Mary Bowser’s Secrets Are Ours

A Review by Frank Fear

Reading engages you. You start and stop, reflect, make notes, ponder, and visualize, interacting with the text all the while, slowly and progressively.

That experience intensifies when reading historical fiction. You imagine what it was like “back then,” speculate what you might have done, and ponder what the story means in contemporary terms.

Historical transposition was my specialty while reading The Secrets of Mary Bowser. The academic in me enjoyed learning about an important historical figure. But vocation, I soon found, was trumped by something more powerful.

I’ve known hundreds of ‘Mary Bowser’s’ in my life. None of them was as bold in character or as important in history, but they did important things, still.  

Some ‘Mary Bowsers’ turned their backs on privileged positions with institutional accouterments. Others fought from within—as Mary did—as ‘guerillas of the bureaucracy.’

All of them jettisoned chains that had once entrapped them. They stopped playing the role of ‘made-up self’—a self that ‘assumed the position’ and parroted ‘the party line.’ And they all experienced that’ moment: “Enough!” “No more!”

Mary’s ‘secrets’ are theirs, too—and ours—in a collective sense. That’s because social activists share much in common, irrespective of time, place, or issue.

Reaching that conclusion made it possible to align Mary’s story (see text quotes that follow) with stories I’ve heard over the years.


At the start, Mary and others thought their evolution wouldn’t be difficult.

“I been a slave wishing for freedom my whole life. Being a free woman play-acting as Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Coverslavery can’t be harder than that.” (p. 48)

But they soon found it wasn’t easy—even after discovering they had companions on this new journey.

“I knew Miss Bet was playing a necessary part in front of our fellow passengers, that she was reminding me of the need for me to play my part as well. But her words stung me hard. As we took our seats, my head hung heavy with loneliness.” (p. 55)

Life quickly turned on its head.

“All my childhood, we in the house were allied in constant conspiracy with Miss Bet. I learned from watching Mama and the rest to smile and nod at her, but then roll eyes and mimic her words once her back was turned…. Now here I was in the North, and about the first thing I had to do was defend her, and to a colored woman.” (p. 66)

It was easy to be angry at this, angry at that, and—especially—angry at self.

“I was angry at that weasel-faced woman for sending me back to that bench, angry at the Quakers for having such a bench at all, angry at the elderly colored man for sitting on that bench for five decades or more…. But I was most angry at myself, for forgetting what Mama and Papa taught me, the thing that guided every moment of my life in Richmond…. I berated myself for not remembering their most important lesson.” (p. 116)

It would have been SO much easier if the targets of angst were always up to no-good. They weren’t, though. They were flawed, though. They’d talk about the real world as if they really knew something about it. But what they offered came mostly from privilege, not practice.

“The slavery I was born into…was very different.” (p. 126)

So how did Mary and my colleagues respond to hogwash? They learned to parse words carefully, that’s what. Speaking out/acting up less was better than speaking out/acting up more—even when egged on.

(Theodore to Mary)

“Your audacity that evening was quite impressive. I was longing to say something to that lot of pompous fops myself.’” (p. 138)

“They’re as predictable as parrots, repeating the same dull phrase over and over.” (p. 144)

“You are as fresh and unspoiled as the first breeze of spring coming through the window of a house that’s been shut up all winter.” (p. 148)

Political viability required cultivating the art of ‘picking one’s spots.’

Yes, the old life was easier. This new life, on the other hand, was chock full of unknowns, risks, and dangers.

“The first time I ever saw McNiven, I’d feared what threat he might be, to Mr. Jones and to me. Now because of him, I’d been in the greatest true peril I ever knew—but he’d had as much to do with getting me out of it as with putting me into it.” (p. 179)

Rather than wilt under pressure, though, they drew strength from peril—strength that was apparent in language. Expressed lyrically, their words were uplifting, grounded in values and lathered with principles.

“We hear folks speaking of compromise, and containing slavery, and preserving the Union. But what is to be compromised, contained, or preserved, for the husband who has a wife in slavery, the mother who has a daughter in slavery, the brother or sister, the child a father?” (p. 198)

“John Brown dies this morning. But Dangerfield Newby is already dead. John Brown did a great thing in the name of justice. But Dangerfield Newby did as great a thing in the name of love. John Brown is an exemplar to many in the struggle to end slavery. But Dangerfield Newby is a hero of our own. It is his death we must mourn, must honor, and must be ready to die ourselves, if need be.” (p. 201) 

This new life was about convictions—convictions shared with kindred spirits, including people they never dreamed would become allies.

“When I first met McNiven, I couldn’t have imagined I’d take pride or comfort in knowing he meant for us to ally together. But back then I couldn’t guessed I’d ever connive to travel back across the Mason and Dixon’s line, either.” (p. 213)

Those associates stood tall, always in opposition to others’ backpedaling and intransigence.

“Compromises. Congress would continue carrying on with its compromises…. Decades and decades of them, and every one made to protect slaveholding.” (p. 229)

How inspiring! It confirmed that ‘the cause’ was right, proper, and just.

“The thing that seeps so sweet and warm it makes you feel like every day is the first day of spring.” (p. 241)

Exuberance was necessary, too. The fight wouldn’t end quickly, no ‘sixty-day war’ (p. 284) would it be. Persistence was required, especially when defeat seemed imminent.

What then?

“I wasn’t about to give up so easily. After all, Mama raised me on a steady regimen of stealth and surreption, especially when it came to doing right by those in need.” (p. 266)

“…Mr. Ralph Emerson’s Essays. I had read them years before, in Philadelphia…. Mr. Emerson’s theme of following one’s moral purpose rather than succumbing to the weight of social convention was inspirational.” (p. 268).

Flowery prose wasn’t enough, though. Skills and capacity were. Getting progressively better at playing one’s role was required to counter “their” ingenuity.

“Sketched on the bottom of the missive was the oddest-looking maritime conveyance I’d ever seen. She had no sails, and most of the hull sat below the squiggly marks meant to show the waterline…. The Virginia was an iron-clad monster of the sea.” (p. 298)

And they did just that.

“A balloon big enough to life men into the air and carry them over the battle lines, so they may observe the Confederate defenses.” (p. 317)

Going to that next level of proficiency often came after a ‘hot button’ was pushed. It fueled anger. The use of duplicitous language was one trigger:

“We do not fight for slavery…. We fight for the right of States to govern themselves.” (p. 311)

Self-serving assertions were another:

“Everything will return to how it was.” (p. 318)

But the worst moments came …

…when they aided what they were fighting against…

“Papa was likely…making bayonet stocks for Confederates to use to impale the very men who were fighting to make him…free.” (p. 334)

…when they recognized that the fight was about many things, not just one…

 “What was smallpox but another form of suffering in a world full of pain and misery? ….Colored or white, the infectious corpses of the smallpox dead met the same ignominious end—the incinerator….” (pp. 343, 346)

…when they realized this fight was unending.

