pandemics plagued America. Comparing them offers some important lessons about our changed politics.
Though it may have started in the U.S., the “Spanish flu” of 1918 killed about 675,000 Americans and some 50 million worldwide.
COVID-19 has, so far, taken the lives of more than 580,000 Americans and 3.3 million around the globe.
Despite the huge toll, 1918 responses were distinctly local, while this time, though states retained much control, there was clearly a national response.
The federal government did almost nothing to deal with the Spanish flu and there’s no indication of public demand for action. President Wilson never uttered a public word about the pandemic. While his political opponents found plenty of reasons to criticize him, silence and inaction on the pandemic seem conspicuously absent from the list.
What response there was, occurred at a local level, in completely haphazard fashion.
Philadelphia told residents they could reduce their risk by keeping themselves warm, their feet dry and their “bowels open,” according to John Barry’s history of the disease.
As a result of medical misinformation, the city plowed ahead with its war bonds parade, bringing hundreds of thousands of people together in close quarters.
By contrast, St. Louis closed schools, movie theaters and pool halls, and banned public gatherings, which kept the city’s death rate about 1/8th of Philadelphia’s.
Former President Trump tried the Wilson strategy — ignoring the pandemic — but it failed quickly and miserably.
While frequently spouting foolishness, Trump eventually declared a national emergency and couldn’t stop talking about it.
Why the difference between 1918 and 2020?
First, a national media helped make the pandemic a national story that required a national response.
It’s also possible that, in earlier days, Americans cared less about death and disease than they do today, while harboring far fewer expectations of the federal government.
In the early 20th century, disease and death were certainly more fully and regularly present.
In 1918, the average American was only expected to live until their mid-50s.
Over 20 percent of children born in 1910 died before their fifth birthday. By 2011 that number dropped below 1 percent.
In addition, 117,000 young Americans were being killed in World War I.
A century ago, death was a much more prominent part of life, and no one is interested in seeing its prominence restored.
In 1916, with fewer than 80,000 federal employees who were not dealing with national defense, operating the Panama Canal, or delivering the mail, national government couldn’t do much.
What public health there was had been deemed a state and local issue. There was no Department of Health and Human Services, no Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The relatively new Food and Drug Administration (FDA) focused on sanitary food and interstate commerce in adulterated and mislabeled drugs. It was not until 1938 that drugs required FDA approval.
With minimal shutdowns, the economic impact in 1918 was barely perceptible.
Even if the economy had tanked, prior to the Depression and New Deal, government lacked both the intellectual and fiscal apparatus to resolve the problem. No one would have thought government capable of such intervention, while the tools for securing the cash didn’t exist either.
Our partial pandemic shutdowns created an overriding demand for federal action in an environment where there was plenty of precedent and in which government had the means to provide the assistance.
With a nationally mobilized public that exhibits a low tolerance for death and a high tolerance for government spending, the politics of pandemics changed.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.