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Learning from Prohibition, Anti-Smokers Gain Ground

September 08, 1996|David Kusnet | David Kusnet, a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, was chief speech writer for President Bill Clinton from 1992-1994. He is the author of "Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties" (Thunder's Mouth)

WASHINGTON — Addressing the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Vice President Al Gore brought his audience to tears when he spoke about how his sister died of lung cancer caused by smoking.

Gore's speech was one more sign of the Democrats' enlistment in the growing campaign against smoking. The first openly anti-cigarette president, Bill Clinton has ordered the Food and Drug Administration to regulate nicotine as a drug. And the party platform describes tobacco as "the single greatest threat to the health of our children."

The Democrats' denunciation of a $55-billion industry with 45 million customers is remarkable for a party formerly torn apart by another effort to regulate personal behavior. But the harmony of the Democrats' convention had no echoes of raucous debates of the 1920s over outlawing alcoholic beverages.

The battle lines over Prohibition--an issue that pitted the rural South and Midwest against the immigrants of the major cities--cut through the Democratic Party, dooming it to defeat in three successive presidential elections. But, this year, anti-smoking measures prompted little division in a party whose heavily favored ticket consists of candidates with roots in the tobacco-producing border states--Clinton of Arkansas and Gore of Tennessee.

Why did Prohibition tear America apart, while anti-smoking efforts are less divisive? The answer explains how government can influence personal behavior in a diverse society that cherishes individual liberty.

By the time it passed a national amendment outlawing alcoholic beverages, the prohibition movement was absolutist in its goals, divisive in its tactics and sectarian in its rhetoric. In contrast, the most successful anti-smoking efforts seek limited goals, do not exacerbate existing cultural conflicts and are rooted in contemporary America's secular religion--the quest for personal autonomy and healthier lifestyles.

It took a powerful but ultimately self-defeating movement to convince both houses of Congress and two-thirds of the states to ratify a constitutional amendment prohibiting "the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors" and to keep the law in force from 1919 through 1933.

As the historian Michael Kazin writes in "The Populist Persuasion," the movement against alcohol evolved from a well-meaning effort at social reform into a mean-spirited experiment in social regulation. The temperance movement of the late 19th century was an effort to solve a problem of the industrial age: excessive drinking among men who were exhausted by grueling jobs. Wives and mothers, religious leaders and a small but significant number of labor leaders all sought ways to encourage working men to drink sparingly, if at all, and go home after work. This temperance effort saw itself in the tradition of abolitionism and an ally of other reform movements of that era--from Populism to women's suffrage.

But, by the beginning of the 20th century, the campaign against alcohol became divisive and extreme. Instead of temperance, it sought prohibition--a complete ban on beer, wine and hard liquor. Instead of the liberal "social gospel" of modern Protestantism, it claimed scriptural sanction for its views and demonized its opponents. Its best-known advocates were the ax-wielding Carry Nation, who staged "hatchettation" raids against saloons, and the traveling evangelist Billy Sunday, who railed against "low-down, whiskey-soaked, beer-guzzling, foul-mouthed" drinkers.

More alarmingly, the prohibition movement exacerbated resentments against immigrant groups from Ireland, the Mediterranean and Central and Easter Europe. As the historian Paul Johnson wrote: "Prohibition, with its repressive overtones, was part of the attempt to 'Americanize' America: Reformers openly proclaimed that it was directed chiefly at the 'notorious drinking habits' of 'immigrant working men."' This rhetoric offended urban Americans, as well as a labor movement concerned about brewery workers' jobs.

By the 1920s, as the nation debated whether to repeal Prohibition, the issue symbolized the larger question of whether immigrants, Catholics and Jews would be accepted as first-class citizens. The violently nativist Ku Klux Klan emerged as a leading supporter of Prohibition, and the most dedicated "dries" were determined opponents of New York Gov. Al Smith, an Irish Catholic who sought the presidency in 1924 and 1928, and whose candidacy became a lightning rod for ethnic and religious intolerance.

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