Reader’s Forum: Steve Richardson and Natesha Oliver

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Prior to reading Lisa McGirr’s The War on Alcohol, I thought Prohibition was, as the author described popular notions of the era, “an aberrant moment in the nation’s history, wrongheaded social policy waged by puritanical zealots of a bygone Victorian era, with few lasting consequences.”  I expected a connection with the War on Drugs; it was noted but not explored in any detail.  What surprised me is that the war on alcohol drove millions of voters into the arms of  the Democratic Party and gave FDR’s New Deal a populist, revolutionary energy beyond what may have been justified on economics alone.

I knew Lincoln was a Republican and wondered how the party lost black voters; now I know.  They merged church and state to enforce “good” behavior – a “perfect storm” of ill-conceived public policy that could only lead to punishment of defenseless citizens.  The sad part of this experience is that Republicans seem to have few regrets (else we would not have the ATF, DEA, etc.).  Apparently, they concluded the mistake was overreaching; outright prohibition created a hugely profitable black market.  Today, “sin taxes” regulate the supply of tobacco, alcohol, gambling, and marijuana – splitting profits between government and business.

Democrats are far from blameless in perpetuating these wars.  Evidently, they learned that being the Big Brother of oppressed minorities is a powerful negotiating tool.  Republicans have been remarkably successful in expanding federal police powers (including the recent example of DHS) because Democrats have found limitation more profitable than prevention.  As McGirr explained, law enforcement was a local matter before Prohibition, but it has been a subject of intense interest in Washington ever since.  The lesson of her book is that there were lasting consequences to the 18th Amendment – institutional components of a police state.”

Steve Richardson is a founding member of the Virginia Independent Voters Association and serves on’s national Election Reform Committee.


Natesha Oliver and June Hirsh (R)

Independent Voting activists Natesha Oliver and June Hirsh (r) at the National Conference of Independents, March 2015


Just finished reading “Citizen Warriors”, ch.5 of The War on Alcohol by Lisa McGirr.

To be honest, I really don’t know what to say so I will start by saying Lisa McGirr’s account of enforcement during Prohibition by ordinary citizens is eye-opening, it’s like Citizens went on a self aggrandizing mission to “clean up” what they considered problem people.                                                                                                   The reality that Prohibition was spearheaded by the church, more or less, isn’t shocking; Ththe fact that the church aligned their cause with the KKK to enforce the law is shocking…
I have not finished the book yet what I have read affirm my belief that racism still heavily exists in politics because politics was the platform people used to push their superiority agendas, be it the Church or otherwise…     WTH!!”

Natesha Oliver is the founder of MIST, Missouri Independents Stand Together. She lives in Kansas City.

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Chicago Tribune Reviews The War on Alcohol


Lisa McGirr’s ‘The War on Alcohol’ illuminates past,

sheds light on present


By Bill Savage                                                     January 14, 2016


The more-or-less official motto of historians is the famous line from George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A codicil to this might be: “Historians who cannot connect the past to the present are condemned to irrelevance.” Far too many histories fail to make clear how their readers could learn from the past, not just to understand it on its own terms, but to avoid repeating its mistakes. Harvard historian Lisa McGirr’s new book, “The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State” emphatically connects the past to the present.

Many excellent books have delved into this subject, both recently and during Prohibition, especially perhaps Daniel Okrent’s “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” and George Ade’s 1931 polemic, “The Old-Time Saloon” (full disclosure: I am working on a new, annotated, edition of Ade’s book). McGirr’s well-written and accessible volume is essential because she not only recounts familiar aspects of Prohibition with insight and verve — she clearly, cogently and persuasively connects that era’s politics and policies to our contemporary Prohibition: America’s decades-long “War on Drugs.”After recounting the story of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement and the Anti-Saloon League’s legislative victory in passing the 18th Amendment, McGirr delves deeply into what today we’d call the “identity politics” of Prohibition. The complexity of this social and political movement is astonishing: Anything that could get Jane Addams and the Ku Klux Klan on the same side of any argument is beyond simple summary. Nonetheless, McGirr is at her best when she delves into the complexities of how different sorts of Americans experienced Prohibition.

