“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain despite there being no evidence he ever actually said it. A look back at history can help us determine if we are living in a repeat of the 1920s or if any of the similarities are just the natural cycle of humanity. Will there be another Roaring Twenties?
The elephant in the room is the pandemics. The Spanish Flu lasted from 1918-1920 and infected nearly a third of the global population with about 3% of the global population dying due to the pandemic. Covid-19 has infected approximately 163 million people, as of May 16, 2021. Currently, just under 2.1% of the global population has been infected with an even more minuscule 0.038% of the global population dying, as of May 16, 2021. There are several possible factors for why the infection and death rates are so low for Covid-19 compared to the Spanish Flu including, preparation, action is taken, lower mortality rate, and vaccines among other things. We can compare the United States to both Pandemics, for the Spanish Flu, the media was not allowed to report on the pandemic due to World War One ongoing. This resulted in the pandemic being exacerbated due to denial and censorship among the warring nations, in fact, the reason the flu was named the Spanish Flu is that Spain was one of the few nations to report on the flu despite it originating in Kansas. With Covid-19, the pandemic was exacerbated as well due to denial and skepticism, especially in the United States. However, luckily there are vaccines for Covid-19, unlike the Spanish Flu. In both pandemics, the presidents, Wilson and Trump, did not do much to mitigate the rising cases, this is very similar. The comparisons between the pandemics are striking at first, but when you look deeper into them, the comparisons fizzle out, due to our more modern society, medicine, and press.
1919 was a very racially divided year. The years leading up to 1919 were telling. In 1915, Wilson had a special screening of “The Birth of a Nation” at the White House. The film revived the Ku Klux Klan, as well as Wilson re-segregated the White House staff. The film bolstered Southern revisionisms of history and upheld myths about the causes of the Civil War. These factors led to widespread lynchings and murders of African Americans cumulating in 1919 during the Red Summer. In several cases, martial law was declared to end the riots. The rise of Black Lives Matter, in 2013, as a reaction to the unequal treatment of African Americans by law enforcement made the country more racially aware. People began protesting across the country for what they saw as injustice. In May 2020, the tensions flamed to new highs when George Floyd was murdered, thus leading to a summer of protests and riots based on racial tensions. It is still unclear whether the Black Lives Matter movement has peaked, but that information is not needed for the comparison. In the 2020s, there was never martial law declared nor lynchings. The racial tensions in the 2020s are muted compared to the 1920s, the pandemics were the same way.
The first Red Scare occurred from 1919-1920 and was a reaction to the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. The Palmer Raids resulted in numerous leftists in the United States having their constitutional rights violated and often deported. This came at the same time as a nativist movement was raging that viewed immigrants as a threat to the United States’ stability. Comparisons can be made to the growing anti-immigration movements in the United States currently and the boogeyman of communism, namely Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). None of these are as exaggerated as they were 100 years ago, the threat of a communist revolution is near zero, and immigrants have been proven beneficial for decades; the ideas discussed here are once again muted compared to the 1920s.
The 1920-1921 recession is a compelling comparison at first due to the timeframe, but when you look deeper into the causes and the impacts of the recession, it does not compare as well. The main causes were the end of World War I and the Federal Reserve raising interest rates. The main nail in the coffin for the recession was the 18% estimated deflation. For the 2020 recession, it was driven by disruptions in the global supply chain and lockdowns, the globe essentially came to a halt. Unemployment was a major factor in the 2020 recession with it peaking near 15% in April 2020 with deflation not being a concern. However, one point of comparison that holds is the president’s response to the recession, both Wilson and Trump had underwhelming responses to ease the recessions. The main comparisons that stand in these recessions are the timeframe, being 100 years apart, and the pitiful response of the presidents at the time. And once again, the 1920-1921 recession was worse than the 2020 recession. Many of these comparisons are muted in the 2020s compared to the 1920s.
The final way in which the 1920s and 2020s are similar is the “Return to normalcy.” Warren Harding’s 1920 Presidential campaign had the slogan of “Return to normalcy.” All of the above events resulted in people wanting to return to normal, how things were before, but also before World War One. The term is also associated with the Biden 2020 Presidential campaign in which his main point was returning the country to how it was before Trump and the events above. When Harding was elected, it was the beginning of the Roaring Twenties. There would be a case to be made that the 2020s would be a repeat of these years, a second Roaring Twenties, but looking at how little the comparisons between the 1920s and 2020s stand in the above mentioned, we should not expect a second Roaring Twenties. In the 1920s, the United States had a vastly different monetary policy, namely the gold standard; in the 2020s, the Federal Reserve literally printed the United States out of the recession, something that would not have been possible in the past due to the gold standard. A comparison between Harding and Biden that could come true due to Biden’s age is dying in office, although this would not confirm any of the other similarities and is purely based on Biden being the oldest president ever, but with modern medicine, he likely has many years ahead of him.
In conclusion, history is not repeating itself. We should not use the 1920s, more accurately the late 1910s, as a predictor of the 2020s. Any similarities that do occur though would likely be muted compared to 100 years ago. The comparisons can be made in the same way people claim the Simpsons predict the future, it is just filling in the lines where they are missing and attempting to label any similarity as non-coincidental, but are logical fallacies.