Sunday, May 20, 2012

When the Ku Klux Klan and Suffragettes joined forces

Russ Roberts talks here to Daniel Okent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, on the American prohibition of alcohol in the early 20th century.

What is intriguing is Okent's explanation of the motivations of the various actors for and against prohibition. Lining up in favour of prohibition included:

The Ku Klux Klan
The Klan are best known today for persecuting black people, but they were also bitterly anti-Catholic, and by the late 19th century worried by the huge wave of Catholic migration from Europe to the US. I wrote before about the fears that the 1840s Protestant Known Nothing movement had of the massive inward migration of Catholics, deemed to be superstitious and traitorous, allied to an Italian Pope instead of the American state. Okrent explained that Catholic politicians often rallied support among the Catholics in saloons:
The saloon was the perfect place to organize politics around--the Democratic machines that grew up in the late 19th century came out of the saloons. They were electing people to Congress who didn't look like or sound like the typical native-born American from southern Ohio. They saw that they were losing their country, and they blamed liquor. Also saw that beverages were a very large part of the immigrant groups. The Irish and Italians, part of daily life to have beer, wine, or whisky, even if in moderation.
Denying the Catholics alcohol might deny them political power, and anti-Catholic Protestants were more than happy to see that.

Around the turn of the century some Americans were calling for enlightened government to pass intelligent laws that would reshape society. Social activists saw the very real destructive nature of alcohol use in the US, where clean water was rare and the poor relied on distilled booze for their hydration, and genuinely believed that stamping out alcohol use would benefit the poor and repair the social fabric. For some there was an element of paternalism: wealthy progressives deciding that poor people could not be trusted to decide for themselves so that prohibition was for their own good.

Soft drinks companies were eager to wipe out their alcoholic rivals.

The Industrial Workers of the World 'believed that liquor was a tool used by capitalists to keep the working man down', and supported Prohibition. 
Okrent does not go into details here, but he remarks that men did most of the drinking, that the prohibition movement and women's rights movement went hand in hand since around 1850 and that they 'entered the Constitution virtually together'.

In opposition to these groups were those who opposed Prohibition:

Wealthy conservative Republicans
These men had rejected all of the socially progressive policies coming to popularity in this period: 'women's suffrage, income tax amendment, child labor laws, Prohibition.'

Southern racists
These men opposed Prohibition because of the risk it posed as a top-down federal law imposed on the states. They wanted to preserve state rights (to protect Southern racist policies): 
...because to acknowledge that the government had the power to do this was to acknowledge that the 15th Amendment had validity. They wanted to continue to hold onto the argument of states' rights; can't hold on to that if you are going to have a federal proscription on liquor.
Catholics and Jews
Catholics liked to drink! They also rallied around saloons. Jews also opposed Prohibition, although Okrent does not go into great detail. In the end the Prohibition created exemptions for Catholic clergy and Jewish rabbis to use wine in their religious ceremonies - which quickly attracted corruption:
Any Rabbi could welcome as many people to his congregation as he wished; Talmed Torah in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles had 80 families in 1920, and a year later had 1000 families.
 It's a fascinating interview on the diverse motivations for an illiberal law, eventually passed against the wills of the majority of Americans, and widely flouted. A nice reminder that those calling for changes in law on noble grounds may be driven by ignoble incentives.


  1. In Iceland in 1942, while under British occupation, an unlikely government of bitterly opposed political parties emerged.

    The electoral system at the time was severely skewed in favour of the Progressive Party (a party heavily dominated by farmers and rural voters). The previous (1937) elections had provided the Progressive party with 19 MPs from 24,6 % of the vote. The Independence Party (the conservative party and historically the biggest party in Iceland) got 17 MPs from 40,8% of the votes, and the socialist People's Party got 18,8% and 8 MPs.

    The situation was deeply unfair and unbearable for the other parties, but the Progressive Party forged coalitions to preserve the system. But in 1942 the Independence party, the People's party and the new Socialist (formerly Communist) party forced a new election, formed a coalition, voted to reform the electoral laws (a 2/3 majority of votes was needed), then disbanded the government and called a new election with the new laws.

    The Independence Party and the Socialist party returned to being bitter enemies and would never again govern together.

  2. Excellent anecdote, Vidar, thanks :) How interesting.

    As it happens Okrent explained that the US also had a very distorted electoral system during the early 20th century. The rural (Protestant-dominated) areas had much smaller ratios of electorate to representative than the urban areas where more Catholics lived. The government even decided to not bother updating the electoral system to take demographic changes into account in order to protect rural Protestant power.

    ...And funnily enough I was just looking at a map of Ireland yesterday, broken down into electoral constituency, showing the ratio of electorate to representative here. And once more the rural people (like me, since I'm registered to vote back home) are slightly over-represented!

  3. It's quite common actually. The current (leftist coalition) Norwegian majority (in terms of MPs) government, in power for 7 years now, lost it's first election by 20-odd thousand votes in 2005 and by 40-odd thousand votes in 2009 (more than 1,5% of voters), but won both in terms of MPs because of the greater electoral significance of rural votes.

    The U.S. Senate is another example of an extremely unbalanced distribution of voters per representative. With 2 senators from each state regardless of population, a group of senators representing a small part of the population can wield a lot of influence.

    "The nine most populous states contain slightly more than half of the total population. The 25 least populous states contain less than one-sixth of the total population. California, the most populous state, contains more people than the 21 least populous states combined."

  4. Fascinating, nice one. I think, though I'm not certain, that voting is similarly skewed in favour of individuals living in smaller countries in the EU.

    I guess the logic is that smaller countries or states are deemed to have special rights that are different from individual rights. In the EU it probably means protecting the national interests of Luxembourg or Estonia from domination by Germany or Italy.

  5. One little problem with the timeline here -- the Klan did not exist in the late 19th century. It had been exterminated by the end of the 1870s and was finally revived only in 1915 by William Simmons.

    It did eventually take on the Prohibition angle but that cannot have been in the 19th century.


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