Imagine a nationwide ban on a commonly consumed drug enforced by an increasingly draconian regime of politicians and lawmen that simultaneously allows criminals to reap huge financial rewards. No, I am not talking about the current U.S. obsession with a “war on drugs” that is dragging on into its fifth failed decade. I am talking about prohibition.
As seen through Daniel Okrent’s excellent Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition it is both a history lesson—political and social—as well as a lens through which to view a lot of the problems in our current society.
In addition to the book, you should watch the documentary from Ken Burns on prohibition. It’s three episodes of about two hours each—I watched them during marathon treadmill sessions—and it neatly encapsulates a lot of what Okrent writes about in his book. One of the contributors throughout the documentary is Okrent himself.
Prohibition is not a simple story. It is easy to fall into a trap of discussing its more colorful elements—gangsters, speakeasies, bootleggers, etc.—but the real story is about American society in general and how a law prohibiting the sale of alcohol came to pass.
One of the greatest follies in the American psyche is thinking that once a law is passed the hard work is done. Drug problem? Pass a law outlawing drugs. Health care crisis? Pass a law mandating health care. The devil, as they say, is in the details and American politicians—proxies for the people in general—like the “big win” but have little stomach for messy details of actually crafting legislation. All of this is painfully apparent when reading the history of prohibition.
The most striking thing about both the book and the documentary is the politics of desperation. The forces behind prohibition understood that the clock was ticking on getting a Constitutional amendment passed. Why? Demographics in the U.S. changed radically in the period from 1910 through 1920. Increasingly, the population was clustered in cities and it was increasingly composed of immigrant groups thought diametrically opposed to prohibition.
With the census of 1920 there was supposed to be reapportionment. However, the “dry” forces kept the 1910 distribution of seats until Congress passed the Reapportionment Act of 1929. Does any of this sound familiar? Imagine yourself in living in 2012 and you are the head of a political party that is seen to favor an increasingly smaller slice of the electorate. What would you do? If the history of prohibition is any indication the actions will be increasingly strident and the hope will be that nothing will overturn the changes in the future. However, if the history of prohibition is any guide, demography is destiny and you can only hold back the sea for so long whether it is the banning of booze or the social issue du jour.
A further act of desperation on the part of the “dry” forces was an insistence on absolute prohibition continuing when it was clear that the law had failed. Ironically, this would not have required an amendment to the Constitution, but a change to the Volstead Act that laid out the conditions for prohibition. The insistence on an absolute of anything provides much ammunition for the opponents of such stridency. This is a political lesson that could be applied to much of what I see in Washington D.C. today. Do the Republicans of today really feel that an absolute opposition to tax increases while gutting spending on a plethora of programs is a winning strategy for the long run? Perhaps these modern politicians, like the ones in the early part of the 20th century, see a shift in America coming that will alter the power structure in such a fundamental way as to render them obsolete. We can always hope.