“I realized how vulnerable negroes were, even in their own houses in the North…. Freedom from slavery, maybe, but clearly not freedom from harm.” (pp. 363, 364)

In the face of all that, how far would they go for ‘the cause’? Not as far as you might speculate. Ethics prevail.

“What you describe is a despicable act, and if it occurred as you say, there is no excuse for it. But there is no excuse for us to behave their way, either.” (p. 395)


Do Independents have a role to play in these dynamics? You bet.

Unencumbered by strictures that otherwise constrain, Independents are society’s best hope for championing ‘the cause,’ that is, serving the public good. There is no higher calling in America’s politics.

Mary understood that.

You do, too.

Many others will.

“The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too.” Eugene O’Neill

(Cited by L. Leveen, Reader’s Guide, #12, The Secrets of Mary Bowser)



Frank A. Fear is professor emeritus, Michigan State University, where he served as a faculty member for thirty-year years and worked in various administrative positions for nearly twenty years. Find him on Twitter @frankfear and on Tumblr, “For the Public Good”.  Frank also writes about issues that intersect sport and society. You can read him at The Sports Column.


Politics for the People

Conference Call

With Author Lois Leveen

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Join us and Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser



Politics for the People May Column on IVN

Below is my Politics for the People column from IVN this month.  It includes Caroline Donnola’s review of The Secrets of Mary Bowser.  Then join us as we read Lois Leveen’s wonderful historical novel.  Our conference call with Lois will be on Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Politics for the People Book Club: The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Editor’s note: this article was co-authored by Cathy Stewart (introduction) and Caroline Donnola (main article).

The Politics for the People (P4P) Book Club brings together independent-minded Americans to read a wide range of books—both fiction and non-fiction—of interest to independents.  With each selection, we have a lively dialogue on the P4P blog culminating in an hour conference call conversation with our author.

We just finished reading Greg Orman’s book, A Declaration of Independents: How We Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream. On Sunday, April 15th we spent an hour with Greg talking about his current independent campaign for Governor of Kansas; the lessons he learned in his independent run for US Senate in 2014, and much more.

You can listen to our conversation on the blog.

Our next selection is the historical novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen.  I am a fan of historical fiction. It can free us up to actually gain a deeper understanding of a particular moment in time, the leaders, the lives and the actions of ordinary people that shape history.

This book was recommended by P4P member Caroline Donnola, and I asked her to write the review below.  You can visit the blog, read along and join us on Sunday, June 3rd  at 7 pm EST when we will be talking with author Lois Leveen.

politics for the people


I’ve always loved to read, and then I majored in literature and writing. A lifelong fan of history, I often gravitate toward historical fiction as it combines these two great loves. Every day, on my commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan, I travel with my well-stocked Kindle. When I discovered The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen, I knew I wanted to share it with members of the Politics for the People Book Club.

The story is an intriguing one. As a young girl, Mary, a Virginia slave, is freed by Bet, the daughter of her master who sends Mary to Philadelphia to be educated. There Mary lives as a free Black woman and becomes active in the Underground Railroad. She builds a new life for herself.

But when Mary’s mother dies and her father becomes ill, she returns to Richmond where she must live, once again, as a slave. When she sees the chance to continue her fight for freedom for all slaves, she becomes a servant in Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ household where she spies on him and reports her findings to Union commanders.

Based on a true story and a real heroine, most of us have never heard of Mary Bowser. And because so little is known about her, the author is forced to imagine how Mary would think, speak and act as a child, in addition to as an educated woman and as a spy who must speak and act like a slave to conceal her identity.

Leveen creates Mary’s world and populates it with real and imagined historical figures in the years before and during the Civil War. We see, hear and feel Mary’s world of loving parents who are determined for Mary to have a better life.

We meet Elizabeth (Bet) Van Lew, the real-life daughter of Mary’s slaveholder who becomes an abolitionist, and upon her father’s death, frees all of her family’s slaves. But Bet cannot free Mary’s father who is owned by another family, and Mary’s mother will not leave without him. We feel Mary’s conflicts as she moves to Philadelphia to live as a free woman but has to leave her parents behind.

During her years in Philadelphia, Mary gets to know ordinary and extraordinary fellow travelers—free Blacks, Quakers and other abolitionists. She learns which parts of town she cannot enter and she encounters hate-filled white mobs.

We learn about the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and the fights that took place amongst the abolitionists. We hear their arguments about John Brown, and we discover a historic event that took place when the train carrying his dead body passes through Philadelphia on its way to Brown’s burial site. We experience major Civil War battles and turning points. We witness Mary carefully and painstakingly carrying out her work as a Union spy.

I loved how the author was able to get inside Mary’s turbulent thoughts, her fears, her willingness to risk everything. Her relationships with her friends, parents, colleagues, and husband are complex and nuanced. In particular, her relationship with Bet is thorny, but it develops through their joint efforts to end slavery.

Leveen begins the book with two quotes that help shed light on how she thinks about this mix of history and imaginings. From Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience… Each new fact in his private experience flashes a light on what great bodies of men have done, and the crises of his life refer to national crises.”

And from African American abolitionist and women’s rights leader Maria Stewart:

“Who shall go forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people of color? Shall it be a woman?”

In The Secrets of Mary Bowser, we go on a journey filled with love, hope, pain, and sorrow. I hope you will relish this journey as I did and join the Politics for the People call with author Lois Leveen on Sunday, June 3rd.


Greg Orman Tonight on Politics for the People

Imagine if we had a country where Independent voters and Independent elected officials held just as much sway in Washington as Republicans or Democrats. The way Washington is governed and the way candidates approached elections could change forever.”  —Greg Orman

Greg Orman and Cathy Stewart @ Unite America NYC launch 2/18 

Tonight at 7 pm EST, Politics for the People will be talking with Greg Orman, the independent candidate for Governor of Kansas and the author of A Declaration of Independents: How We Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream.  

Join the conversation

641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#


Below is my Politics for the People column from IVN this month about Greg’s book.  Give it a read and call in this evening for an interesting, in-depth conversation.

“Declaration of Independents”: A Candidate’s Scathing Indictment of Two-Party Duopoly

Independents and the political establishment are keeping a close eye on what is happening in Kansas this year. Greg Orman, a successful business leader and entrepreneur, is running as an independent for governor of Kansas in one of the highest profile independent gubernatorial races in the country.

In 2014, Greg made national political headlines in his first independent run. He challenged incumbent Senator Pat Roberts in a race that was neck and neck. The Democratic challenger, Chad Taylor, dropped out, recognizing that Greg had a better opportunity to win. Greg earned 42% of the vote, not enough to win.

He went on to write, A Declaration of Independents: How We Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream, the current selection of the Politics for the People (P4P) Book Club.  Orman will be my guest on our Book Club Conference Call on April 15.

Although they create the illusion of competition, duopolies compete against one another while working together to suppress outside competition.

Greg Orman, independent candidate for Kansas governor

This important book is part memoir, reflections on his 2014 run for the Senate, a scathing indictment of the two-party duopoly, and an assertion of the need for a “vibrant independent movement –- one that includes officeholders elected as independents.”

