The War on Alcohol, by Lisa McGirr


The War on Alcohol is a thorough, painstakingly researched, account of Prohibition by Harvard historian Lisa McGirr.

This is one of those books that straddles the academic and the popular. It has the wealth of detail and the meticulous citations you’d expect in an academic work, but it’s not written in impenetrable jargon and should be understandable and of interest to a lay audience as well. The writing style is for the most part straightforward and competent, certainly adequate but lacking the kind of flair or literary qualities that might make it an even more entertaining read. I noticed a small number of typos or minor errors (e.g., a passage where “ten” is used where from the context I gather that “ten million” was presumably intended) that ideally would have been caught in the editing, but certainly nothing extreme. There is a certain amount of repetition where the same point is repeated if it is of relevance to two or more different sections of the book, perhaps an indication that some of the chapters began as standalone articles and then were pieced together into a book. Just as a stylistic preference I would rather see some acknowledgement when this kind of repetition occurs (i.e., including some phrasing like “the aforementioned”), but there is no such acknowledgement here.

While McGirr agrees with the conventional wisdom that Prohibition was a blatant failure (“Alcohol, despite its widely acknowledged addictive properties, health risks, and social costs, emerged from the crusade with, if anything, a more secure place in recreational leisure, and its harshest critics chastised”), she argues that it was a far more important and consequential part of our history than we might realize, i.e., it is not something to be dismissed with simply: it was a bad idea that was tried, it failed miserably, it was abandoned, the end.

Prohibition was one of those issues where the proponents and opponents didn’t break down neatly along ideological or political party lines. There were reasons for people of the left to support it and reasons to oppose it, and reasons for people of the right to support it and reasons to oppose it. There were some types of Democrats for and some against, and some types of Republicans for and some against.

Prominent among those pushing for Prohibition were: Religious right types, mostly Protestants, who were opposed to intoxicating substances on moral grounds; people who were anti-immigrant (immigrants drank more on average than the native born, and were often looked down upon for being poor and/or for being a suspect—non-Protestant—religion or ethnicity); people disgusted by public drunkenness and suspicious of saloon culture (saloons were one of the few places where groups like immigrants or African Americans gathered together in sizable, largely unmonitored groups, where they could be up to God knows what sort of nefarious political/sexual//whatever activities); employers who wanted their workers sober and reliable; and liberals concerned that alcohol was destroying the families of workers, with their addiction causing breadwinners to squander most of their income and to abuse their wives and children.

The other side included small government types who were libertarian about such matters and didn’t think it was a good idea to paternalistically force people to do or not do something for their own good. But the much bigger group on the other side were urban immigrants—and to some extent other oppressed groups like African Americans—for whom alcohol was an important part of their lifestyle. These were people who for generations had drunk—often heavily—at gatherings to mark major life events like weddings, used alcohol in some of their religious rituals, and enjoyed social lives that were largely centered in saloons. Drinking—as long as not to excess, and sometimes even then—was a major accepted part of most immigrants’ culture, not a vice of individuals.

So Prohibition was to a significant extent a class thing, and a measure directed against a hated, distrusted, or patronized “other” that was perceived as needing to be controlled. Urban residents in heavily-immigrant cities like Chicago knew they were the target of it, and chafed under it.

Though obviously the law technically applied to everyone, not just to immigrants and such, the enforcement of it was always selective and unequal. The wealthy were only infrequently inconvenienced by it, and there was a serious backlash when they were. Working class people, poor people, African Americans, etc. were disproportionately targeted.

Poor whites in the South, though still not dealt with nearly as harshly on average as African Americans, got a taste of what African Americans had dealt with since the end of Reconstruction as far as fudging on constitutional rights, law enforcement being quick to use lethal force, long sentences on chain gangs for fairly trivial offenses, etc., and they didn’t like it.

Violation of Prohibition was so widespread that even though significant resources were devoted to law enforcement and even though law enforcement folks often were none-too-meticulous about the means they used—e.g., routinely bursting into private homes on minimal pretense to conduct searches—Prohibition ended up being enforced to a significant degree by vigilante groups. Sometimes formal law enforcement worked with such groups, sometimes clear lines were drawn and the vigilantes were excluded, and more often there was kind of an awkward, informal, partial cooperation where the vigilantes weren’t allowed full rein, but were not actively and effectively stopped either.

