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‘Unprecedented Times’? We’ve Seen This Stuff Before

by Jimmy Watson, Monmouth University Polling Institute Intern

A common adage in the study of history is “The Past is Prologue.” While overused in certain areas, the phrase holds up well when viewing many of the issues facing society today. Professors, teachers, and even media members have given a nod to this phrase. Yet 2020 seems to have been the year that the American public has forgotten it. COVID-19, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and Biden vs. Trump have prompted terms like “unprecedented” and “new normal.” While the events of 2020 thus far have certainly been dramatic in many respects, they are, in actuality, a sobering reminder that America has been through similar situations. In 1918, the country grappled with a widespread pandemic while fighting World War I. In 1968, another pandemic presented itself, social unrest spread like wildfire, and a major presidential election took place in November. The events of 2020, while termed “unprecedented,” are sadly similar in scope, composition and influence to what is now in history books.

As WWI raged on in Europe, 1918 gave Woodrow Wilson the most trying year of his presidency. An invisible enemy arrived now known as the Spanish Flu. Claiming the lives of 675,000 people in the United States alone, the pandemic raged on as the November midterm elections took place. Quarantines were put into effect, mask mandates angered people, and large gatherings were prohibited. The election looked a lot different. The San Francisco Chronicle called it, “the first masked ballot ever known in the history of America.” The country was forced to adapt in a time of global turmoil.

1918 was 102 years ago. 102 years ago, people were afraid to go outside, to the store, or to cast a vote. People were forced to wear masks and socially distance. In the “unprecedented times” of 2020, America has seen similar effects with COVID-19. People have been quarantined and mask mandates have become strict protocols across much of the country. 102 years ago, people still voted and American democracy continued as it had in years prior. Society did not dwell on its strife, but it moved on to rebound in the next decade. The unfortunate truth is that America has had to relive similar events in 2020 with a new pandemic. But let us not forget that we have been through this all before, and we came out the other side to fight on into the next decade.

1968 proved to be another year filled with unrest and uncertainty. The year brought a historic presidential race between Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace. It also brought the assassinations of two monumental Civil Rights advocates in Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Violence swept the nation amid the deaths of two giants in the push for African American equality. Places like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles saw rioting, looting and protests. A new flu pandemic arose taking the lives of 100,000 Americans. While there were nowhere near the same amount of protocols put in place as in 1918, the pandemic added more fuel to the proverbial fire that was spreading across the country. In November there was to be a general election during one of the most provocative and chaotic years since the end of World War II.

1968 was 52 years ago. 52 years ago, there was looting and rioting in the streets. For all intents and purposes, people of color had still not achieved true equality. The death of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy marked the end of one of the most prominent decades in the push for equal rights and the beginning of some of the most violent protests that the decade had seen. In the midst of the chaos, third party candidate George Wallace was quoted as saying, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” In 2020, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, America has seen little change. Looting and rioting have flooded the airwaves. As people ran to the streets to stand for social justice, Twitter saw President Trump use the same words as George Wallace did 52 years ago. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The unfortunate truth is that America is reliving history once again. 1968 and 2020 look increasingly similar. 1968 was a major moment that brought equality to the forefront of discussion. 2020 might reinvigorate a generation to do the same. The election is said by many to be a choke point for change just as 1968 was. America will soon find out whether or not that is the case.

2020 has certainly been a chaotic year. There has been a global pandemic like the one in 1918. There has been social and racial unrest just like there was in 1968. Just because these times might not be as “unprecedented” as they may seem does not make this year’s November election any less historic, important, or scary. However, it is worthwhile to understand where America has been and how an understanding of past experiences can help shape decisions that may impact the future. Past is prologue. However, the prologue does not necessarily determine the rest of the story in the remaining pages. It is the actions that are taken within a particular narrative that can influence the final pages. Let this tumultuous year not just be another prologue. Allow for history to instruct rather than discourage. Allow it to put things in perspective and be a force that keeps America moving forward.