Lessons for Today from the Fight over Prohibition

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.”

Same divisions

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.

House Midterm Outlook: Look for a Democratic Flip

Are we still headed for a Democratic wave in the House next month? That all depends on how you define a wave. But one thing is clear: Democrats are still likely to flip the chamber even after all the buzz about a post-Kavanaugh Republican bounce.

A wave occurs when a large number of one party’s seats flip to the other party, invariably because of a national political figure (the president, usually) or a national issue. Many competitive seats change hands, and at least a few entrenched incumbents suddenly find themselves in trouble.

How many seats need to flip to constitute a wave? 20 seats? 30? 50?

The best way to answer that unanswerable question is to look at history.

During the 17 midterm elections that have occurred since 1950, five have produced single-digit changes, while another four have been in the teens and low double digits. Three elections have produced net changes from 26 to 30 seats, while five more have produced gains of 48 to 63 seats.

The single-digit changes — in 1962, 1986, 1990, 1998 and 2002 — clearly were not waves. One party cherry-picked enough seats to make a net gain, but there was no sign of national political momentum.

The teens/low double-digit change elections — in 1954, 1970, 1978 and 2014 — may have reflected one party’s advantage, but for me, the net changes don’t constitute a substantial enough surge for one side to be defined as a wave election.

Not a science

I’ve always used 20 seats or even 25 seats as the minimum number of seats that a party needs to gain before calling an election a wave, though I don’t think there is a magic number.

In part, the number of seats that need to switch depends on where the two parties start.

Moreover, not all waves are alike. There are smaller waves (20-30 seats) and larger ones (48 seats each in 1958, 1966 and 1974) — and there are tsunamis, including 1994, when Republicans gained 54 seats, and 2010, when they gained 63 seats.

This cycle, a modest wave has been developing for months. President Donald Trump’s job approval has been low, and voters have told pollsters they want a Democratic Congress as a check on him.

Trump’s job approval climbed in the Oct. 14-17 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, but that survey also gave Democrats a 9-point advantage (50 percent to 41 percent) in the generic ballot among likely midterm voters. And while Republican enthusiasm has grown over the last month, it fails to match Democratic enthusiasm.

Women and college-educated whites have moved strongly toward the Democrats, and younger and minority voters appear unusually energized.

More important at this point of the election cycle, surveys in individual congressional districts show GOP-held suburban districts like Virginia’s 10th District (Barbara Comstock), Colorado’s 6th (Mike Coffman), New Jersey’s 11th (retiring Rodney Frelinghuysen’s open seat) and Kansas’ 3rd (Kevin Yoder) poised to flip.

Incumbents in these and similar districts have proved that they can win even in difficult political environments, but a wave is an entirely different matter since it makes the election about someone else (in this case, Trump and Republican control of the House), not the individual Republican nominee or member of Congress.

Of course, not all seats behave the same way even during a political wave. Not even all suburban seats behave the same way.

Candidates and their campaigns matter. Strategists from both parties have very different views of the current House playing field and how it has changed.

GOP strategists generally express confidence that the party’s “worst case” scenario has been avoided, thanks to the confirmation fight surrounding Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

They once feared losses of 40 to 50 seats, but now generally expect somewhat fewer losses, probably in the 30-40 seat range.

A veteran Democrat I spoke with laughed at the prospect that Democrats were ever going to win 50 seats, insisting that 30 or 35 seats was always a more reasonable number.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales has projected Democratic gains of 25-35 seats, a “Category 1” hurricane that would produce a wave that would cost Republicans the House but wouldn’t produce anything close to a 1994 or 2010 tsunami.

Holding steady

In an early September column, I found Democrats heading for a gain of about 30 seats, with larger gains very possible, though I have generally been saying that I expect Democratic gains in the 30-40 seat range. I see no reason to alter that expectation.

Others, of course, have suggested that Democratic prospects in the House were much greater a month ago and have dimmed of late.

Some districts do look worse for Democrats, while others suddenly look intriguing, but that is the nature of campaigns — and of political handicapping.

Moreover, it is quite possible that some of those who once expected greater Republican losses were overly optimistic about Democratic prospects.

Pennsylvania, California and New Jersey continue to be prime Democratic targets, but there are many races that are still competitive, including Kansas’ 2nd District, Maine’s 2nd, Kentucky’s 6th, Florida’s 15th and 26th, New Mexico’s 2nd, Virginia’s 2nd and Iowa’s 3rd.

Republicans, on the other hand, will win a Pennsylvania open seat and are likely to swipe one or two pro-Trump districts in Minnesota.

Although I have watched House campaigns and elections closely for almost four decades, I’m less confident I know how this cycle will end.

Trump, after all, is an untraditional figure, and that makes his impact uncertain. But for now, just two weeks before Election Day, the contours of the 2018 midterm elections haven’t changed dramatically in the House.

The focus remains primarily on suburban districts, college-educated whites, younger voters and minorities, not on rural and evangelical voters or whites without a college education. The House is still poised to flip party control.

