I thought a lot about the movement for structural political reform (in which I am an activist) as I read The War on Alcohol, Lisa McGirr’s fascinating and eye-opening account of the movement for Prohibition and the long-fought movement for its repeal.
Of course, I knew that Jim Crow in the southern states had disempowered the black population. Still, I was shocked to read that:
Virginia’s voting rolls had effectively been slashed in half in 1903, as a result of the disfranchisement of African-Americans and numerous poor whites. Virginia’s 136,900 voters out of a population of close to two million residents took to the polls [in 1910] and sided decidedly with the drys. . .
McGirr shows, by this example and others, that the 18th Amendment was only possible because the development of democracy was subverted and held back at a time of rapid social change and economic growth. She points out that the key to passing the amendment was bringing it to a congressional vote before reapportionment following the 1920 census could impact on the outcome. Passing the amendment depended crucially on preventing newly (or not yet) enfranchised voters – “the foreigners” – from expressing themselves politically.
As for repeal, McGirr shows that it was made possible (we might even say “necessary”) by several related developments, the most crucial being the rapid enfranchisement of new working-class voters during the 1920’s. And, as the electorate changed, a coalition supporting repeal was built.
This coalition included significant elements of the business community. As business in America evolved into big business, corporate leaders were concerned that the over-reaching of the reform movement – the attack on individual liberty – could eventually impact on the privileges of corporations and the wealthy. They therefore had a real interest in repeal – even though discriminatory enforcement of the Volstead Act allowed them as individuals to consume alcohol themselves. Although I’m not sure McGirr makes this point explicitly, I think it’s fair to say that the more progressive business leaders also recognized that business could not expand if the working class were not allowed some freedom to develop.
The movement for structural political reform has at least these 2 key points of contact with the movement to repeal Prohibition:
- Today, the possibility of progressive change is also held back by voter suppression. The Democratic Party is opposed to voter suppression only insofar as it puts the DP at a competitive disadvantage with the Republican Party. The DP and the RP are united in opposing changes that empower the voters – especially independents, who now make up some 40% of all voters – at the expense of bipartisan control of government and the political process.
As with the repeal of Prohibition, the key to breaking the control of special interests in America is a significant influx of new voters. Such an influx can only be brought about by attacking the most pernicious special interest of them all, the bipartisan control of primary elections, reapportionment, voter registration, incumbency – indeed, the entire political process.
- Empowering all voters on a level playing field demands a coalition. The social locations, interests, and political views of independents are diverse. What they have in common is their status as second-class citizens, and their recognition, more or less self-conscious, that it is the political parties themselves and their institutionalized power that the prevent them from expressing themselves politically.
As former Congressman Mickey Edwards (R-OK) says in The Parties vs. the People, the Democratic Party and Republican Party are really private clubs. Under the Constitution, they have the right of association, but not the right to dictate every aspect of the political process itself. The struggle to empower the voters – all the voters – is not only a civil rights struggle every bit as righteous as the struggles of African-Americans, women, and gays: It is an indispensable step in re-igniting social and economic development in America.
Lou Hinman lives in New York City.