As we head toward our conversation with Greg, independents are reading, discussing and writing about his book on the Politics for the People Reader’s Forum. As P4P member Maureen Albanese writes, “Mr. Orman’s book is a conversation starter…We need to talk to each other without the prison of political parties.”

I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with Greg and meeting his wife, Sybil. They are a dynamic and dedicated team as the book makes clear.

In one of my favorite chapters, “My Path To Political Independence,” Greg shares his history. He talks about the impact of his parents’ divorce when he was 5 and writes how he “learned to consider my folks’ respective point of view with an open mind and an empathetic heart,” which he takes to be central to his independence.

Many P4P members were touched by Greg’s story and have been sharing their own.

Steve Richardsona founding member of the Virginia Independent Voters Association who serves on’s national Election Reform Committee writes, “I think each of us can relate to Greg’s journey to political independence, whether our trip has lasted just a few years or over fifty.”

The book makes the case that the two parties function as a duopoly, and:

“In some ways, duopolies can be worse than monopolies. Although they create the illusion of competition, duopolies compete against one another while working together to suppress outside competition. They define the parameters of the game – and then rig the rules of that game to keep others out.”

A major focus of the duopoly is, as Greg puts it, “squeezing out Independents.” Greg outlines the ways the system is constructed by the duopoly to marginalize independent candidates and independent voters.

Orman is at his best giving us a detailed indictment of how the two-party system by design is incapable of solving problems, and how partisanship has become “weaponized” to win elections and lead the American people to believe all politics and policy are binary.

Greg writes: “[B]oth parties lead us to believe that there are only two answers to any problem. Generally, these answers have been hyper-distilled to such an extent that they’re troublingly simplistic.”

Many political professionals said if Greg had run as a Democrat or a Republican in 2014 he would have won the Senate seat. Greg has this to say:

“Most people say that in modern politics, winning is everything. But my view is that how you win is important too. If you get elected by talking about issues and opportunities, you have a mandate to go get something done. If you get elected by tearing down your opponent, you have a mandate for further hatefulness and partisanship.” 

Michelle McCleary, a veteran independent activist and the President of the Metro NY Chapter of the National Black MBA Association shared her take away:

“I applaud Mr. Orman for having the courage to run for office in a race that he was unlikely to win. In a grossly competitive country like America, ‘losing is for suckers’ and should be avoided regardless of who gets hurt or what gets destroyed. In my more than thirty-five-year history of activism in student, political and professional organizations, I have stood next to, supported and worked with ordinary people who knew that it was unlikely they would be giving the victory speech at the end of election day, but who gave everything they had because it was the right thing to do.”

I am very glad that Greg is in this race this year and who knows, Kansans might just be ready to have an independent Governor.

I hope you will join me on the Politics for the People Book Club talk with Greg Orman on April 15 at 7 pm EST. As you can see, the P4P readers are thoughtfully engaging with Greg’s book. I can guarantee our conversation will be thoughtful and give us an inside look at the Kansas gubernatorial race and explore the critical issues and controversies raised in Greg’s book.Visit the blog for call in details and pick up a copy of A Declaration of Independents today.




With Author GREG ORMAN

A Declaration of Independents

How We Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream



To My Pen Pal About Poverty in America


To My Pen Pal About Poverty in America

By Frank Fear

A Review of $2.00 a Day:

Living on Almost Nothing In America

By Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer

My critiques of America are misguided, so my pen pal tells me. I underestimate America’s greatness and overplay its challenges. He is dedicated to helping me “understand.”

Yet another of his missives arrived a few weeks ago. It came at a time when I was reading, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (by Kathryn J. Edin and H. 836ad-2-a-dayLuke Shaefer. Boston: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).

It made me think about an omission in our discourse. My pen pal has never brought up the topic of poverty in America, not even once. Perhaps he thinks we’ve solved it. Maybe it’s not a priority for keeping America great.

Either way, he’s not alone in looking elsewhere. Poverty has fallen off America’s radar screen. We hardly even use the word these days. We prefer talking about tax cuts or referring to “working Americans.”

What a difference from the days of my youth! In 1964, President Johnson Lyndon made his intent clear and expressed it directly. He declared “A War on Poverty.”

What changed? Starting in the 1970’s, Governor (later president) Reagan had a bee under his bonnet for the “evils of welfare.” He promulgated his angst visually with the image of “The Welfare Queen.” Later, President Clinton signed a bill ‘reforming’ the welfare system.

Well, America got reform. And it American changed … for the worse.

“How so?” my pen pan will certainly ask. I’ll respond by quoting $2.00 a Day (p. xxiii).

“America’s cash welfare program that caught people when they fell—was not merely replaced with the 1996 welfare reform (note: Clinton’s reform); it was very nearly destroyed. In its place arose a different kind of safety net, one that provides a powerful hand up to some—the working poor—but offers much less to others, that is, those who can’t manage to find or keep a job. This book is based on what happens when a government safety net is built on the assumption of full-time, stable employment at a living wage combines with a low-wage labor market that fails to deliver on any of the above. It is this toxic alchemy…that is spurring the increasing numbers of $2-a-day poor in America.” 

That’s why (I’ll tell my pen pal) it’s precisely the right time for poverty to re-emerge as a public policy priority. $2 a Day should be the rallying call for that movement. “There can be no exceptional America (an image that my friend believes in so thoroughly) if that circumstance remains a reality,” I’ll write.

Misguided public policies need to be corrected, I’ll continue. We need to name, and then proclaim, those policies for exactly what they are … heartless. What we need today, I’ll write, is for American patriots to step forward—just as Marian Wright Edelman did in 1995 when she chastised President Clinton in an “open letter” published in The Washington Post. In that letter, Edelman quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s powerful admonition: “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the constant omission of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

I’d then remind my pen pal of a conversation that I had with another colleague nearly thirty years ago. The colleague had been invited by then-President George H.W. Bush to serve on the commission to plan the Points of Light Foundation. “Points of Light?” I asked emphatically over dinner one night. “It sounds like a bait-and-switch, a flowery label used as a ploy – a ploy to reduce government support for those who need it most–to get people “off the government dole.”

My pen pal will bristle at that assertion, just as my other colleague did that night. But I’ll be prepared to bolster my argument by drawing on another passage from $2.00 a Day (p. 102).

“Private charity in America is often viewed as the little engine that could. It chugs along admirably, providing billions of dollars in aid to the poor each year…. Yet, even in America—and even for those who are adept at gleaning all that private charity has to offer—it can’t even begin to replicate, much less replace, what the government does. Private charity is a complement to government action, something that bolsters the government safety net.”

Charity is important. Self-help efforts are vital. But government support is the cornerstone. It’s not the cornerstone now – and that needs to change in a responsible, progressive way.

How so?” my pen pal will certainly ask. In response, I’ll offer three steps as proposed in $2.00 a Day (see Conclusion: Where, Then, From Here? Pp. 157-174).