What it meant to live under the Volstead Act and government enforcement regimes differed based on what sort of American you were, and not just along a Wet-Dry axis. Rich or middle class or working class or poor, urban or small town or rural, white or black or Latino, male or female: Prohibition and its law enforcement effected everyone differently, in ways that had profound and lasting effects on American culture.

McGirr persuasively argues that President Herbert Hoover and the Republican overreach on enforcing a deeply despised law changed American politics more than most historians have understood (or admitted). Under the flag of repeal, African-Americans and white city dwellers flocked to the Democrats. McGirr writes: “Prohibition opposition became the cudgel that broke apart earlier loyalties and forged new ones.” The seismic shift of African-Americans abandoning the party of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, cannot be overstated. For various urban white ethnic immigrants to see past their divisions and agree that the Democrats’ stance on repeal mattered more than anything else was also earth-shaking.

This change did not happen overnight: Anti-Catholic prejudice prevented 1928 Democratic Presidential candidate Al Smith for capitalizing on such a coalition sooner. But the subsequent four years of draconian federal encroachment on everyday life — and vigorous political organization and get-out-the-vote drives by Democrats — enabled Franklin Delano Roosevelt to lead the way to the New Deal by campaigning for repeal.

So, Prohibition caused a fundamental political re-orientation, one that enabled the Democratic Party to occupy the White House for 20 years, and to change the very idea of what the federal government should, or could, do about nationwide social issues. The New Deal (and the Great Society) government programs happened only because of the political realignment born of Prohibition and the very idea that the federal government should address social issues at all.


The relevance to 21st-century America, in the fifth decade of the “War on Drugs” declared by President Richard Nixon, is crystal clear by the time the “War on Alcohol” concludes. McGirr writes, “The U.S. war on alcohol built the foundations of the twentieth-century federal penal state. At the same time, the widened scope of federal power and the state administrative apparatus over a fourteen-year period oriented Americans ever more toward the nation-state for the resolution of social problems, while inspiring paradoxical disquiet over that very expansion of the government’s sphere of action.”

To cite yet another maxim about history, William Faulkner’s: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” McGirr eloquently demonstrates that while national Prohibition of alcohol died in 1933, it is not past; we are repeating its mistakes eight decades later. The contemporary American and international prohibition on drugs parallels the violent crime, extreme law enforcement and vast prisons born out of Prohibition.

McGirr reminds her readers that “The war on alcohol was brought to an end by a powerful combination of mass hostility to the law, elite opinion makers who dared challenge the consensus, and politicians who saw repeal as the road to the White House and even party realignment.” Perhaps books like McGirr’s will teach Americans to repeat the liberating logic of repeal. 

Bill Savage teaches Chicago literature at Northwestern University.

‘The War on Alcohol’  By Lisa McGirr, W.W. Norton, 330 pages, $27.95

Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

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Reader’s Forum-Tiani Coleman

President of NH Independent Voters, Tiani X. Coleman (l) with Jessica Lubien, Sarah Klinger and President, Jackie Salit at the NH Rebellion Convention

The imagery in Chapter 8 titled “Repeal” in Lisa McGuirr’s The War on Alcohol evokes strong emotions primarily because it paints a picture so relevant to today.  It would be baffling – if it didn’t sound so familiar – to think that in 1932 “at the height of global economic catastrophe,” there had been so little focus and concern put on how to solve the bank failures, the unemployment crisis, the breadlines, or the rise of fascism in Europe; and that the platform plank pledging repeal of Prohibition stood out as the vital issue of the election that brought the hall at the Democratic National Convention to erupt in sustained applause.

Of course, by 1932, repeal seemed like a natural culmination of a long fought battle that had brought devastation around the country . . . with the lethal alcohol alternatives found on the black market, the graft and corruption of public officials connected to organized crime, the selective enforcement that severely affected the poor and minority working class populations, the out of control citizen prohibition militias, not to mention the ballooning power of the federal government, subject to abuses.  The reaction favoring repeal in 1932 wasn’t the problem – the problem was America’s response to the “moral crusades” of the early 1900s that brought about Prohibition in the first place.  Even though the heavy use of alcohol had certainly created some worries for the nation, and it had some devastating effects on women and children, careful thought should have gone into the least harmful and intrusive approaches to addressing those concerns, without calling out the full, uneven enforcement powers of the federal government with an outright ban encouraging a black market and subsequent consequences.