This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 23, 2018.

How Will Kavanaugh Shape the Midterms?

Assuming the FBI investigation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh doesn’t uncover some startling new information, the Senate is likely to confirm him to the Supreme Court and the political effects on the midterms could go in two different directions.

Democratic lawmakers will complain, of course, that the inquiry wasn’t thorough enough, that Kavanaugh lacks a judicial temperament, that he is too partisan to sit on the land’s highest court, and that he wasn’t completely honest with the Senate Judiciary Committee about his drinking.

Still, if all 51 Republican senators are looking for a way to confirm Kavanaugh, Democrats are powerless to derail the nomination.

Open House?

The impact on the fight for the House is likely to be minimal.

There probably will be about a month between Kavanaugh’s confirmation and Nov. 6, which should give many voters an opportunity to refocus on other issues, be they health care, immigration or President Donald Trump’s performance.

Of course, in states with early/absentee/mail voting, the confirmation fight will still be on some people’s minds. But the Kavanaugh fight has not redrawn the electoral battle lines during the final six weeks of the election.

Democrats were already energized when Kavanaugh was nominated, and Trump’s strongest supporters have remained loyal to him no matter what he says or does.

Republican primary turnout was good, though it didn’t match — and isn’t likely to match — Democratic turnout or enthusiasm.

Recently, some pollsters have argued that heightened Republican enthusiasm could eat into the Democrats’ expected turnout advantage in November. But if and when Kavanaugh is confirmed, that event will give the GOP “control” of the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, and that will remove some of the urgency about the midterms for Republican voters.

Democrats, on the other hand, will see the midterms as their only opportunity to check Trump and his party. During the month between Kavanaugh’s confirmation and Election Day, the president is likely to return to his combative mode.

He will interject himself back into every House race, as he has been for months, thereby reminding voters that the midterms are about him.

The 2018 election’s crucial swing group — college-educated whites/white women — will be at least as energized after the Kavanaugh fight as they were before his nomination.

Polls have shown for months that swing voters (particularly women) have been preparing to send a loud message to Trump and the Republican Party, and the accusations about Kavanaugh will only further motivate college-educated women who live in the suburbs.

Both national polls and district surveys conducted by the media and by campaigns, as well as campaign spending decisions by the parties and PACs, show at least a modest Democratic wave developing.

According to national media reports, influential Republican political action committees have pulled out of Virginia’s 10th District (Barbara Comstock), Colorado’s 6th District (Mike Coffman) and Michigan’s 8th District (Mike Bishop).

Those districts are telling, since Coffman and Comstock were able to win even while Democratic presidential nominees were carrying their districts, and Bishop represents a district carried by both Trump in 2016 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

All three are politically competitive suburban districts. District-level polling also shows significant Republican problems — again, primarily in the suburbs — in New Jersey, Iowa, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and California, and Republican funds are now flowing into districts not initially regarded as even competitive in the past.

Democratic gains of at least 30-35 seats currently appear likely, and there is little reason to believe that the Kavanaugh confirmation fight will change that outcome.

Indeed, if it does have any impact, it will probably be to the Democrats’ advantage.

Meanwhile, in the Senate

The Supreme Court battle could have quite a different effect on the race for the Senate. Instead of college-educated, suburban whites being the key swing demographic group, self-identified Republicans, rural voters and Trump voters are crucial in these contests.

Democratic incumbents in North Dakota and West Virginia certainly need to win some of those voters to have any chance of surviving (as do Democratic incumbents in three or four other states).

So Democratic senators in difficult races have a complicated calculation to make.

On one hand, if Republicans are going to confirm Kavanaugh with 50 or 51 votes anyway, endangered Democratic senators could boost their chances by casting meaningless votes in favor of the nominee — thus proving their political independence to swing voters and Republican voters in pro-Trump states such as North Dakota, West Virginia and Indiana.

On the other hand, the intensity of the Kavanaugh fight makes it more difficult for Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin III and Joe Donnelly to support confirmation because Democratic base voters are so outraged at Trump and Senate Republicans.

Voting for Kavanaugh — even if it has no impact on his confirmation — could anger and alienate those voters, which could well be fatal to the Democratic incumbents.

Of course, Democratic senators such as Donnelly now have new arguments to explain a vote against confirmation — the alleged unfairness of the process, questionable statements from Kavanaugh and the unanswered questions raised during the testimony of his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.

While Democrats would love to kill the Kavanaugh nomination, dragging out the process to fill the court’s vacancy would only add to the concerns of Democratic senators running in heavily pro-Trump states by elevating the importance of partisanship, ideology and the Supreme Court.

That is less of a problem for Democrats in the House than it is for this cycle’s Senate class. Given the unexpected twists and turns of our politics these days — and of the Kavanaugh confirmation process — it’s probably wise not to rule out a few more twists and turns before November.

This column originally appeared in Roll Call on October 2, 2018.