Welcome to Politics for the People blog and Book Club for independents.
In 2002, I created a free educational series for independents in New York City. I'm delighted to be able to expand with a bi-monthly Book Club that will allow Politics for the People to reach independents all over the country.
Politics for the People is designed to take you behind the scenes for a look at politics and history from an independent’s point of view.
Our Book Club will read and discuss books of interest to independents. We're now 40% of Americans.
I've been an activist in independent politics since 1984. And I'm an avid reader. In addition, I'm a photographer and will be sharing some of my work here as well.
On Sunday, Politics for the People spent an hour with Lisa McGirr, the author of The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State. It was a very thought provoking conversation and we will posting highlights from the conference call in a few days.
Steve Hough is a P4P member from Florida. Steve is a retired accountant and a lifelong independent who is an activist in the movement for Top Two nonpartisan elections. Steve sent us his thoughts and some questions that he is mulling off the call.
I really enjoyed the book and last night’s call.
The book was very informative. Before reading it, I had no idea of the role vigilantes played in enforcement efforts, that the KKK had quasi-legal status, or thought much about unequal enforcement. Also, even though I have read “In His Steps” a couple of times, I somehow never made the connection that prohibition was the result of “progressive” reform.
Last night’s call covered several points well- the beginning of an expansive role for the federal government, the difficulty of turning back the clock, and vested interests in maintaining the status quo. It was discussed how the “war on drugs”, supplanted prohibition of alcohol and the interests of the prison industrial complex.
Our hour went by quickly, but I wanted to ask Lisa to talk a little bit about how her work also relates to the military industrial complex (a more “liberal” concern) and other federal government agencies which our more “conservative” friends are so concerned about. And, if abortion were again illegal, would not Donald Trump have been technically correct? Just as drug users and dealers are subject to prosecution, would not both the abortion doctor and the woman having had an abortion be at risk of prosecution?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
I found Chapter 4, “Gestures of Daring, Signs of Revolt”, from Lisa McGirr’s book The War on Alcohol to be very revealing. The chapter educates the reader to the fact that prohibition was about much more than just alcohol. Prior to reading this chapter, I was not aware of the fact that prohibition contributed to the rise of consumer capitalism, a new style of night life that changed cultural norms and laid the groundwork for the Harlem Renaissance. In addition, I learned that the failed experiment known as the 18th Amendment set into motion a broadened and fierce battle over civil liberties.
What I didn’t find surprising was that prohibition was spurred by a group of religious women seeking to put an end to what they considered degenerate behavior. On the other hand, I was surprised by the fact that the anti-alcohol crusade sparked the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and their grand war against that which they saw as a threat to the American way of life. Ultimately, McGirr notes how the overreaching government forgot one thing which was pointed out by an anti-Prohibitionist writer, “There is just one thing that the ‘reformers’ overlooked. They forget, if they ever knew it, that the ‘hunt,’ the ‘pursuit of the unattainable,’ is the most fascinating game in the world” (McGirr, 2016, p. 109).
I am looking forward to reading the remainder of The War on Alcohol and discovering what else Lisa McGirr has to reveal.
Catana L Barnes is the President of Independent Voters of Nevada (IVON).
I thought a lot about the movement for structural political reform (in which I am an activist) as I read The War on Alcohol, Lisa McGirr’s fascinating and eye-opening account of the movement for Prohibition and the long-fought movement for its repeal.
Of course, I knew that Jim Crow in the southern states had disempowered the black population. Still, I was shocked to read that:
Virginia’s voting rolls had effectively been slashed in half in 1903, as a result of the disfranchisement of African-Americans and numerous poor whites. Virginia’s 136,900 voters out of a population of close to two million residents took to the polls [in 1910] and sided decidedly with the drys. . .
McGirr shows, by this example and others, that the 18th Amendment was only possible because the development of democracy was subverted and held back at a time of rapid social change and economic growth. She points out that the key to passing the amendment was bringing it to a congressional vote before reapportionment following the 1920 census could impact on the outcome. Passing the amendment depended crucially on preventing newly (or not yet) enfranchised voters – “the foreigners” – from expressing themselves politically.
As for repeal, McGirr shows that it was made possible (we might even say “necessary”) by several related developments, the most crucial being the rapid enfranchisement of new working-class voters during the 1920’s. And, as the electorate changed, a coalition supporting repeal was built.
This coalition included significant elements of the business community. As business in America evolved into big business, corporate leaders were concerned that the over-reaching of the reform movement – the attack on individual liberty – could eventually impact on the privileges of corporations and the wealthy. They therefore had a real interest in repeal – even though discriminatory enforcement of the Volstead Act allowed them as individuals to consume alcohol themselves. Although I’m not sure McGirr makes this point explicitly, I think it’s fair to say that the more progressive business leaders also recognized that business could not expand if the working class were not allowed some freedom to develop.
The movement for structural political reform has at least these 2 key points of contact with the movement to repeal Prohibition:
Today, the possibility of progressive change is also held back by voter suppression. The Democratic Party is opposed to voter suppression only insofar as it puts the DP at a competitive disadvantage with the Republican Party. The DP and the RP are united in opposing changes that empower the voters – especially independents, who now make up some 40% of all voters – at the expense of bipartisan control of government and the political process.
As with the repeal of Prohibition, the key to breaking the control of special interests in America is a significant influx of new voters. Such an influx can only be brought about by attacking the most pernicious special interest of them all, the bipartisan control of primary elections, reapportionment, voter registration, incumbency – indeed, the entire political process.
Empowering all voters on a level playing field demands a coalition. The social locations, interests, and political views of independents are diverse. What they have in common is their status as second-class citizens, and their recognition, more or less self-conscious, that it is the political parties themselves and their institutionalized power that the prevent them from expressing themselves politically.
As former Congressman Mickey Edwards (R-OK) says in The Parties vs. the People, the Democratic Party and Republican Party are really private clubs. Under the Constitution, they have the right of association, but not the right to dictate every aspect of the political process itself. The struggle to empower the voters – all the voters – is not only a civil rights struggle every bit as righteous as the struggles of African-Americans, women, and gays: It is an indispensable step in re-igniting social and economic development in America.
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 IndependentVoting.org’s national Election Reform Committee.
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.
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
President of NH Independent Voters, Tiani X. Coleman (l) with Jessica Lubien, Sarah Klinger and IndependentVoting.org 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 Parenthoodv. 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.
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.
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.
Michelle McCleary is a long-time independent political activist and the President of the Metro NY Chapter of the National Black MBA Association.
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.