The book’s obvious relevance lies in our current War on Drugs.  How did we repeal Prohibition, but not learn some of the deeper lessons that have had devastating effects on our Borders, our inner cities, our overcrowded prisons, and even our health and well being?  Now that states are starting to make marijuana — especially medical marijuana — legal, and some presidential candidates have adopted a national legalization position, we can see that change is around the corner.  One of the very few current issues receiving bi-partisan support is criminal justice reform.  But will we get it right?  Will we simply pass legalization/non-criminalization/rehabilitation measures without re-tracing our steps of how we got here and what else has been negatively affected that needs reform?  Will we re-evaluate the power we’ve given to the federal government?

The War on Alcohol is relevant even beyond the War on Drugs.  With FEAR as a driving force, we’ve seen similar patterns play out over abortion, gay marriage, immigration, gun control and the list goes on.  The devastating effects of illegal back-alley abortions and intrusions into privacy brought us a more activist Supreme Court (Planned Parenthood v. Casey).  More recently, we watched the religious right’s heavy influence sway state after state to pass constitutional amendments banning gay marriage as part of election mobilization efforts to help get Republicans elected.  As public sentiment began to shift in favor of gay marriage, Republicans dug in their heels, advocating for a national constitutional amendment. Now with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling finding an equal protection right for gay marriage, Republicans have grown relatively quiet on an issue that has dominated their politics for the last several election cycles.  Not only is this similar to Herbert Hoover’s approach with the Republican Party in 1932, as he dug in his heels on Prohibition rather than listening to the Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party, but we see a similar thing playing out over immigration.  After the 2012 election, it seemed clear that Republicans needed to improve their position on immigration in order to attract more minorities into the party and forge the kinds of coalitions needed to take back the White House.  But in the 2016 election cycle, candidates such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio felt forced to tone down their comprehensive reform positions, but still lost to candidates such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the most ardent anti-immigration, anti-comprehensive reform candidates.  It’s hard to tell at this point if this strident approach will lead to the Republicans’ loss in 2016, or if enough pent up anger by the white working classes will carry them through.  But either way, the lopsided emphasis on enforcement, without addressing the underlying issues, and the expectation for the federal government to wield its heavy hand against the “threatening, less powerful segments of our society” will in many respects prove fatal at some point.  Gun control – primarily on the Democratic side – is another issue where we have a president issuing executive orders in response to various mass shootings that are mobilizing citizens, especially women, to call for action.  We need to proceed intelligently and cautiously as we work to address the problem, and not hand over too much power to the federal government.  We’re now starting to witness new political re-alignments in the country, in part due to the unintended ramifications of our policies, which have ceded power away from the people.  It’s up to us to help steer this energy in a productive direction.

As we work to do so, I’ve been reminded, through reading the book, that all of our problems and challenges run deeper than can be found in policies that are largely political in nature.  Those who have the biggest impact for change, such as Al Smith who favored repeal before FDR did, are often largely forgotten.  I’m glad to be part of this movement, which isn’t an “ends justifies the means” movement, but is more about the methods, the developing culture, and the ability to truly empower people.  Understanding as much history as possible, from various perspectives, and getting fully educated about current events and the latest research will help us proceed less reactively and more purposefully, thoughtfully and inclusively towards long term change for the better.

Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and president of NH Independent Voters.


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Al Bell Reviews The War on Alcohol

The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State

By Lisa McGirr


Al Bell with Sarah Smallhouse and Deborah Gain Braley, Phoeniz, AZ


At first, I did not tune in to why Lisa McGirr’s new book is so incredibly relevant to our current political war zone. It turns out to be one of the most valuable books I have read in recent months—and I read about one a week.

She tells the story of the Prohibition era from a much broader and deeper perspective than we get from the myth of Prohibition. That common version is driven by images of a failed social experiment best represented by visions of speakeasies, mobsters, flappers, moonshiners, and FBI agents breaking down saloon doors. Like most things that are alleged to be true, that image contains some truth, but it is highly inaccurate and, worse, painfully misleading.

If you only read one paragraph of this review, here it is. If you care deeply about our Nation and its unending struggle to reach its potential, The War on Alcohol offers insights that can significantly inform your contribution to that cause. It documents a classic case of advantaged Americans intentionally and aggressively intimidating and exploiting less advantaged Americans almost 100 years ago. We are there again, but magnified exponentially. There is much to learn here.

