Here’s an interesting op-ed piece by Wisconsin historian John Gurda entitled Smashing ‘Demon Government’ in which he examines the many parallels between the current political climate in his state and the temperance movement that led to Prohibition. Thanks to Wisconsin Bulletin reader Jason H. for sending me the link. Subtitled “Walker’s small-government zeal resembles that of the prohibitionists,” here’s a few choice excerpts below:
In its moral fervor, its contempt for compromise, its demographic base and even its strategies, today’s new right is the philosophical first cousin of prohibitionism.
Consider a few of the parallels. The prohibitionists went after “Demon Rum,” while the tea party attacks Demon Government. The Anti-Saloon League preached that barrooms were destroying America’s moral fiber, while the new right declares that onerous taxation and excessive regulation are doing precisely the same thing. Carrie Nation smashed whiskey barrels, while today’s conservatives want to smash the welfare state. Addiction to spending, they might argue, is ultimately as destructive as addiction to alcohol.
Like the temperance movement of the last century, the tea party draws heavy support from Protestant evangelicals such as Walker himself, and their political playbook is a throwback as well. The prohibitionists were media-savvy opportunists, taking advantage of every opening to advance their cause.
When the United States entered World War I, they wasted no time demonizing beer as “Kaiser brew” and even accused Milwaukee’s producers of spreading “German propaganda.” When food shortages loomed during the conflict, the dry lobby convinced Congress to divert America’s grain supply from breweries and distilleries to less objectionable industries. The result was “wartime prohibition,” a supposedly temporary measure that went into effect in 1919 and soon gave way to the 18th Amendment. The national drought would last for 14 years.
It’s worth noting that America wasn’t alone in using the conflict of World War I to push anti-alcohol agendas. Like-minded measures in several countries led to similar alcohol prohibitions, many of which lasted far longer than ours, such as Australia, Canada, Finland, Hungry, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway and Russia. In each of those nations, temperance groups took advantage of wartime circumstances to push their plans on the rest of the populace in their respective places.
In much the same way that prohibitionists turned World War I to their advantage, the current crop of conservatives is making political hay from another temporary phenomenon: the global economic recession. The need for fiscal austerity has rarely been more obvious, but it’s being used as a pretext for advancing the new right’s legislative agenda.
We’re seeing that happen in most, if not every state, with anti-alcohol groups turning our nation’s economic adversity into an opportunity to raise taxes on beer, already the most heavily taxed consumer good (along with tobacco). The Marin Institute has even created propaganda showing the “worst” ten states, with “worst” meaning the states with the lowest taxes on beer, completely out of context and with no understanding whatsoever of why each individual’s states excise taxes are set where they are. Shortly after Governor Walker created Wisconsin’s deficit by giving tax cuts to the wealthy, Michele Simon of the Marin Institute tweeted that beer should make up the difference. “Dear Gov. Walker: Wisconsin has not raised its beer tax since 1969. At .06/gallon, among lowest in nation. Just one of many ideas.” If that’s not what Gurda was talking about, I don’t know what is. That’s using a grave political situation to further an unrelated agenda.
Walker began with a demand that public employees pay more for their pensions and health insurance – a necessary step to which they have agreed – and then proposed to strip them of their collective bargaining rights. That’s an epic non sequitur that makes sense only when you invoke tea party logic: If taxes are bad, then the people we pay with tax dollars must be brought to heel, even if it means freezing a new teacher at first-year wages until retirement.
But the new right’s agenda goes far beyond public employee unions. With solid majorities in the state Legislature, Walker first declared a budget emergency and then cut taxes by $140 million, which is equivalent to taking blood from a patient with severe anemia. In last week’s budget message, he pronounced the patient so sick that amputations are necessary. Walker’s juggernaut of tax cuts and service cuts, combined with his no-bid privatization plans, trends in one direction and one direction only: dismantling government one line item at a time, regardless of the consequences.
It is here, finally, that prohibitionism and tea party conservatism find common ground: Both are ideologies. They represent fixed, blinkered views of the world that focus on single issues and dismiss all other positions as either incomplete or simply wrong-headed. Get rid of alcohol, the prohibitionists promised, and the U.S. would become a nation of the righteous and a beacon of prosperity to the world. Just cut government to a minimum, the new right contends, and you will usher in a brave new era of freedom and opportunity.
And that’s how I see all of the neo-prohibitionist and anti-alcohol groups, as “ideologies.” All of the anti-alcohol groups that I’m aware of do everything in their power to punish alcohol companies because of their perceived sins and because they want to tell you and me how to live our lives. They do so without thinking through the consequences and overall use an “ends justify the means approach,” especially in the way they frame and distort their propaganda. Simply put, I believe that they think they know better than everybody else, there’s a certain smugness in their position; in its unwavering certainty, their righteousness that borders on religious fervor.
They’re convinced that there’s no free will, people are incapable of ignoring advertising, or knowing their limits when drinking. And while there are a few tragic figures who may fit that description, they’re the tiny minority that such groups are fixated on to make their case. The vast majority who drink alcohol do so responsibly and in moderation. Most people take personal responsibility for their actions, as they should. But personal responsibility rarely, if ever, figures into alcohol abuse if you listen only to anti-alcohol rhetoric and propaganda. It’s always the fault of the alcohol itself, and usually beer because it plays better to the people with money who fund such organizations (they drink wine after all). An op-ed piece in the UK Telegraph by Brendan O’Neil recently shed a light on the class issue in anti-alcohol efforts. If they’re not going after the children, then they’re preying on the weak-minded with the most effective advertising the world has ever wrought. Earlier this year, the hue and cry was because there were 3.5 minutes of beer commercial during the nearly four hours of the Super Bowl and — gasp — the little kiddies might see it.
But anti-alcohol rhetoric single-mindedly focuses on only the negative. I’ve never heard any of them say one word that was positive about any alcohol company. Even when Anheuser-Busch packaged cans of water and sent then to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, one anti-alcohol group criticized them for the deed, because they put their logo on the cans and sent out a press release (oh, the horror). Let no good deed go unpunished, indeed. That alone should convince us they’re idealogues.
I suspect they might say the same of me, but I understand and acknowledge that there are some people who should not drink. That such people can and do cause problems for themselves and often the people around them. I don’t write about it very much because I don’t have to; there’s plenty of lopsided anti-alcohol rhetoric already. I’m just trying to balance the conversation, though more often than not I feel like the lone voice in the wilderness.
But back to Wisconsin. My wife is a political news junkie, and she informs me that a careful reading of the facts reveals that Scott Walker’s entire political career has been in service to a single ideology: union busting. He apparently promised that was not his agenda throughout his campaign for governor, and the media swallowed that wholesale with few examining or reporting the discrepancy between what he said while campaigning and his entire career leading up to that point. In that, there’s yet another parallel between the new prohibitionists and the new political conservatives. Most mainstream news media also take the side of the well-funded anti-alcohol groups and parrot their propaganda without questioning it or providing any meaningful views from the other side of this debate.
As to Gurda’s comparisons, I think he’s right about anti-alcohol groups’ unwillingness to compromise and being self-righteous with “blinkered views of the world that focus on single issues and dismiss all other positions as either incomplete or simply wrong-headed.” That’s certainly been my experience. So as if there wasn’t enough reasons to support the protesters in Wisconsin, if this political test case is successful, not only will we see more unions busted in other states, but I suspect anti-alcohol groups are also closely watching this to see how they might use the same bullying tactics in furtherance of their own agenda. And that may be the scariest prospect of all. As usual, I’m with the Green Bay Packers on this one.