It’s hard not to see the obvious parallels with today’s political situation after only a few moments watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s terrific 2011 documentary “Prohibition.”
The three-part series, which initially aired on PBS and is now available on Netflix, traces the growth of the temperance and Prohibition movements in the United States, noting the people and organizations that laid the groundwork for — and ultimately brought about — the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act.
“Prohibition would pit the countryside against the cities, natives against newcomers, Protestants against Catholics. It would raise questions about the proper role of government, about individual rights and responsibilities … and who is — and who is not — a real American,” the narrator says, a little more than one minute into the first episode of the series.
“People found it necessary to believe that this was an Anglo-Saxon, white country,” journalist and writer Pete Hamill says in the documentary. “And suddenly, here were all these Catholics, these Irish and Italians. Here were all these Eastern Europeans, including large numbers of Jews, who were not like them. And they were changing the country.”
“In the small towns,” the narrator notes, “particularly of the Midwest, where native-born Protestants lived a very, relatively speaking, stable life, they saw the cities as these cauldrons of debauchery and of large number of votes that were going to change the country.”
Much of Donald Trump’s appeal is to white Protestants of the Midwest and the South who see the country changing in ways that scare them. Like the small-town advocates of Prohibition, Trump’s rural loyalists see the big cities as alien, filled with people who are less traditional in their views and behavior — and who don’t look or sound the way they do. That’s why Trump’s rural and evangelical supporters have responded so enthusiastically to his attacks on elites, Hollywood, immigrants and the national media.
What women wanted
The role of women, first in establishing Prohibition and then in repealing it, is also worth noting.
Initially, women like Frances Willard, a pioneer in women’s rights and the driving force behind the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, led the charge for temperance. Later, around the turn of the century, Carrie Nation smashed saloons, and in the 1920s, Mabel Walker Willebrandt, assistant attorney general under Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, proved to be an aggressive defender of Prohibition and a Republican firebrand against Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith.
Women often led the fight against alcohol because their husbands and fathers spent so much time and so much money in saloons. Drunkenness was a national problem in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and it touched all groups, native-born and immigrant, white and black, progressive and conservative, the documentary notes.
But while women marched in the streets and called for temperance, it was the Anti-Saloon League, established in 1893, that ultimately spearheaded the Prohibition movement. “More or less modeled on the modern corporation,” the documentary notes, the Anti-Saloon League had a national headquarters, a salaried full-time staff, thousands of volunteers, deep pockets and a printing plant “that churned out 300 tons of propaganda every month.”
The group quickly became a political force that defeated its opponents and elected its supporters, making it a forerunner to the National Rifle Association, which itself was formed in 1871 but didn’t get involved in lobbying until the 1930s and election-related activities until the 1970s.
Proponents of Prohibition understood that the calendar was an issue, according to the documentary. “They had to get [the 18th Amendment] passed before 1920 because in 1920 there was going to be a new census. The cities, which were the wet parts, were going to have more representation in Congress and the small towns were going to have less representation in Congress.”
The more things change
Conservatives and Trump loyalists face the same problem, as demographic changes over the next decade or two will likely alter the balance of political power in this country.
While today’s Republicans seek to limit the number of polling places or place other burdens on voting, Republicans are unlikely to do what their ancestors did almost a hundred years ago — refuse to reapportion congressional districts so as to preserve the rural area’s majorities in a country where population growth in the cities was exploding.
In fact, Congress was not reapportioned between 1911 and the passage of the Reapportionment Act of 1929. Most Americans never wanted the blanket outlawing of alcohol, which explains the widespread flouting of the Volstead Act.
When supporters of Prohibition refused to modify that law, which enforced the 18th Amendment, it only played into the hands of Prohibition opponents.
Ultimately, Prohibition failed because the American public tired of the hypocrisy it produced, the organized crime it encouraged and the view that some people could tell others how to live their lives.
The Great Depression also helped kill it, since legalization and taxation would raise hundreds of millions of dollars needed to help people, and since hard economic times opened the way for Democratic gains in the 1930 and 1932 elections.
Prohibition also failed because the views of women changed. Pauline Sabin, a “very wealthy, blue-blood New York socialite” and the first woman on the Republican National Committee, quit the RNC, and her party, to lead the fight against Prohibition. “For more than a century,” the documentary notes, “women had been essential to the struggle to impose Prohibition. Now they were becoming central to the struggle to end it.”
This year, we will once again witness a political fight between urban (and increasingly suburban) America and rural America.
We will also see a fight between conservative, white evangelicals and secular, non-Christian and non-evangelical voters. We will also see women again as a key voting group — they helped Trump win in 2016 but were responsible to a considerable extent for the Democrats’ large midterm House gains just two years later.
Of course, 2020 isn’t likely to replicate 1932. Times are very different, and there are more than enough political wild cards this year to produce unexpected outcomes.
My advice is simple: Watch the documentary on Netflix and enjoy a bit of American history presented in an engaging yet educational way. And think about why and how Prohibition came about and why and how the country ended up rejecting it.
Oh, and bartender, I’ll have another, please.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on January 7, 2020.