It is true that Prohibition failed on at least two counts: 1) it promoted drinking rather than eliminating it, and 2) it gave impetus (some would say, birth) to a wild and unrestrained cultural shift based on alcohol, first in the big cities and then spreading throughout the land. The price was high and it still is.

The story of Prohibition is not just about alcohol. That was the premise, but the premise was soon polluted by the targeted and highly discriminatory enforcement regimes that prevailed during the 14 years between the 18th and 21st Amendments to our Constitution. It is a story of arrogant Protestant religious zealots who looked down on “lesser” recent immigrants, Catholics, Negroes, minorities, and the poor, who were viewed as threats to traditional Christian moral standards of behavior. Meanwhile, those with money and political connections, as well as the criminally inclined, prospered and capitalized on the federally imposed constraints on access to alcohol. In truth, all of those who claimed special privilege violated the law, too. It’s just that relatively few of them were ever punished.

The power of this intensive investigation of the real nature of Prohibition is that it exposes the pain and tragedy visited upon the target populations by selective enforcement. This part of history is seldom told; those who suffer the most usually have neither the ability to tell their story nor the platform from which it can be shared. While I only note it here, the role of the Ku Klux Klan, in partnership with Protestant ministers, public officials and such activist organizations as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union is a sad and reprehensible sub-plot in the story.

Other consequences are thoroughly revealed: the vast growth in Federal law enforcement organizations and roles; the extensive expansion of our penal system that continues to haunt us even today, with its terrible cost in treasure and lives wasted; and the lightning shift that moved the power base of targeted populations from their historic association with the “Party of Lincoln” to the Democratic Party. This latter sea change set the stage for the New Deal and subsequent legislation that dominated the political landscape for decades.

Reading this book is sometimes uncomfortable. That is what happens when the truth reveals things that we would rather hadn’t happened or would rather keep in the shadows if they did. Ms. McGirr casts light on the extreme hypocrisy of the times.

This slice of American history illuminates intended and, more importantly, unintended consequences of one group of Americans (us) telling another group of Americans (them) how they should live their lives, insisting that (they), being lesser humans, must now abide by rules of personal behavior that (we), being the real Americans, rightfully impose upon them. Really?

Does this sound familiar? Have you tuned in to the Republican Party Presidential candidates lately? Americans have heard this before. Ms. McGirr tells us when, where, how, why, and with what consequences.

A detail of her writing I must applaud is typically missing from histories and should be a universal practice. She routinely expresses cost information in both historic and current dollar values. This is the only way for the reader to appreciate the true magnitude of what is being presented. Bravo!

The author packs a great deal of information into just over 250 pages. It is not an easy read, but an extremely important one.


We are at a new level in the schism between Americans, but with vastly magnified capabilities to escalate distortion and dysfunction—and to do so at lightning speed. That schism draws much of its energy from a contemporary us/them emotional heat, just as we saw during Prohibition. Fear, anger, frustration, and distrust stalk the land. Much of it is justified. Once again, the search is on for scapegoats. They are readily available, as always—and the true culprits generally skate free.

The keystone of Lisa McGirr’s tale comes at the end. The same righteous mentality that drove Prohibition also empowers our so-called war on drugs, but on steroids. At some point, we need to confront the exponential cost in lives and treasure that mentality promotes. This book would be a fine beginning point for that dialogue.

For those Americans motivated to repeat this pattern, it might be worth a simple warning, based on our Prohibition experience: be very careful what you wish for.

Al Bell is an activist with Independent Voters for Arizona.

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Reader’s Forum

By Michelle McCleary

Lisa McGirr’s ‘The War on Alcohol’ is the kind of book that stays with its reader.  I think this is especially true for a sensitive, long-time political and community activist like me who has spent decades anxiously hoping for and working toward the time when our world, simultaneously beautiful and cruel, will change.