In fact, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan can be attributed largely to Prohibition. Not everyone realizes that while the Klan had had a significant terrorist presence in the South during Reconstruction—in the Birth of a Nation days—it had dwindled drastically by the early 20th century, and then rebounded in the 1920s when it also spread substantially geographically. This was due as much as anything to vigilante enforcement of Prohibition. Prohibition gave the Klan, and armed folks of a similar mindset, an excuse to harass immigrants, Catholics, African Americans, union workers, communists, and others they deemed undesirable, to barge into their homes, inflict violence on them, facilitate their being incarcerated or enslaved on chain gangs, etc.

It’s commonly believed that Prohibition provoked a large increase in organized crime, leading to the rise of Al Capone and his ilk, deadly gun battles in the street between rival criminal gangs, etc. McGirr confirms that this was very true.

During the Prohibition years there was a massive increase in crime; in public, media, and governmental concern about crime; in resources devoted to law enforcement; in the federal government’s presence in law enforcement; and in incarceration.

The gang wars and Prohibition-related violent crimes disproportionately took place in the neighborhoods of immigrants and poor people and such, in the very same communities that bore the brunt of the harsh enforcement of Prohibition, giving the residents even more reason to hate the law.

The fight over Prohibition, McGirr argues, played a major role in the political realignment that enabled the Democrats to dominate politics for decades.

Some people in both parties were kind of scared of the issue, preferring to base their campaigns on other matters. The way the issue cut across party lines, whatever position you took you’d be appealing to some of your base and turning off some of it. National conventions struggled to come up with any kind of position that would be acceptable to everyone, sometimes just splitting the difference and settling on some vague, if not incoherent, compromise.

But in the end, the Democrats staked out the more clearly anti-Prohibition position, and this enabled them to flip the big cities in their favor, bringing millions of immigrant first-time voters to the polls to vote for them.

Because 1928 was a landslide presidential win for the Republicans and 1932 was a landslide presidential win for the Democrats, most historians naturally look to see what changed in between those years that decisively favored the Democrats. But McGirr says the key shift really came in the 1928 election. That’s when the urban vote switched to the Democrats, giving them the foundation they needed to become the dominant party. It’s just that the effects were masked in 1928 because of the fluke factor that the Democrats ran Catholic Al Smith for president, and this resulted in them losing in a lot of rural and Southern areas that had been, and would in the future be, consistently Democratic.

There were those who hoped that the success of the anti-Prohibition Democrats would usher in a period where they would dominate as the more libertarian, de facto pro-rich, party opposed to a strong, meddling federal government. But these desires were frustrated in two respects.

One, the failure of Prohibition did not result in any kind of consensus that the federal government should be a less activist one. Prohibition instead set the precedent that problems should be addressed on a federal level. What was to be debated was how it could best address a given problem, but few any longer thought it should just stay out of the way.

Two, bringing all these new voters into the Democratic Party turned out to be a double-edged sword for those wanting a strongly pro-business party. On the one hand, all the new anti-Prohibition voters put the Democrats in a much better position to win elections. On the other hand, they also reshaped the party to fit their own interests. These new voters were so disproportionately workers, immigrants, minorities, etc. that the Democrats became more clearly a party of labor and the underclass.

It was not unlike the way in recent decades Republicans have greatly benefited numerically from all the Religious Right theocrats, racists, and Tea Partiers they’ve attracted to their party, but have also been transformed—at times, damaged—by what they’ve had to do to keep these groups happy.

One of the lessons McGirr draws from her study of Prohibition is the common one that Prohibition and the War on Drugs are sufficiently similar that our recognition of the futility of the former should persuade us of the futility of the latter. There are some differences it’s true—e.g., the use of illegal narcotics isn’t accepted as “normal” quite as fully across all socioeconomic groups as the use of alcohol—but there’s the same unequal enforcement where the poor and minorities and such are dealt with much more harshly, the same spur to increased and more organized violent crime due to the high profit margin available from the high demand, the same—actually even worse—unbelievably high incarceration rates compared to any other even borderline civilized country, and the same paternalistic insistence that people need someone else telling them how they can and can’t enjoy themselves.

I will close this piece with the closing paragraph of The War on Alcohol:

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 party realignment. The ongoing United States drug war at the state, national, and international levels has also had disastrous human costs—but on an exponentially greater scale. Over three-quarters of a century ago, the men and women who studied and adapted their institutions to eradicate the liquor trade eventually opposed the heavily penal approach to the dangerous narcotic evil of their day. They embraced, instead, the New Deal’s budding emphasis on economic equity and social provisioning. While no simple repeal will be enough to light the way out of our current quagmire in the war against narcotic drugs and the crisis of imprisonment ongoing today, a renewed challenge to the punitive ethos animating all of America’s narcotic wars will be an important battleground.


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