From Hamilton to Trump: The Dueling Nature of Pandemic Politics | Opinion

A terrible contagion was ravaging the capital city, carried there by refugees from a foreign land. Residents were dying every day, with a body count that would eventually reach almost 10 percent of the city's population. Amidst the outbreak, one of the nation's most divisive figures caught the disease. This was a man suspected by his political opponents of anti-democratic tendencies and of favoring economic growth over genuine American values. He and his wife, who also caught it, self-quarantined and separated from their children and friends. But rather than submit to the regimen recommended by the nation's leading medical expert—namely bloodletting, induced vomiting and frequent enemas—this political lightning rod turned to an experimental drug, quinine, supplemented by Portuguese wine and cinnamon. In a case of the spoonful of sugar proving the better medicine, the couple got well in just five days.

The year was 1793. The disease was yellow fever. And the man cured by unorthodox medicine was Alexander Hamilton.

Once healthy, Hamilton published an open letter urging doctors to adopt this new method as a more standard practice. He said he hoped to stop "that undue panic which is fast depopulating the city and suspending business both public and private." But did leading opinion leaders of the time embrace this new approach?

No. They instead divided along their usual partisan lines. The dueling treatments, named after the nascent republic's two leading political parties, were dubbed the "Republican" method and the "Federalist" method. Dr. Benjamin Rush, the expert who prescribed the draconian remedies, attributed Hamilton's choice to the fact that he, Rush, was "a decided democrat and a friend of Madison and Hamilton." Thomas Jefferson accused his great rival Hamilton both of faking it and of causing the death of "several hundred" people by publishing his letter.

If Alexander Hamilton were to take a time machine to the year 2020, he would find it oddly familiar. The atmosphere of panic is the same. The practice of self-quarantine is the same. By extraordinary coincidence, the drugs are even similar. Donald Trump's ballyhooed remedy, hydroxychloroquine, is a synthetic form of Hamilton's quinine.

And the epidemic of partisan distrust is just as acute. Now, like then, both sides of the partisan divide accuse their foes of collusion with foreign powers. Now, like then, a hyper-partisan press praises health measures ordered by their political favorites and attacks measures ordered by the other side—even when it is far from clear which measures work and which do not. Activists on both sides are quick to blame any setbacks on their opponents' ignorance, malice and bad faith, just as they were in 1793.

We know very little about what ordinary members of the public were thinking back then. But we might guess that they, like so many now, just wished the politicians would put aside their differences and focus on bringing the nation back to health.

But Hamilton, emerging from his time machine, would probably not waste his time bewailing such partisanship. The Founders understood that political bias is a fact of life. As The Federalist No. 10 put it: "A zeal for different opinions" has "divided mankind into two parties...and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good." Rather than try to change human nature, Hamilton would urge that society channel these passions for the good. There are good and bad motives on all sides; sometimes political ambition is the spur to innovation and civic courage. As The Federalist No. 51 wisely stated, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition."

Scientists are humans like any else, and their motives can be mixed. But there is a difference between politics motivating innovation and politics motivating a refusal to consider ideas that come from the other side. In this, Dr. Anthony Fauci's role in an earlier epidemic provides an instructive lesson.

During the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Dr. Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was a frequent target of gay rights groups who demanded the right to try unapproved but potentially lifesaving drugs. One leading AIDS activist called Fauci "an incompetent idiot" and a lackey of the medical establishment. Not content to follow governmental recommendations, these modern-day Hamiltonians were willing to take a risk with the unorthodox. Mixing scientific rigor with rebellion, activists set up their own data-driven treatment committees to investigate and promote testing of unconventional treatments.

Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton MPI/Getty Images

But Dr. Fauci did not dig in his heels. Instead, he began working with those who had attacked him, and he soon realized that there were promising ideas on all sides. When the immediate emergency had passed, the same activist who had called Fauci an incompetent idiot declared him "the only true and great hero" among government health officials.

In that instance, the gay rights movement was in the vanguard of deregulation. Today, pro-deregulation critics of FDA and CDC red tape are more likely to be found on the political right. But plagues are not the time to cleave to dogmas.

The truth is that we do not know with absolute certainty what to do in this crisis. What treatments should be promoted? How do we weigh risk against promise in rolling out new tests, vaccines and treatments? How fast or slow do we open the economy, and under what protocols do we do so?

A great strength of our sometimes-chaotic system is that the 50 states and thousands of localities can, like scientists, experiment. As with federalism, competition is an element to many scientific advances—the sequencing of the human genome, the discovery of the bacteria that caused the bubonic plague and the discovery of the structure of DNA itself.

As we confront how quickly to reopen the country, polls indicate that "red" and "blue" America have not merely different priorities—they are exposed to different facts. Differences of opinion, even if driven by politics, can be both constructive and destructive. But we must not repeat the mistake that Jefferson and Rush made: that of refusing to consider certain public health measures based purely on the political affiliation of those measures' proponents. Today's plague is neither "Federalist" nor "Republican," and neither are its remedies.

Michael McConnell is professor of law and director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Max Raskin (@maxraskin) is an adjunct professor of law at New York University and a trustee of the Tel Aviv University Sackler School of Medicine.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.

From Hamilton to Trump: The Dueling Nature of Pandemic Politics | Opinion | Opinion