The first step is to scrap the term, “reform.’ Welfare needs to be replaced. That’s not a new idea, I’ll tell my pen pal. It was the cornerstone of David Ellwood’s influential thinking from twenty years ago. It needs to be resurrected.

The second step is to ground a replacement strategy in four American values: 1) autonomy of the individual, 2) the virtue of work, 3) the primacy of the family, and 4) a desire for community. Basing policies on those pillars will go a long way toward integrating the poor in society, rather than separating them from society – the unfortunate reality that exists today.

The third step is to put in place policies that accomplish three outcomes: 1) provide opportunities for all to work, 2) enable parents to raise kids in a place of their own, and 3) strengthen the financial safety net so that people never go without.

I have faith in what Eden and Shaffer propose, I’ll say, because I believe it’s the foundation of good public policy.

He’ll scoff at that declaration! I know he will. Why do I think so? One reason is what I learned from reading a provocative article written recently by Kevin Quealy, published in The New York Times. Quealy talks about how political elites influence public opinion, especially with regard to topics that are complex, technical, or off-the-radar screen.

The political elites to whom my friend pays attention don’t talk about poverty. They talk about cutting taxes, bolstering corporate America, reducing government regulations, managing budget deficits, correcting trade imbalances, curbing terrorism, bolstering defense … but never, ever about poverty.

Poverty has been handled. It’s being dealt with by non-profits, churches, and philanthropists. “We in America are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poor-house is vanishing among us.” Herbert Hoover, August 11, 1928.

I’ll tell my friend that he’s misguided, that America needs to respond in a prudent, humane way. America can’t possibly be great if people are living on $2 a day.

Don’t you agree?

Frank A. Fear is professor emeritus, Michigan State University. Frank is a frequent contributor to the LA Progressive and also writes about issues that intersect sport and society. You can read him at The Sports Column at  He is a long time independent and active with Independent Voting.


A Letter from a Friend in Response

Hi Frank,

What can I say?

I think your article is brilliantly written in the most honest, clear and down to earth way. A humane and compelling format/conversation with “the other”. No demonization. No negating. Very intimate and political, touching and smart-a powerful personal/political organizing piece!

You locate poverty (the unspoken and criminally ignored white elephant in our country and in the world) structurally and not as a new phenomenon that we can just blame on one party – or the other – or on one leader or the other.  Poverty is institutionally located within a quagmire of ongoing unjust, inhumane policies that have and are destroying millions of lives, families, children, every day. And as you say, which must be thrown out and replaced-not reformed.

As a longtime political activist, I see the – up from the ground -National Independent Political Movement ( -working in concert with the many groups and individuals nationwide to build together to bring about this change!

Between your distribution networks and ours, I hope your piece reaches endless numbers of people hungry for a humane and sane direction to follow in this period.

Thank you Frank.

Kindest regards,


junehirsch solo

June Hirsh is an organizer with She lives in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.


 Please Join the Politics for the People Conference Call

With Kathyrn Edin

We will be discussing:

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

Sunday, December 3rd at 7 pm EST

Call In and Join the Conversation

641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#


P4P Reader’s Forum–Al Bell writes about $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America




It is disconcerting in the extreme to acknowledge that America, the consummate success story in the historic struggle of nations, is at once a first, second, and third world country. We often see information about this bizarre paradox. Too often, sources filter the information in ways that leave us perplexed regarding what we can or should do about it, if anything. $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America conveys our reality with penetrating impact.

It doesn’t just tell the story through the lives of real people with whom the authors have shared real time—as boldly crafted as that part of the book is—it does so with breathtaking wisdom. Informative, insightful, authentic, and often moving as well. However, it is the wisdom of its conclusions and the pragmatic good sense of its guidance that distinguishes this book.

Absent insight about the lives of real people who live on the front lines of personal disaster day in and day out, most of us would probably find the exceptional action insights in the last chapter unhinged from reality. It is everything but unhinged. The focus of my commentary is on this part of the brutally honest confrontation with poverty revealed in the previous 156 pages.

A single sentence by the authors captures for me the essence of the book’s common sense. It says, “the primary reason to strive relentlessly for approaches that line up with what most Americans believe is moral and fair is that government programs that are out of synch with these values serve to separate the poor from the rest of society, not integrate them into society.” Yes. Stigma doesn’t work.

We often fail to see complex and unpleasant truths clearly. Why? Because we so often view them through filters instead of prisms. Filters block out light intentionally, just as ideological mind sets block out honest reality and coherent thinking. Prisms, on the other hand, reveal light in its myriad components, revealing clarity impossible to see unaided. This book is a prism.

Would that we could supply prisms to our Legislative and Executive branches (the Judicial is another story) as oaths of office are administered. At least on the issue of poverty in America, we now have a prism with which we can work.

The conventional wisdom is that the poor who barely subsist and often fall below even that miserable metric are a terrible burden to society. Though not directly stated, what I take away from $2.00 A Day is the exact opposite. They are an incredible untapped resource that, if provided with a common sense support system, could not only join society, but significantly enhance it as well. The reality is what it is. How we view it and what we do about it is a matter of choice. Edin and Shaefer offer far better choices than we have seen thus far.

If those who seek to understand the economic, social, and technological trajectory on which our society is now embarked are even in the ball park, how we choose to unfetter this vast human resource can lead the way to the much broader strategy required to head off the massive disconnects we face on a much larger scale. It was one thing to hack off the futures of horse shoers over a hundred years ago as the automobile age hit us full throttle. It is quite something else to contemplate huge swaths of workers across our enterprise sectors finding themselves economic and social salvage.

A great deal is at stake here. This little book vastly outweighs it modest size with the power of its content. So much so, in fact, that I am sending a copy to our two Senators in Arizona, urging them to use their (increasingly) distinctive voices in our current governance wilderness to shape the dialogue on the poverty of our nation in more productive directions.

I cannot end this commentary without expressing my deepest appreciation to Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer for providing such a sorely needed breath of fresh air on a subject suffering so long under stifling ambiguity and distortion. They have given us a tool worth picking up.

Al Bell lives in Peoria, AZ and is an activist with Independent Voters for Arizona.

Please Join the Politics for the People Conference Call

With Kathyrn Edin

We will be discussing:

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

Sunday, December 3rd at 7 pm EST

Call In and Join the Conversation

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An Independent Reviews RATF**KED

The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy

By Dr. Jessie Fields 

Jessie Fields

Dr. Jessie Fields at the 2107 National Conference of Independents


David Daley does a fine job of exploring the politics of redistricting and the current escalation of gerrymandering, a very old corrupt standard practice of elected officials determining the electoral districts from which they are elected, drawing the lines of state legislative and congressional districts. The author examines in detail the resulting high level of voter disenfranchisement at the state and national level, the effective takeover of our political process by party operatives who determine the outcome of elections by packing Democratic leaning minority voters into dense urban districts and spreading so called Republican leaning voters over more districts which Republican legislators can be assured to win though by smaller margins. Throughout the book Daley touches on the racial and economic divisions this practice perpetuates.