Although I often experience the writings of historians as entirely too preachy and wordy, I found myself wanting to read every word of Ms. McGirr’s book. In the book’s chapter ‘Selective Enforcement’ I was impressed by the author’s courage in exploring the un-equal treatment of wealthy (mostly white) Americans vs. poor white and poor black people.  Although black people in America have a particular and brutal history, I have never believed that the color of one’s skin is the only indicator of one’s suffering.  No heat and no food in the refrigerator equals cold, sleepless nights and empty stomachs whether the person has blue eyes and blond hair or dark hair and brown or black skin.  Poverty and race in America far too often equals a life of everyday experiences that are harsh and unfair.  To add insult to injury, the message is always clear that these experiences should be shouldered alone.   If I had a dollar for the number of times that my middle-class, white peers have told me that they don’t want to hear about my everyday experiences, or insinuated that I was to blame for those experiences, I would be a millionaire.

Lisa McGirr did a wonderful job of opening my eyes to the short but deeply impactful Prohibition Era in America. Prior to reading “The War on Alcohol” my knowledge of this piece of American history was nearly non-existent.  I vaguely remember a scene or two in movies where smiling, imperially slim, white men and women danced their hearts out at glamorous parties during the fun, ‘Roaring Twenties.’  Meanwhile, in back alleys ‘shady’ characters exchanged money for boxes of liquor. I think Brad Pitt had blown dried, blond hair in one of these scenes!   In her chapter “Selective Enforcement” the ‘movie’ scenes that the author created were far from glamorous.  In painstaking detail, Ms. McGirr told the history of the enforcement of Prohibition.  I found myself needing to take breaks from reading the vicious details of the uneven ways that Prohibition was enforced:  white, wealthy and able to pay off enforcement agents equaled little to no penalty; poor white, black, female or Mexican equaled fines, imprisonment and sometime death for possessing even the tiniest quantities of liquor.

Although I wasn’t surprised, I was struck by how history repeats itself over and over again.  I found myself cringing when I read about Bradley Bowling, a poor, white, unarmed man in an Appalachian town, who was shot and killed by a Federal agent over a half gallon of whiskey, because he ‘put his hand in his pocket.’ While I read this, the faces of unarmed black men and women who have been shot by the police moved through my mind.  Ms. McGirr posits that whites’ experience of unfair and unlawful over-reaches by police during the prohibition era helps to explain why there was strong and popular push back against Prohibition.    As per Ms. McGirr, black people had YEARS of experience of abuse and coercion by police and other agents but this treatment was largely ignored as were the public lynchings of black men and women.

The white pushback against the abuses of prohibition agents reminds me of America 2016.  News channels are filled with pundits nearly scratching their heads as they try to explain the tidal wave of white, working class voters who are clearly angry and fed up with the corrupt political system and its impact on their pursuit of the American Dream. Real talk, the American Dream died a long time ago.  Black people have been aware of this fact due to double digit unemployment, brutal and dismissive treatment by the police and shabby treatment by healthcare professionals.  I have no doubt in my mind that poor white people have had and continue to have similar experiences, but sadly seem to be holding out hope that their white skin will come through for them.  They could learn a lot from Lisa McGirr.


photo (3)

Michelle McCleary is a long-time independent political activist and the President of the Metro NY Chapter of the National Black MBA Association.

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Reader’s Forum: Carl Farmer

Chapter Seven: Building the Penal State in The War on Alcohol

When I first heard of Lisa McGirr’s book ‘The War On Alcohol’ I assumed it would be a condemnation of the evils of drink and how to live a purer life of total abstinence.  Oh how wrong I was!  This book is about the rise of unfettered federal power without an understanding by individual citizens.

My information about Prohibition comes from memories told to me by my parents and the movies. My memories are of the later prohibition of Mary Jane in the 70’s.  Both sets of memories can be looked upon as a funny and amusing experience. Fortunately, none of us were ever caught or incarcerated.

I started reading the book by reading the chapter on the rise of the Penal State and then read the rest of the book.

The penal state comes to prominence under Herbert Hoover and is refined by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.  H. Hoover wanted a total reform of the American justice system by increasing the power of the federal government and announced his intentions in his inauguration.  Thus, the control and prevention of crime became a national issue for the first time.  Many surveys were carried out and acted upon both by Congress and by executive commissions and orders. Well-meaning ideas concerning treatment of working class blacks and whites and immigrants were enacted often without consultation with the recipients.  ‘We know what’s best for you.’  Incarceration of minorities and underprivileged persons became the norm.  More prisons needed to be built and more officers were needed for enforcement.  The Federal system was needed to coordinate, collect and control the rise of crime.  Once the system was up and running it was easily changed to concentrate on narcotics when the prohibition of alcohol was repealed.

