The New Prohibition

David Frum, writing for The Atlantic:

The culture war raged most hotly from the ’70s to the next century’s ’20s. It polarized American society, dividing men from women, rural from urban, religious from secular, Anglo-Americans from more recent immigrant groups. At length, but only after a titanic constitutional struggle, the rural and religious side of the culture imposed its will on the urban and secular side. A decisive victory had been won, or so it seemed.

The culture war I’m talking about is the culture war over alcohol prohibition. From the end of Reconstruction to the First World War, probably more state and local elections turned on that one issue than on any other. The long struggle seemingly culminated in 1919, with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment and enactment by Congress of the National Prohibition Act, or the Volstead Act (as it became known). The amendment and the act together outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States and all its subject territories. Many urban and secular Americans experienced those events with the same feeling of doom as pro-choice Americans may feel today after the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Only, it turns out that the Volstead Act was not the end of the story. As Prohibition became a nationwide reality, Americans rapidly changed their mind about the idea. Support for Prohibition declined, then collapsed. Not only was the Volstead Act repealed, in 1933, but the Constitution was further amended so that nobody could ever try such a thing ever again.

The analogy isn’t perfect, but no analogy ever is. I’ll start by noting the obvious: that women’s reproductive rights and bodily autonomy are far more essential than the right to consume alcohol (or any other drug) recreationally. The stakes are immeasurably higher.

That said, I find Frum’s analogy compelling, politically. Optimistically, the repeal of Prohibition was resounding, and seemingly stands as proof that something so deeply unpopular cannot stand in a democracy. Pessimistically, the repeal of Prohibition — despite its deep unpopularity and obvious failure — took 14 years. From our perspective today, Prohibition looks like a bizarre, brief blip in American history; to those who lived through it, it was a long and painful slog.

More pessimistic, of course, is the fact that American democracy itself is in severe crisis. Deeply unpopular laws and the suppression of fundamental human rights are the norm in autocracies.