The book pivots through the years of the Obama presidency and examines the 2010 Republican Party escalation of partisan gerrymandering that targeted districts in key states to successfully control the state redistricting process which resulted in unprecedented victories for the Republican Party and their domination of a majority of state legislatures and of Congress.  The author also points out the complacency of the Democratic Party, its focus on presidential elections and the Democratic Party’s reliance on demographics to win elections.

A solution to gerrymandering is unlikely to come from either of the two parties. The Republicans may have perfected it in 2010, but both sides have had a long, successful history of manipulating redistricting for their own advantage. A political party is built to win elections, after all – as well as to raise money and employ consultants and operatives. Their leaders always believe they can win the next one, and that reformers will stop howling once their side regains power. Too often, sadly, that’s true.”

Independent voters have been and remain committed to nonpartisan political reform including redistricting reform. The source for reform has come primarily from voter ballot initiatives and the book highlights the fights to maintain such initiatives in states like Arizona, where the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme court and the voter initiative was upheld by a 5-4 vote of the court.

Other examples of the passage of redistricting reforms by popular vote are Florida’s “nonpartisan Fair Districts Now coalition” which in 2010 passed two reform initiatives with 62 percent support. In 2015 Ohio voters by 71% passed a ballot initiative that, though limited, established a less partisan plan for drawing state legislative districts.

However California, in my estimate the state that has led the country in electoral reform victories with its redistricting commission and nonpartisan top two elections initiatives, passed by the voters in 2010, is not mentioned except in a quote in the chapter, “Democrats” from Martin Frost, a former Texas Congressman who was gerrymandered out of office.  

“When Democrats controlled the House for the four decades before the 1994 Gingrich revolution, redistricting worked with a wink, he said; it was an incumbent protection racket on both sides. .. “That’s why prior to the referendum in California – prior to the commission – everyone got reelected.” “The numbers back that up.”

The overarching theme of the book is in the subtitle, “The True Story Behind The Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy”.  It expresses the stealth aspect of the reality of what is happening to American democracy. A centerpiece of the theft and destruction of democracy is partisan gerrymandering in conjunction with closed partisan primaries. If the primaries locally and nationally were open and every voter, no matter party affiliation or non-affiliation, including independent voters could vote the threat of being “primaried” by a far right wing Republican would not exist.

The relationship of opening the primaries to all voters along with redistricting reform is underestimated, both are needed. Partisan gerrymandering hinges on the district being dominated by identification with one political party, so that whoever wins that party primary wins the general election. If the primary is open to all voters the candidates who are successful are more likely those that appeal to a cross section of voters. This phenomenon has been demonstrated in states with nonpartisan open primaries. A massive continuous infusion of systemic democracy reforms and initiatives that take power from the parties and put it in the hands of the voters are needed to save our democracy. I could not agree more with Daley that “.., it will require creative state and local solutions, inventive uses of the referendum and initiative process, and new alliances of frustrated citizens which defy party boundaries, rooted in the belief that fair elections which reflect an honest majority are as important as which side wins. It will take people to stand up and say that our democratic values matter too deeply to ratfuck.”

The book was completed before the end of the 2016 presidential election, and in it Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, postulates alternative scenarios if the election was won by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or “a Republican” given that gerrymandering has given the Republican Party a congressional majority for the rest of this decade. Donald Trump is now president. He was elected because large segments of the American people are in revolt against the establishment and are looking for ways to change politics. This popular revolt was also expressed in the campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders.

The gerrymander is yet another example of a political barrier that must be overcome. Voters are becoming more independent and less easily sorted by party identification. Independents say strongly “do not put me in that box”, 43% of Americans now identify as independents, they are the hoped for bridge to a new and more inclusive American democracy.

~Dr. Jessie Fields is a physician practising in Harlem, a leader in the New York City Independence Clubs, and a board member of the All Stars Project and Open Primaries.


Conference Call with David Daley

Author of RATF**KED

Sunday, June 4th at 7 pm EST

Call: 641-715-3605
Pass code: 767775#

A Review of Terrible Virtue



March 29, 2016

“The novel is a quick, compulsive read but leaves much untold; however, this is fiction and not comprehensive biography.”

Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman is fictional autobiography (told almost exclusively in an imagined first-person narrative voice) of 20th century feminist icon and birth control advocate and activist American, Margaret Sanger.

But is this the autobiography Margaret Sanger would have written if she had chosen to do so toward the end of her life?

The title stems from a Margaret Sanger quote from 1914: “It is only rebel woman, when she gets out of the habits imposed on her by bourgeois convention, who can do some deed of terrible virtue.” She adds: “A woman’s duty: To look the whole world in the face with a go-to-hell look in her eyes, to have an ideal, to speak and act in defiance of convention.”

With these words, Sanger, as Feldman notes, found her mission.

What is also “terrible” in this novel perhaps is the toll Sanger’s lifelong activism imposed on her two husbands, three children and many lovers. Among other questions, Sanger’s crusading raises the dilemma of whether activists living for a cause, can also be married or even raise children. Of course the “virtue” resides in the remarkable effectiveness of the activism Sanger espoused.

The novel takes the reader of a fascinating and compelling gallop through the surface of Sanger’s life as imagined by Feldman. The novel is a quick, compulsive read but leaves much untold; however, this is fiction and not comprehensive biography. Yet the novel does range over the highlights of Sanger’s life from a small town in upstate New York to a final home in Tucson, Arizona.

Sanger was born into poverty, a daughter of an alcoholic free thinker and town renegade and a haggard mother always exhausted by the bearing of and caring for 13 children. Due to the sacrifice of two older and devoted sisters Sanger was able to train as a nurse. Early on she championed several social justice causes, mingling with, learning from, and working with other progressives.

Ultimately she brought her leadership skills, powerful personality, and idealism (abetted by constant awareness of her mother’s childbearing suffering that caused her untimely death) into legalizing contraception. This struggle consumed her life and led often to violent conflict with puritanical, patronizing lawmakers, sentenced her several times to prison, and left her little option to further her work but to seek asylum in Edwardian England.

Sanger’s narrative is interrupted by short accounts from her children, husbands, sisters, and lovers that counterbalance and often confute Sanger’s telling of her life in which she gives short shrift to the great cost she exacted from those she loved and who loved her. Another fascinating element of the novel is the vignette appearances of the likes of Emma Goldman, John Reed, Big Bill Haywood, H. G. Wells, Havelock Ellis, and other luminaries of progressive movements in the early to mid-20th century.

Among many other pioneering ventures, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in America in 1916 (illegal), founded Planned Parenthood in 1952, and in 1960 heralded Congress’s legal protection of “the Pill.”

This is a timely book. Since 2010 hundreds of new laws chip away at women’s choice, access to contraception, sexual education, and abortion—all passed by conservative lawmakers. Women’s rights are assailed today by the same puritanical zeitgeist that railed against Margaret Sanger in 1916. Sadly, Sanger’s work is not yet completely done.

