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SBU history prof explores roles of pandemics in 1920 and 2020 presidential campaigns

Jul 22, 2020 In a paper posted Tuesday (July 14) by the Jandoli Institute, Phillip G. Payne, chair of the Department of History at St. Bonaventure University, examined how the flu pandemic of 1918 impacted the 1920 presidential campaign and how the coronavirus may affect the 2020 race for the White House.

“When comparing 1920 and 2020, context is vital,” Payne wrote. “In 1920, people lived in a different world. We can learn from their experiences, but it is not the same.”

Payne’s paper, The Politics of Remembering the 1918 Pandemic and Forgetting the 2020 Pandemic?, is the fourth post in the Jandoli Institute’s summer Media Studies Across Disciplines project, a collection of research essays connecting different academic disciplines with the field of communication.

Payne said the 1920 and 2020 presidential campaigns are similar because they forced candidates to adapt to new media landscapes and social climates defined by a pandemics, social unrest and economic uncertainty. 

However, the flu pandemic was less of a factor in 1920 than it is likely to be in 2020.

“It could be that one of the reasons the 1918 pandemic was forgotten is that it seemed normal, more extreme, but normal,” Payne explained in the essay. “Americans in 1918 lived in a society in which plagues, wars, and famines regularly killed.”

“In 2020, for most Americans, epidemics and pandemics have been a remote thing from other parts of the world, not something that forced them to stay home and shutter the economy,” he said.

Payne will present his paper on Zoom at 7 p.m. Thursday in a format modeled after academic conference presentations. He will summarize the paper and then take part in a panel discussion with Louis Jacobson, senior correspondent at PolitiFact; Brad Lawrence, a political consultant and strategist who owns Message & Media, and Joseph Marren, a professor in the Communication Department at Buffalo State University.

The session is open to the public and may be accessed at

The institute will post a new Media Studies Across Disciplines essay on its website every Tuesday through Aug. 11. Thursday Zoom presentations will follow several of the presentations.

The essays were authored by St. Bonaventure faculty members who used their knowledge and expertise to provide insight and analysis from their own individual perspectives. Faculty from biology, history, nursing, philosophy and sociology contributed to the project, which was funded by the Leo E. Keenan Jr. Faculty Development Endowment and the Jandoli School of Communication. The essays were selected through a blind peer-review process.

The Jandoli Institute serves as a forum for academic research, creative ideas and discussion on the intersection between media and democracy. The institute, accessible at, is part of the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University.