Unfortunately, the idea of totally prohibiting addiction rather than medically treating the problem continues. This seems to be an American attitude compared to what occurs in Europe and Scandanavia where a system of treatment and maintenance for the individual exists.

It is also the story of what happens when a good intention goes wrong.

Carl Farmer is a designer and political activist now living in Rhode Island.


Side Note: Here is an interesting 2008 NY Daily News article about RI’s most infamous “rum runner”, Danny Walsh. It is one example of how Prohibition contributed to the expansion of organized crime.

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Going Beyond Conventional Wisdom

The Boston Globe


‘The War on Alcohol’ by Lisa McGirr

Conventional wisdom about this country’s short-lived attempt to ban “the manufacture, sale, import, and transportation of intoxicating liquors” views it as a spectacular failure. The corrupt, inefficient enforcement and subsequent repeal of Prohibition inarguably demonstrated the difficulties involved in regulating personal behavior in the absence of a moral consensus.

But there is more to the story, and recent histories have sought to convey both the era’s colorful complexity and its checkered aftermath. Daniel Okrent’s “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” (2010) was an especially sharp look at the politics and personalities involved in both the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919 and its repeal, via the 21st Amendment, in 1933.

Popular culture has made Prohibition — in particular its flouting — seem like good, old-fashioned fun. But Okrent noted that our prevailing images of flappers, speakeasies, and liquor-impounding lawmen should be supplemented by darker ones of murdered rum runners and victims of poisoned hooch.

Lisa McGirr’s “The War on Alcohol,” though it touches on the politics of Prohibition, is less enlightening on its specific proponents and antagonists, and certainly a less lively read. McGirr’s central, and somewhat counter-intuitive argument, is that Prohibition, for all its shortcomings, laid the foundation for the expansion of federal power, the modern penal state, and our ongoing unsuccessful war on drugs.
McGirr, a professor of history at Harvard, avers that it is incorrect to view “the fourteen-year war on alcohol as an aberrant moment in the nation’s history, wrongheaded social policy waged by puritanical zealots of a bygone Victorian era, with few lasting consequences.”

In fact, she argues, Prohibition prepared the way for New Deal innovations, as the country increasingly looked to the federal government for social and economic solutions. Specifically, Prohibition fueled a national obsession with crime and helped create “a state that has been interventionist yet weak, heavy on coercion yet light on social welfare.”

One link — to the war on drugs — seems incontrovertible. “[T]he most consequential harvest of the war on alcohol,” McGirr writes, “was the uniquely American cross-breeding of prohibitionary and punitive approaches toward illicit recreational narcotic substances, in which the central government was to play a leading role domestically and internationally.”

McGirr adds to our understanding of the era with case studies of selective enforcement of the federal Volstead Act and state laws linked to the 18th Amendment. Enforcement, she writes, disproportionately targeted working-class, immigrant, poor, and African-American communities.

She locates the impetus for Prohibition in an alliance of Protestant evangelism and reformers’ “monumental anxieties over industrial capitalism, mass immigration, and the increasingly large and potentially volatile proletarian populations” concentrated in America’s urban areas.

Ethnic working-class communities came to see Prohibition — correctly — as “an attack on their leisure and personal habits.” They widely flouted the ban, though their drinking became more clandestine — and more expensive. Moonshine and boot-legging boomed, as did gangland influence, political corruption, and violence.

Accounts of Prohibition lawlessness traditionally have been “tinged with romance and nostalgia,” McGirr writes. But organized crime devastated poor communities, as did toxic liquor concoctions.

Enforcement, which included vigilantism, was not just selective, but harsh and even deadly. In Virginia, for example, violators overflowed the prisons and were subject to service on chain gangs and corporal punishment. Confrontations escalated into “the cavalier use of force,” and small-time operators could be shot.

McGirr treats at some length the relationship between a resurgent Ku Klux Klan and Prohibition. “The Klan leveraged the broad scope of the law,” she writes, “to pursue its anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and white supremacist agenda.” Not that its mission kept Klan leaders themselves from drunken escapades, she adds.