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

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Frank Fear Reviews Evicted

REVIEW: Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, New York: Crown Publishers, 2016[1]


By Frank A. Fear, professor emeritus, Michigan State University


“Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering—by no American values is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”  (p. 313)

Eloquently phrased, so valid and compelling in substance…. Those words gave me great pause for thought.

I thought about America. How did it get this way? I thought about me. How can I make a difference?

The most sobering thought of all was this: nothing Matthew Desmond writes about is new.

At various levels we know severe poverty exists in this country. But most of us live a world apart—apart occupationally, economically, socially, and institutionally. But it’s different geographically. Wander a bit from Main Street or the suburbs. You’ll find it. And it’s closer than you think … often too close for comfort.

Desmond’s book should make us feel uncomfortable. He helps us confront this “other reality” in vivid and sometimes raw terms.

For me, the most discomforting part of the book was Desmond’s treatment of profit. There’s money to be made in the slums. Landlords, lenders, and other actors profit on the backs of vulnerable people—people living hardscrabble lives who don’t always know what tomorrow will bring.

Exploitation, now there’s a word that has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate,” Desmond writes (p. 305). I won’t forget that phrasing.

I didn’t read Evicted from cover to cover. I read Part One (through p. 107) to get grounded. Intrigued by the study design, I then turned to the end of the book and read about Desmond’s methodology (“About This Project,” pp. 315-336). Wondering about Desmond’s overall conclusions and recommendations I next read “Epilogue: Home and Hope” (pp. 293-313).

I used Epilogue as the foundation for reading the rest of the book. I highlighted (literally so, by marker) supporting documentation (the material cited in footnotes) and connected that evidentiary material to vignettes about people and relationships. Connecting those two domains—data about poverty (important to me as social scientist) with stories about poverty (important to me as citizen activist)—made the book come alive.

After finishing the book I spent time thinking about the meaning of Evicted. I concluded that it’s a Call to Arms. We must do more, and do better, as stewards of the commonwealth. Desmond says as much:

“Working on behalf of the common good is the engine of democracy, vital to our communities, cities, and states—and, ultimately, the nation. It is “an outflow of the idealism and moralism of the American people, wrote Gunner Myrdal.” (p. 294)

What might we do to serve the common good? I offer two recommendations. The first has to do with our role as benefactors. The second pertains to our role as political actors.

As Benefactors. A benefactor is a kindly helper. Millions of Americans are benefactors in the fight against poverty. We serve by volunteering time and giving money to America’s nonprofit agencies.

Not all agency work is the same, though. A good share of the work involves providing people relief from poverty and some of it targets the causes of poverty. If you’re like me then you’ve devoted more attention to relief and less to cause-remediation.

When I served as president of a municipal food bank I watched the client roll grow. More people needed food assistance. Many were children. Many were senior citizens. Many were “new kinds of people,” people you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with hunger, such as out-of-work professionals.

How could this be happening in America, I thought? I wasn’t the only person asking that question. And many times I heard this answer: “There will always be poor people in America. Our moral responsibility is to tend to their needs.”

Relief services certainly have a place. But raising more money to provide relief services to more and more people is an endless routine. It capitulates to the forces that cause hunger. And it makes benefactors problem responders, not problem solvers.

I believe America needs to reinvigorate its efforts to address the causes of poverty. One way to do that is by concentrating more time and money on agencies, programs, and services that target the causes of poverty by addressing those causes directly.

But it isn’t easy to identify those initiatives. Why? First, many evaluation systems only use financial indicators to judge nonprofit merit and quality (e.g., % of budget devoted to administration). Fiscal accountability is important, but it only gets at how agencies operate. Second, resources to help Americans make nonprofit choices don’t always do a good job of differentiating among diverse initiatives. Disparate activities are often lumped in a generic category, such as “Fighting Poverty.”

We need to be inquisitive and discriminating, first, then declarative and active, next. Volunteer. Serve on a committee. Become a board member. Make targeted financial contributions to projects with high impact. Endow a program to make a long-term difference.

I’m more convinced than ever—thanks, in part, to reading Evicted—that we must speak openly and passionately about shifting primary emphasis in this country from relief to remediation. Then we must act.

As Political Actors. Nonprofit initiatives are important, but local, state and national-level policies represent the cornerstone of transformation. With that in mind I very much like Desmond’s proposal—to expand the housing voucher program (pp. 308ff).

Sadly, though, poverty isn’t a primary concern politically in this country — and it hasn’t been a primary concern for nearly a half century. That’s why we don’t have the policies we need to attack poverty aggressively.

What a difference that is from the America of my youth! Poverty was on the national radar screen in the 1960s: we had a “War on Poverty.” Then the focus shifted substantially—from a progressive stance emphasizing commonwealth to a neoliberal ethic accentuating individual achievement.

“Capitalism … /has been celebrated/… not only as a wealth-generating engine,” David Brooks wrote recently, “it also … / became/ … a moral system, a way to arouse hard work, creativity and trust.” The creed? Focus on what you can get for yourself. “Everyone else can take care of themselves.”

The political rhetoric shifted correspondingly, too, from a Kennedy-esque “what I can do for my country” to cries for cutting taxes, shrinking government, and trimming regulations—three pillars of The Reagan Revolution. We hear those same cries today.

For decades, neither major political party made poverty a priority—even though data have shown clearly and consistently that a good share of America is being left behind. It’s the same in this election cycle. Poverty has been an off-and-on topic, mostly off, and sometimes back on, largely as a result of external pressure.

In September The New York Times Editorial Board published an opinion piece entitled, “The Failure to Talk Frankly About Poverty.” Hillary Clinton followed with plan to help America’s poor, but that plan was evaluated as lacking when compared to what other Western countries have done and are doing (e.g., Great Britain).

Part of the challenge is the way political parties go about their business. They use a routine I call “The Three P’s”Philosophy, Policies, and Programs. Party partisans talk about values they hold (Philosophy), the legislation they’ve enacted in the past and are pending today (Policies), and initiatives they’ve funded or intend to fund (Programs). Data and expert opinion are used to support the contention that America is “better off” (or at least improving) because of the party’s work. Then, on the flip side, party partisans use the Three P’s to argue that America has been hurt by what the other party stands for, has done in the past, and proposes to do in the future.

This either-or routine is patently familiar, the stuff of which stump speeches, party platforms, and candidate-authored Op Ed’s are made. That routine is connected intractably to what Desmond writes about poverty on pp. 316-17. For Conservatives the poverty narrative is mostly about individual deficiencies (e.g., having children out of wedlock). For Liberals the focus is largely on structural forces (e.g., loss of manufacturing jobs).

Desmond proposes another way of framing the poverty debate, a way that makes more sense to me as a Progressive—not just substantively, but morally as well. He sees poverty as a relationship involving poor and rich (emphasis added):

To understand poverty…I needed to understand that relationship. This sent me searching for a process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle. Eviction was such a process.” (p. 317)

Desmond’s approach acknowledges that we (not just “they”) have a problem. It emphasizes our collective responsibility to serve the public good. And it’s a much-needed antidote to neoliberal self-centeredness.

