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Thursday, June 1, 2023


GOP adopts Prohibitionist mentality

Raise a glass to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Their new documentary “Prohibition” aired on PBS last week and was widely watched and critically acclaimed. Burns has been an institution in the historical documentary field since his ground-breaking work in “The Civil War.” He is one of the most visible chroniclers of American history. This time, Burns has taken on the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the sale of intoxicating beverages in 1920, and the cut-throat politics surrounding its ratification and later repeal. In reality, prohibition was all about politics.

Through skilled political manipulation, Temperance brought together a hodgepodge of Americans with different values. It stirred anti-immigrant sentiments and targeted saloons frequented by immigrants and the poor – a tactic that brought them the support of Southern Democrats and the Ku Klux Klan. Yet, Frederick Douglass also supported prohibition, believing that alcohol contributed to discrimination. Feminists came to the Temperance movement early, believing Prohibition could help to end spousal and child abuse. Business owners believed alcohol lowered worker productivity, and socialists believed it pacified the worker. Together, the efforts of these unlikely bedfellows saw, not only the ratification of the 18th Amendment, but also the birth of the modern political machine.

The Anti-Saloon League, under the leadership of Wayne Wheeler, was the first political action group to have offices and a full-time staff. Wheeler is even credited with the invention of pressure politics, or “Wheelerism.” Hundreds of telegraphs from non-existent or uninvolved citizens flooded congressional offices. Politicians that stood against the “drys” were politically blacklisted and smeared.

The temperance movement was undisturbed by the deception and intimidation perpetrated by Wheeler and his ilk, believing it was all for the greater good. “Dry” forces were realized as one of the most effective political smear campaigns in history against “wet” presidential candidate Al Smith, largely attacking his religious beliefs as a Catholic.

In the words of Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Today, we see the legacy of the Anti-Saloon League and Prohibition everywhere in politics. Single-issue political action committees, smear campaigns, irrational obfuscation and deceptive campaign practices dominate the political landscape. The political machine born of Wayne Wheeler and the Anti-Saloon League is more well-tuned and well-funded than ever before, and is pulling strings on both sides of the aisle.

What we seem to have forgotten about this era is that the Temperance movement failed largely because of the absolutist convictions of its proponents. Organized crime exploded all over the country, speakeasies sold liquor to children, and prohibition fostered a general ambivalence towards the law. Most Americans were disillusioned with Prohibition, though not all were willing to say so aloud. In the end, Herbert Hoover’s unwillingness to re-evaluate the law due to political pressure from the “drys” led to the growth of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Repeal under Pauline Sabin, and later, the repeal.

It can be tempting to devote oneself to one ideal and to place it before all other considerations, but rarely does this sort of thought result in sane policy-making.

In response to Americans dying or becoming disabled as a result of drinking alcohol that was intentionally poisoned by manufacturers, Wheeler recommended that the alcohol continue to be intentionally poisoned as a ‘disincentive’. Have we not seen this same callousness in crowds that cheer for sick people being abandoned to die when they cannot afford healthcare?

Last month during a GOP debate, the candidates were asked if they would accept a budget deal including $10 in cuts for each $1 tax increase. The hypothetical proposal was more than reasonable, yet it was still promptly rejected by each candidate. The House seems to have adopted a policy of crossing their arms and stomping their feet. Some have even wished openly for the economy to continue to get worse in the hopes of winning the next election. We’re still putting politics first and our people second.

Fortunately for all of us who love a drink now and then, the Temperance movement’s callous allegiance to a single goal cost them everything. Hopefully our leaders will remember to put aside petty, partisan ideologies and get Americans back to work.

Senator Robert Byrd once said, “It is the duty of each citizen to be vigilant, to protect liberty, to speak out, left and right and disagree lest be trampled underfoot by misguided zealotry and extreme partisanship.”

I’ll drink to that.

Emily Brooks is an economics senior and may be reached at [email protected].

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