Conflict over Prohibition helped precipitate what McGirr sees as an electoral realignment, with working-class immigrant “wets” moving to the Democratic column in 1928. The Democratic presidential nominee, Al Smith, whose Catholicism cost him votes in the South and West, lost to Herbert Hoover. But Franklin D. Roosevelt owed his victory four years later in part to repeal sentiment.

Before the New Deal, Hoover expanded federal power, McGirr writes, not least by framing crime (including Prohibition-induced lawlessness) as a national problem. “The radical federal endeavor to abolish liquor traffic is the missing link between Progressive Era and World War I state building and the New Deal,” she asserts.

Right or wrong, it is a provocative argument, even if the manifold failures of Prohibition also render it — as McGirr herself acknowledges — a paradoxical one.

THE WAR ON ALCOHOL: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State

Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and a contributing book critic at the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein

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Radio Boston Interviews Lisa McGirr

On November 9th, 2015, WBUR’s Radio Boston host Meghna Chakrabarti interviewed Lisa McGirr on The War On Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State.  I think you will really enjoy listening to the show.

Lisa McGirr

(If the audio link does not appear, you can listen to the show here.)

Here are some of my favorite moments in their conversation.

Meghna asked Lisa to share how she came to write the book. Here is part of her response:

I love doing history from the bottom up and this was an effort to get to the experiences, for example, of working class immigrant ethnic men and women, different groups, African Americans in the cities and in the countryside, to understand the wide implications of Prohibition for all Americans across the board. And the differential implications by race, by class and by gender.”

 They discussed how the FBI expanded its activities during Prohibition.
This is the first time there is a massive expansion of the Federal government in crime control,  in 1919 through the 18th Amendment.  And it’s the first time that crime is really identified as a national problem and that has all sorts of ramifications for the expansion of the state toward policing and serveillance through Prohibition and throu the war on alcohol and its collateral effects of course.  Prohibition generated a national obsession over crime and criminality….This was a moment when the prison system was expanded, was reorganized….”
Meghna Chakrabarti asked whether we had learned the lessons from Prohibition that we needed to.  Lisa responded:
…neglecting and not understanding the history of Prohibition accurately–the ways in which it contributed to Penal state building–we have failed to see the way that we are continuing essentially along those same paths and the flaws that are inherent in any crusade against these recreational substances.  I mean, addiction is a huge problem…however the solution is not these kind of prohibitionary measures.  That was proved in the 1920’s, by 1933 there’s a wide consensus.  Hopefully now we’re getting to a place where there’s a little bit of opening to break the consensus that has developed on the war on drugs, because the implications have been, I think, even far more devastating on a domestic and global scale.”

Police from Boston's Division 9 with casks seized during Prohibition, circa 1930. (Boston Public Library/flickr)

Police from Boston’s Division 9 with casks seized during Prohibition, circa 1930. (Boston Public Library/flickr)


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NYT Q and A with Lisa McGirr

Officials pour confiscated beer into a sewer in New York during Prohibition. Creditvia Library of Congress

America has been awash in Prohibition-era nostalgia of late, with speakeasy-style bars, artisanal moonshine and “bootlegger balls” proliferating from New York to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Los Angeles, where revelers in period dress will pack that city’s 1930s Union Station to ring in the New Year.

But in her new book, “The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State” (W. W. Norton), the historian Lisa McGirr tells anything but a nostalgic story. The 18th Amendment, she argues, didn’t just give rise to vibrant night life and colorful, Hollywood-ready characters, like Isidor Einstein, New York’s celebrated “Prohibition Agent No. 1.” More enduringly, and tragically, it also radically expanded the federal government’s role in law enforcement, with consequences that can be seen in the crowded prisons of today.

In The New York Times Book Review, James A. Morone writes that the book “could have a major impact on how we read American political history.” In a recent email interview, Ms. McGirr, a professor at Harvard, discussed Prohibition’s political legacy, the surprising enforcement role of the Ku Klux Klan and the character from her story she’d most like to have a drink with. Below are excerpts from the conversation.

Q. The popular image of Prohibition is one of flappers, speakeasies and gangsters. What’s wrong with that picture?

A. Prohibition has been largely mined for its sensationalist entertainment value. Many chronicles have emphasized Prohibition’s vast inadequacies, and in some ways it was laughable. The government came nowhere near to eradicating the liquor traffic. But the very attempt had enormous and lasting consequences.