How might we help that type of thinking grow and bear fruit? The first step is creating broader awareness of what’s going on—to become “Desmond’s Disciples,” as it were. But spreading the gospel won’t be easy. Survey data reveal that a majority of Americans (almost 70%) believe that people are responsible for their own welfare. And over 70% of those surveyed are pessimistic that poverty can be eliminated—even if the government made poverty a high priority.

Because change won’t come easily, I believe in approaching change as a political endeavor. What political acts might we take? Here are several examples.

Host a reading circle in your home with Evicted as common reading. Better yet, contact your local library and offer to organize a reading group in your community.

Write an Op Ed about Evicted for your hometown paper. Describe what’s going on in America and discuss its implications. Follow that up by writing a series of pieces about poverty, the plight of people, and what we can do—as everyday Americans and as a country—to address it.

Become knowledgeable about poverty-related legislation that’s before your state legislature and Congress. Identify representatives who support or oppose policies that lift people out of poverty. Endorse those who do. Volunteer to work on their campaigns. Speak out against those who don’t support poverty legislation. A good way to express support and oppose is by writing Letters to the Editor of your hometown newspaper.

Affiliate with local, state, and national-level poverty-focused organizations. Work with others to advance a political agenda that addresses poverty directly.

The bottom line: Do what you can and as much as you can. Lives hang in the balance.

If you think that interpretation is an exaggeration, consider what Jennifer Senior wrote in her review of Evicted:

“How can you hang on to a job, send your child to school, or build roots in a community if you are constantly changing homes, each one more dilapidated and dangerously located than the next?”

Repeat those words to anybody who questions your activism.

Would they want to live their lives that way? Certainly not. If they did, would they want others to care about them? Probably yes.

We should care about those who live this way—today, right here, in America. And we should do something about it.

So let us.

[1] SYNOPSIS (from “Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is a sociological study of evictions, housing, and homelessness in Milwaukee. The book follows the lives of a number of tenants and landlords in order to examine how access to housing affects the poor. Desmond also includes historical background, statistics, and research findings to provide context for his narratives…. /The study shows that/…eviction is hugely disruptive, and those who are evicted face loss of property, intensified poverty, and an erosion in quality of housing. Evictions also disrupt jobs, and may increase depression and addiction. It’s not only that poverty contributes to housing precarity; housing precarity contributes to poverty. Moreover, a home can spell the difference between stable poverty, in which saving and advancement are possible, and grinding poverty, in which one staggers from crisis to crisis.”



Politics for the People Conference Call

With Matthew Desmond

Sunday, October 23rd at 7 pm EST

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Reader’s Forum–Mary Fridley talks EVICTED



In a conversation with Fred Newman some years ago, I asked him how he decided what books to read. He basically said, “If you enjoy the conversation, read it; if you don’t, don’t.” After reading Evicted, I immediately recommended it to Cathy Stewart because I believed that she and other independents would appreciate the conversational journey the book and its author Matthew Desmond take us on. While it is not an easy journey, I found it to be an extraordinarily compassionate and thought-provoking one. Since Desmond is perhaps the quintessential “outsider” – a white, Harvard-trained academic – I appreciate that he took the time to build relationships with people who we get to know, not as “subjects,” but as a delightfully human group of Black and white women and men (whose stories remain with me) trying to fight/manipulate a system that refuses to relate to them, regardless of color, with any humanity at all.

I have spent much of my adult life doing all I can to end poverty, but reading Evicted showed me how easy it still is to relate to it as an abstraction rather than as an endlessly complex and interconnected industry out of which it is becoming more and more impossible to escape. Thus, I appreciate that, while Desmond does not shy away from sharing the foibles and failings of Scott, Patrice, Arleen and the others we meet in Evicted, he does so without blaming or shaming them.  As he says in a Huffington Post article I recently read, “Eviction is fundamentally changing the face of poverty. One way we can interpret eviction is like, ‘Oh, it’s a result of irresponsibility, it’s bad spending habits.’ But if you’re spending 80 percent of your income on rent, eviction is much more of an inevitability than an irresponsibility.”

He is also sensitive to the fact that the housing/eviction crisis is not impacting everyone the same way. I was touched/haunted by his observation that, “If incarceration has come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, evictionwas shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” As a woman and an independent determined to transform a political system that is locking out growing numbers of Americans regardless of race, class or gender, I am glad we have an ally in Matthew Desmond and look forward to continuing – and growing – this much needed conversation.

Mary Fridley is the Director of Special Projects at the East Side Institute and a longtime independent activist from Brooklyn, NY.


Politics for the People Conference Call

 With Matthew Desmond

Sunday, October 23rd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

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Reminder: P4P Call Tonight with Lisa McGirr

Sunday, April 3rd at 7 pm EST

Call in number (641) 715-3605

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As we get ready for our conversation with Lisa McGirr on her book,  The War on Alcohol, I thought you would enjoy reading this review of the book that appeared in Volteface in March.  Christopher Snowden explores Lisa’s book and the historical roots and connections with the war on drugs.




VolteFace is a space that offers fresh perspectives on drugs policies, lifestyle and culture.


Eighty three years after Prohibition was repealed, can there be anything new to say about the ‘noble experiment’? Lisa McGirr’s new history The War on Alcohol emphatically answers that question in the affirmative.

Historians have tended to write about Prohibition as if it was doomed from the start and have therefore focused on the long campaign leading up to the 18th Amendment and the rather shorter campaign for the 21st Amendment (which abolished the prohibitionist 18th). Narrative histories of the fourteen years separating these two events fill their pages with tales of organised crime, the dubious glamour of speakeasies and the comic aspects of a doomed crusade. Since Prohibition is, it is assumed, dead for good, we can afford to laugh at the fanaticism of its adherents and marvel at the antics of bootleggers.

All entertaining stuff, but less has been said about the experience of ordinary drinkers living in Dry America for whom life was neither glamorous nor fun. This is where McGirr comes in. The title of The War on Alcohol is clearly designed to invite comparisons with the modern War on Drugs. A lesser writer might have hammered the similarities between these two disastrous follies into the ground, but McGirr is content to allow readers to make their own connections. She leaves it until the end of the book before drawing explicit parallels, of which perhaps the most significant is the disproportionate harm caused to ethnic minorities and the poor, both as suppliers and consumers, in the respective ‘wars’.

Prohibition disproportionately targeted ethnic minorities and the poor (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Prohibition disproportionately targeted ethnic minorities and the poor (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Prohibition corrupted institutions from the inside out and unleashed a wave of vigilantism that came close to a reign of terror in some towns and cities. One notable difference between Prohibition and the war on drugs is that there has never been a grassroots anti-narcotics society to compare with the formidableAnti-Saloon League. Having secured the 18th Amendment, the League effectively became an armed militia of teetotalitarians, conducting raids on private property with the tacit, and often explicit, support of local police, the Prohibition Bureau and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The League were true believers in the dry cause, but any mob of volunteers could join officials and private detectives in enforcing the Volstead Act. For some vigilantes, the 18th Amendment was nothing more than an excuse for persecution and score-settling. As McGirr recounts, the Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a terrifying revival once its members decided to become soldiers in the war against liquor. Unsurprisingly, some drinkers received more attention from the hooded order than others.

