Arts & Culture

Prohibition politics created groundwork for modern liberalism

3 min read

While Prohibition in America failed to rid the nation of demon rum, it did unleash a wave of change in the American cultural and political sphere whose ripples are still seen today. According to new research by Lisa McGirr, a historian in Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), the fallout from the impossible effort of enforcing the Volstead Act played a key role in creating the political alliances that have endured for the past 70 years.

“For a long time national prohibition was seen as a law put over on the American people by a radical fringe with little to no support,” said McGirr, Dunwalke Associate Professor of American History. “Now that recent historians have debunked that notion and seen the wider consensus behind [Prohibition], it’s crucial to understand how a broad-based social movement fell apart so quickly as well as the effects that it had on the developing political realm.”

In her forthcoming book, “Making America Modern: A National History of Prohibition,” McGirr focuses on social groups, examining how different communities responded to Prohibition and the challenges it presented. Following moral crusaders and vigilante citizen enforcers as well as new drinking cultures among women, labor, and ethnic communities, McGirr traces the ways in which the political alliances of the progressive movement were torn asunder, and how new coalitions formed.

McGirr argues that the reaction to the failure of Prohibition was a touchstone for newly forming voting blocs. As state and federal agents failed to execute the law, vigilante citizen enforcers stepped into the power vacuum and raided private homes, businesses, and other suspected watering holes. These moral crusaders, including fundamental evangelists like Billy Sunday and the Ku Klux Klan, often trampled civil liberties in their raids, creating legal crises of their own along the way.

The failure of Prohibition to cure the social diseases caused by alcohol, coupled with the curtailing of civil rights that ensued, eventually created the groundwork for modern liberalism. “Where progressives had linked economic and social reform to moral reform, the practice of enforcing Prohibition created a chastised liberalism wary of linking reform and morality in the future,” said McGirr.

“When Clarence Darrow called the enforcement of Prohibition laws ‘tyranny,’ he meant it,” said McGirr. “Liberal progressives were appalled at the overreach of the vigilantes, and saw the importance of preserving civil liberties, leading to the defense of individuals’ rights that has been a hallmark of liberal ideology since.”

This move away from Prohibition also provided Democrats with powerful new ethnic voting blocs. “Because the targets of many raids were ethnic immigrants, the experience of having their spaces violated created a politically mobilized ethnic community that transcended any parochialism that may have previously existed,” said McGirr. When Democrats nominated Al Smith, an outspoken, “wet” Catholic, for the presidency, they effectively cemented a coalition that would be key to the success of Roosevelt and the New Deal up through the Johnson presidency.

The effects of Prohibition on conservative politics may have lasted just as long. In the devotion to public morality, the centrality of religious organizations, and broad interconnectedness of local conservative activist groups, McGirr finds traces of the sophisticated grassroots organization of modern conservative populism.

“Prohibition created an atmosphere where individuals became keenly aware of the presence of the national government in their daily lives, and citizens mobilized themselves accordingly, based on their interests and beliefs,” McGirr said.