Q. You argue that Prohibition gave rise to today’s “penal state.” How did that happen?

A. By birthing a new national obsession with crime, Prohibition — and the violence that came with it — pushed the federal government in the direction of policing and surveillance. This was the moment that saw the first national crime commission, the birth of the Uniform Crime Reports, an expanded prison system and the establishment of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The F.B.I. also won expanded authority.

Q. You write that the ’20s roared only for a small slice of the population. What about everyone else?

A. Enforcement may have looked lighthearted in New York, especially for the middle class, who drank in protected speakeasies. But it was anything but a laughing matter for poor men and women in places like Virginia, North Carolina and Texas. Corruption up and down the enforcement chain smoothed the operation of large-scale criminal suppliers, but marginal violators, and those groups already identified with criminality, were not as lucky. They ended up filling police logs, jails and increasingly crowded federal and state prisons.

Q. You describe how the Ku Klux Klan helped enforce Prohibition in places like Williamson County, Ill., where federal authorities deputized its members to conduct sometimes deadly raids on distilleries, bars and private homes — taking particular aim at Italian immigrants. What made the Klan such an ally in the war on alcohol?

A. The Klan sold itself to white Protestant evangelicals as a law enforcement organization, winning droves of recruits with its promise to clamp down on bootlegging. There were plenty of Klansmen who imbibed, but that did not stop them from leveraging the law to target the drinking of the presumed enemies of white Protestant nationalism: immigrants, Catholics and African-Americans.

Q. It’s often thought that these groups moved decisively to the Democratic Party in 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt won the presidency in a landslide. But you argue that the breakthrough came in 1928, when Al Smith was the Democratic nominee. How important was Prohibition to that shift?

A. Before 1928, urban ethnic working-class political loyalties were divided between the Republican and the Democratic parties. Many recent immigrants had not yet built firm loyalties and were nonvoters. That changed when Al Smith ran for president, under the banner of opposition to Prohibition. The urban ethnic working class shifted heavily to the Democratic Party as a result. These men and women labeled Prohibition the tyranny of the Billy Sundays [Sunday was a prominent evangelical minister and Prohibition advocate] and identified it as an attack on their leisure and on Catholic religiosity. They also resented being classed as criminals. F.D.R. built on this new voting base, forging the New Deal coalition that lasted for much of the 20th century.

Q.What Prohibition-era character would you most like to have a near beer with?

A. A tough call, but it would probably be Clarence Darrow — though I am sure he would have refused to touch the much-hated near beer and gone in for some harder bootleg liquor. Darrow had opposed Prohibition before the amendment’s passage, and he became one of its most vocal opponents as it unfolded. He decried the violence and intolerance of men and women intent on enforcing the Volstead Act [the 1919 law carrying out Prohibition] and said essentially that they spawned an orgy of excessive zealotry and in some places outright terror. Given the story I uncovered in Williamson County, I think he was right.

Q. You draw a very straight line from the war on alcohol to the continuing war on drugs. Do you see room politically for that campaign to be repudiated as completely as Prohibition was?

A. Historians are not terribly good at predicting the future. Still, the consensus on the war on drugs is finally beginning to fracture, as it did for Prohibition over 75 years ago. Calls are ever louder for ending counterproductive penal approaches. I hope we embrace a turn toward a new New Deal for those who have borne the brunt of the drug war’s selective and often discriminatory enforcement.

Q. Is there any positive legacy of Prohibition that we might raise a glass to this New Year’s Eve?

A. Absolutely. I would raise a toast to the new mixed world of night life leisure that Prohibition spawned. Before that, public drinking was associated with the boisterous working-class male world of the saloon. Women who entered risked identification as prostitutes. Prohibition’s new semi-secretive world of leisure helped bring wider groups of women into these spaces, where they have remained ever since.

Correction: January 1, 2016
Because of an editing error, an article on Thursday in which the historian Lisa McGirr was interviewed about her new book, “The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State,” misidentified, in some editions, the state in which Cedar Rapids is located in citing cities where there are Prohibition-themed events or bars. It is in Iowa, not Michigan. 

A version of this article appears in print on December 31, 2015, on page C4 of the New York edition with the headline: Throwing a Cold Splash on Prohibition Nostalgia.

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