McGirr vividly illustrates the ways in which the 18th Amendment was used as a ‘blanket pretext to invade workers’ homes, clubs, gatherings, and boarding houses’, with detailed case studies in such localities as Chicago, New York and Pittsburgh. Much of this research is new and McGirr provides enough empirical evidence to show that the racial and class bias of Prohibition enforcement was not confined to bad apples and rotten boroughs but was a systemic, nationwide phenomenon. ‘The country is not being run for their benefit’, said the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals when it was suggested that Prohibition was deeply unpopular with foreign-born workers. It showed.

The Klu Kux Klan took up the prohibition cause asa guise for their own racism (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Klu Kux Klan took up the prohibition cause as a guise for their own racism (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Joseph Gusfield’s classic sociological study Symbolic Crusade portrayed Prohibition as a war between WASPs and the urban proletariat. It is a view with which McGirr seems to sympathise (as do I) and it is undoubtedly true that European immigrants, blacks, Mexicans, Catholics and the urban poor were hit harder by Prohibition than cider-brewing farmers and millionaire wine collectors. Unable to afford the better quality alcohol enjoyed by the affluent, these groups were also more likely to suffer from the ill effects of cheap moonshine, which included being blinded, crippled and killed.

But it is an ill wind that blows no good. For budding entrepreneurs of any background, the illicit alcohol business was a get-rich-quick scheme. ‘The illicit liquor traffic has become a means of comparative opulence to many families that formerly were on the records of relief agencies’, reported the Federal Council of Churches in 1925. The same could be said of many drug dealers today, but the opportunities afforded to working class bootleggers were accompanied with great risks. Buyers and sellers of moonshine among the urban proletariat were much more likely to be prosecuted and imprisoned than their counterparts in high society.

The similarities between the war on alcohol and the war on drugs are striking, but they are not the core of McGirr’s thesis. Her main argument is more interesting. She contends that Prohibition led to the creation of the modern, heavy-handed American penal state. It was not, she says, a mere bump in the highway of history. It had a lasting impact not only on American drinking culture (male-dominated saloons never fully returned) but on the relationship between the American people and their government.

The First World War that preceded Prohibition and the New Deal that followed it both involved a significant expansion of government, but historians have often portrayed the period of 1920-1932 as a period of conservative retrenchment. Not so, says McGirr. The era saw the ‘greatest expansion of state building, outside of wartime, since Reconstruction’. Thanks to Prohibition and the crime wave that accompanied it, police raids on private property – including private dwellings – became commonplace, state surveillance was stepped up and the federal prison population rose threefold. By 1930, more than half of all prisoners had been convicted on drink or drug charges.

The (highly corrupt) Prohibition Bureau employed far more people and had a vastly larger budget than the Bureau of Investigation which later became the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover watched the expansion of the Prohibition Bureau with interest and largely modelled his own organisation on it. The police, prisons and border control were all given bigger budgets to deal with the challenges of Prohibition. Government agencies, once built, rarely disband voluntarily and they had every excuse to keep growing in the 1930s. Prohibition, says McGirr, ‘permanently convinced Americans to look to the federal government for solutions to new national problems’. The war on drugs had gathered pace as the war on alcohol was burning out, providing a new stock of criminals to chase down and incarcerate.

J. Edgar Hoover took inspiration for the FBI from the Prohibition Bureau (Source: Wikipedia)
J. Edgar Hoover took inspiration for the FBI from the Prohibition Bureau (Source: Wikipedia)

The war on drugs grew out of Prohibition to a large extent. Certainly, it is was borne of the same strange progressive brew of optimism and authoritarianism that led Americans to believe that mankind could be remade by force of law. The drug war was, says McGirr, ‘founded on the same logic as the alcohol Prohibition regime, drew upon its core assumptions, infrastructure, and moral entrepreneurs’. Those with a better understanding of human nature correctly predicted that the market for other stimulants would grow once the market for alcohol was suppressed and McGirr makes the interesting point that the abolitionist approach to liquor influenced the Supreme Court decision in 1919 to ban non-medical addiction maintenance. It was this, as much as anything, that kick-started America’s illegal drug trade.

A further insight in McGirr’s book may come as a surprise to those who are new to this period of American history. It is easy to forget that the Republicans were once the party of black voters and city dwellers whereas the Democrats were the party of white supremacy and the countryside. This only began to change when the battle against Prohibition drove the oppressed urban workforce into the arms of Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt. By giving a voice to the millions of ordinary folk who resented the dry tyranny, the Democratic party – which had not won a presidential election since 1916 – was transformed and revitalised.

One might quibble with some of McGirr’s political terminology. Her assertion that ‘neo-liberalism’ is synonymous with big government is questionable and I raised an eyebrow at her claim that Prohibition was rooted in ‘proprietary capitalism’. In truth, the politics of the Prohibition era do not easily fit modern interpretations of left and right. McGirr argues plausibly that the anti-drink crusade spawned the modern ‘Christian right’ but although they were mostly Christians, the Anti-Saloon League and WCTU were born of the Progressive era and were not right-wing as most people would understand the term. McGirr briefly mentions the WCTU’s greatest leader, Frances Willard, but only to portray her as one of the era’s many casual racists. Perhaps she was, but she was also a trade unionist, a Suffragette and a socialist. This was not an unusual combination of traits for a teetotal crusader.

US Riot Police. The Prohibition Era led to the development of far more extensive, heavy handed policing policies (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
US Riot Police. The Prohibition Era led to the development of far more extensive, heavy handed policing policies (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Insofar as 21st century pigeonholes apply to pre-WWI America, the Drys were predominantly of the left whereas those who resisted the seemingly unstoppable march of progress, of which Prohibition was supposedly as a crucial part, were predominantly conservatives. If there is a political lesson to be learned from this book, it is that progressives are keen on passing laws while conservatives are keen on enforcing them. Prohibition had never been a conservative project but once the states had ratified the 18th Amendment, the likes of Herbert Hoover felt obliged to make sure the law was respected. In doing so, McGirr argues, Republicans became inclined towards ‘a kind of conservatism comfortable with a more expansive state’.

There is no shortage of books about Prohibition, many them very good (Andrew Sinclair’s The Era of Excess (1962) and Daniel Okrent’s Last Call (2010) are two personal favourites). None of them are quite like this, however. The War on Alcohol is original enough in its research and conclusions to be essential reading for any scholar of the period. Would I recommend it to someone who only intends to read one book about Prohibition? I think I would. The story is told in a broadly chronological order and all the key facts are there for those who do not know them. What sets it apart is the way it hones in on the social consequences of an extraordinary political project, the ramifications of which are still felt today.

Christopher Snowdon is an author, journalist and research fellow at theInstitute of Economic Affairs. Tweets @cjsnowdon

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