The Prohibition Party, as it was called, never became a major electoral force. But in 1919, exactly half a century after the Party’s founding, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, banning “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” National prohibition, formerly an eccentric obsession, was now enshrined at the center of America’s legal system. In the fourteen years between its adoption and its repeal, in 1933, many Americans—especially those who had conducted personal research into the compatibility of happiness and intoxication—wondered how Prohibition had come to pass. And, in the decades since, not a few historians have wondered the same thing. In the influential assessment of Richard Hofstadter, Prohibition was a farce, “a means by which the reforming energies of the country were transmuted into mere peevishness.” Indeed, Prohibition is remembered chiefly for its failure to achieve its aims. The Prohibition years were also the roaring twenties, the age of rakish mobsters and glamorous speakeasies, “The Great Gatsby” and “The Untouchables” and Bessie Smith singing, “Any bootlegger sure is a pal of mine.” More often than not, when we think about Prohibition, we think about a time when people seemed to drink—and seemed to enjoy it—more than ever.
Lisa McGirr believes that this is a mistake. She is a historian who studies grassroots political movements in twentieth-century America, and she has concluded that our fascination with the boozy, semi-clandestine world that Prohibition created has led us to ignore its more lasting effects. In her view, Prohibition was not a farce but a tragedy, and one that has made a substantial contribution to our current miseries. In “The War on Alcohol” (Norton), she urges us to put aside our interest in the many ways involuntarily temperate citizens sought relief, so that we can consider the federal government’s strenuous attempts to stop them. Her book’s subtitle is “Prohibition and the Rise of the American State,” and by “state” she means in particular what she calls the “penal state”: the Prohibition Bureau and its many enforcers, some of them drawn from the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan; the laws and prisons required by a federal government newly alarmed about crime; the reality of a country in which addicts were treated not as victims but as perpetrators. Prohibition was patchily enforced, and certain groups were more likely to find themselves tossed into the rough patches: “Mexicans, poor European immigrants, African-Americans, poor whites in the South.” Nearly a century later, she argues, the legacy of Prohibition can be seen in our prisons, teeming with people convicted of violating neo-Prohibitionary drug laws. Many at the time viewed Prohibition as an outrage, and, in McGirr’s view, we are missing its true meaning if we are not outraged, too—and ready to resist its equally oppressive descendants.
Kelefa Sanneh, “Drunk With Power” The New Yorker (21 & 28 December 2015), 105-106.