I recently finished a fascinating overview of the politics of Prohibition in the early 20th century entitled The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State, written by Harvard’s Prof. Lisa McGirr. Some of the book’s highlights include:
- Part of the motivation for Prohibition was of course to improve American health and well-being. This was a peripheral concern, however, compared to the more central motivation of enacting policy which would make it more difficult for lower-income racial/ethnic minority groups to organize politically. Many of the political debates of the early 20th century pitted, on one side, working-class immigrant/Catholic/Irish/German/Italians against upscale Protestants and business entrepreneurs. Prohibition was understood to be a policy designed primarily to make it more difficult for urban Catholic immigrants (who often voted for the Democratic political machines in big cities) to organize politically, as the neighborhood saloon was a key political setting in many urban contexts.
- This was all the more evident given that government enforcement of Prohibition was directed disproportionately at poorer regions and working class neighborhoods. In many cities, wealthy, upscale citizens could enjoy drinks at the local speakeasy assured that the police would leave them alone. Lower-class consumers and rural bootleggers, however, never enjoyed such assurances.
- Further, Prohibition had no stronger support than among the Ku Klux Klan. “The dry mission intersected perfectly with its anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and white-supremacist agenda” (135). During this era, to support Prohibition was to put oneself on the side of “respectable” morality and upstanding American values, which was understood to be under assault from un-American (often Catholic) radicalism.
- The hatred of Prohibition among working-class ethnic neighborhoods and immigrant communities was a key issue that swung many of them to the Democratic Party in the early 1930s. It is not a stretch to say that Prohibition was a key factor (in addition to the Depression) in the electoral realignment of the 1932 election that led to FDR, the New Deal, and the Democratic Party’s ascendancy for the next several decades.
- The effort to enforce Prohibition led to an unprecedented expansion of the federal state in the 1920s, as many resources were needed for enforcement and punishing violators. In the view of Prof. McGirr, this directly paved the path for the further expansion of the federal government in the 1930s under FDR. Further, it set the stage for a later expansion of the federal state during the 1970s-1990s with the War on Drugs.
- One of Prof. McGirr’s central theses is that Prohibition was the War on Drugs of the 1920s. Much of the rhetoric and social anxieties were the same, especially when it came to how alcohol and drugs were perceived to be associated with lower-class and ethnic/racial crime. “Law and order” was a rallying cry of Prohibition just as it was for the War on Drugs in the later part of the 20th century.
From a personal perspective, it was interesting to learn how clearly Prohibition was linked to anti-immigrant, anti-radical, and anti-Catholic sentiment of the 1920s and 1930s. It was in this context that the LDS Church revised its suggested recommendation against alcohol to a much more rigid prohibition and linked teetotalism strongly to its own cultural identity. Given that the LDS Church in the early 20th century was making a deliberate effort to appear normal, mainstream, and “American” after the end of polygamy in the late 19th century, hitching its cultural identity to the Prohibition wagon was a natural, and in many ways, successful strategy.