Prohibition is a case study in the failure of the democratic process. A nation founded on the principles of liberty decided to severely restrict the rights of its citizens on spurious grounds.
It is the only US constitutional amendment that has ever been repealed. Its repeal happened in 1933, 13 years after it was passed, making it look like a big oops moment for a country that considers its constitution as its moral compass. It required a confluence of misinformation, Urban-Rural divide, racism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, pressure politics, extremism and progressive zeal.
I bring it up as what happened back then has uncanny parallels with the Trump movement. Let us look at some of the parallels.
Prohibitionist made outrageous claims that a single drop of alcohol can make a person inebriated and some even went so far as to claim that alcohol consumption can cause people to spontaneously combust. Similarly, Republicans consistently claimed that the “Affordable Care Act”, Obama’s signature health care law, involved “Death Panels” intent on murdering old people; Trump campaign unabashedly used falsehoods, tweeting once that 81% of whites are killed by Blacks when the actually percentage was 15% (based on FBI report)
Prohibition pitted rural protestant conservatives against urban liberals. Conservatives saw the urban areas with their large immigrant population and peculiar habits as undermining American values. Prohibition was a way to bring them in line and make the country more puritanical. Similarly, conservative movement today gets most of its support from rural and sub-urban areas as it has promoted nativism of the hinterland to the multiculturalism and diversity of the cities. Trump has consistently portrayed cities as dystopian, crime infested and illegal immigrants as dangerous. He has even threatened to send Federal troops to Chicago and withhold Federal funds to Sanctuary cities (which includes most major cities in the US).
Klu-Klux-Klan and segregationist supported prohibition because they were fearful of Black people drinking and becoming violent. The Klan even enforced prohibition, running bootlegger out of town. Similarly, Trump movement had its beginning with the racially charged birther movement that questioned Obama’s legitimacy as a president due to his African heritage. Trump movement has also been hostile to the “Black Lives Matter” movement and has energized white supremacist groups with his slow condemnation of them.
Prohibition movement included Anti-German hysteria as the US entered the First World War against Germany. Most breweries where owned by German immigrants who were suspected of supporting the German cause by directing grains away from the war effort. US government even engaged in recruitment propaganda portraying Germans as beastly, drunkards and violating women. Similarly, Trump has characterized Mexican immigrants as rapist and murderers and the border wall to keep them away is central to this campaign.
Anti-Catholic sentiments in the South was also a key factor in prohibition’s success. There was fear that Irish and German catholic immigrants were destroying American values and were taking their orders from the Pope. Al Smith, the first Catholic presidential candidate in 1928, who supported the repeal of prohibition was defeated partly due to anti-Catholic prejudice. Similarly, Trump has spoken to thunderous applause calling out the problems of “Radical Islam” and his first major executive action was an unconstitutional ban on Muslims from certain countries entering the US.
Prohibition movement gained strength when organizations such as the Anti-Saloon League using pressure tactics started aggressively lobbying politicians on the single-issue of alcohol. They successfully elected officials that signed on to their platform and were able to remove established politicians that voted against them. Similarly the Tea party has been able to shakeup the Republican establishment with their uncompromising views on small government and other social issues. While they lack the policy coherence or success of the Anti-Saloon league, they have given voice to fringe right wing elements.
Prohibition also passed due to grass root efforts of progressives. Progressives believed that Alcohol was a blight on poor immigrant communities and was pushed on them by commercial interests. Business leaders like Henry Ford saw Alcoholism as reducing the productivity of his workers. Women’s movement rightfully believed that Alcoholism caused poverty, broken homes and domestic violence. Similarly, Trump’s victory happened partly due to progressive reaction to the increasing role of special interests in politics. Trump was seen as unencumbered by such interests and a person of action. His progressive message included healthcare for all, end to interventionist foreign policy, “draining the swamp” and renegotiation of trade policy with an emphasis on domestic employment.
Finally, like prohibition, Trump came to power because cities are under-represented in national politics. He lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College.
But the story of prohibition is not just its enactment but its repeal. I don’t mean to suggest that the Trump movement will be short-lived like prohibition but there are lessons to be learned here.
Prohibition’s fundamental problem was its extremism and lack of sufficient social benefit.
Governments and laws involve complex trade-offs across social and individual needs. Extremism on the other hand involves a narrow focus on certain needs over others. It requires coercive measures which cause much more harm than good; and over the long term it is bound to lose public support. When its overall benefits are limited, it is hard to justify the cost needed for its enforcement making it both ineffective and unnecessary.
While trying to prevent alcoholism, prohibition prevented people from drinking responsibly and enjoying the company of their friends. It was a draconian approach to solving a legitimate social problem. Over time prohibition lost public support and its enforcement was woefully underfunded to the extent that alcohol consumption actually increased during prohibition. In the end, in spite of some of its good intentions, its overzealous execution created a society of hypocrites and criminals flaunting the law.
Lesson here is that, Trump needs to move away from his campaign rhetoric and moderate his actions. Trade wars, massive deportation of immigrants, unregulated capitalism, climate change denial and decimation of the welfare state, taken together might make his base happy, but each of those policies will harm his own base and the nation as a whole. Those harmful effect over time will cause a popular reprisal. And when his policies are reversed by the next president, he will be relegated in history, like prohibition, as a mistake that we should all learn from.
It can be easy to bring about change by getting people drunk with passion but in order to make it last, you need to help them see the sober reality of a better life.
Ironically, the drive for Prohibition created the Temperance movement that helped women become active in politics; it closed down men-only saloons and in its place speakeasies opened up where women drank along with men, shattering traditional gender roles; its moral righteousness gave way to jazz, flappers, sexual freedom and a liberal outlook; and more importantly its conservatism was followed by an era of progressive politics marked by FDR’s New Deal. Just maybe what might follow Trump might not be post truth politics or an alt right takeover but a rejuvenation of American politics with a heavy dose of feminism, multi-culturalism, socialism and progressive ideals.