The imagery in Chapter 8 titled “Repeal” in Lisa McGuirr’s The War on Alcohol evokes strong emotions primarily because it paints a picture so relevant to today. It would be baffling – if it didn’t sound so familiar – to think that in 1932 “at the height of global economic catastrophe,” there had been so little focus and concern put on how to solve the bank failures, the unemployment crisis, the breadlines, or the rise of fascism in Europe; and that the platform plank pledging repeal of Prohibition stood out as the vital issue of the election that brought the hall at the Democratic National Convention to erupt in sustained applause.
Of course, by 1932, repeal seemed like a natural culmination of a long fought battle that had brought devastation around the country . . . with the lethal alcohol alternatives found on the black market, the graft and corruption of public officials connected to organized crime, the selective enforcement that severely affected the poor and minority working class populations, the out of control citizen prohibition militias, not to mention the ballooning power of the federal government, subject to abuses. The reaction favoring repeal in 1932 wasn’t the problem – the problem was America’s response to the “moral crusades” of the early 1900s that brought about Prohibition in the first place. Even though the heavy use of alcohol had certainly created some worries for the nation, and it had some devastating effects on women and children, careful thought should have gone into the least harmful and intrusive approaches to addressing those concerns, without calling out the full, uneven enforcement powers of the federal government with an outright ban encouraging a black market and subsequent consequences.
The book’s obvious relevance lies in our current War on Drugs. How did we repeal Prohibition, but not learn some of the deeper lessons that have had devastating effects on our Borders, our inner cities, our overcrowded prisons, and even our health and well being? Now that states are starting to make marijuana — especially medical marijuana — legal, and some presidential candidates have adopted a national legalization position, we can see that change is around the corner. One of the very few current issues receiving bi-partisan support is criminal justice reform. But will we get it right? Will we simply pass legalization/non-criminalization/rehabilitation measures without re-tracing our steps of how we got here and what else has been negatively affected that needs reform? Will we re-evaluate the power we’ve given to the federal government?
The War on Alcohol is relevant even beyond the War on Drugs. With FEAR as a driving force, we’ve seen similar patterns play out over abortion, gay marriage, immigration, gun control and the list goes on. The devastating effects of illegal back-alley abortions and intrusions into privacy brought us a more activist Supreme Court (Planned Parenthood v. Casey). More recently, we watched the religious right’s heavy influence sway state after state to pass constitutional amendments banning gay marriage as part of election mobilization efforts to help get Republicans elected. As public sentiment began to shift in favor of gay marriage, Republicans dug in their heels, advocating for a national constitutional amendment. Now with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling finding an equal protection right for gay marriage, Republicans have grown relatively quiet on an issue that has dominated their politics for the last several election cycles. Not only is this similar to Herbert Hoover’s approach with the Republican Party in 1932, as he dug in his heels on Prohibition rather than listening to the Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party, but we see a similar thing playing out over immigration. After the 2012 election, it seemed clear that Republicans needed to improve their position on immigration in order to attract more minorities into the party and forge the kinds of coalitions needed to take back the White House. But in the 2016 election cycle, candidates such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio felt forced to tone down their comprehensive reform positions, but still lost to candidates such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the most ardent anti-immigration, anti-comprehensive reform candidates. It’s hard to tell at this point if this strident approach will lead to the Republicans’ loss in 2016, or if enough pent up anger by the white working classes will carry them through. But either way, the lopsided emphasis on enforcement, without addressing the underlying issues, and the expectation for the federal government to wield its heavy hand against the “threatening, less powerful segments of our society” will in many respects prove fatal at some point. Gun control – primarily on the Democratic side – is another issue where we have a president issuing executive orders in response to various mass shootings that are mobilizing citizens, especially women, to call for action. We need to proceed intelligently and cautiously as we work to address the problem, and not hand over too much power to the federal government. We’re now starting to witness new political re-alignments in the country, in part due to the unintended ramifications of our policies, which have ceded power away from the people. It’s up to us to help steer this energy in a productive direction.
As we work to do so, I’ve been reminded, through reading the book, that all of our problems and challenges run deeper than can be found in policies that are largely political in nature. Those who have the biggest impact for change, such as Al Smith who favored repeal before FDR did, are often largely forgotten. I’m glad to be part of this movement, which isn’t an “ends justifies the means” movement, but is more about the methods, the developing culture, and the ability to truly empower people. Understanding as much history as possible, from various perspectives, and getting fully educated about current events and the latest research will help us proceed less reactively and more purposefully, thoughtfully and inclusively towards long term change for the better.
Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and president of NH Independent Voters.