By Carl M. Cannon | Good morning, it’s Thursday, December 27, 2018. Another eventful — if not altogether reassuring — political year is winding to a close. The federal budget process remains a mess, and I’m not even talking about the partial government shutdown. Year after year, Congress spends money like a drunken sailor while collecting far less in taxes than is needed to feed its spending habit.
You might think this is the underlying reason behind the current budget impasse between the nation’s two major political parties, one of which still claims to believe in fiscal probity. You’d be wrong, of course. This is a fight over a border wall that the Republican Party leader assured Americans would be underwritten by a neighboring country. In other words, we’re hooked on empty rhetoric as well as deficit spending.
The analogy of addiction is appropriate for this date: On December 27, 1900, a formidable presence with the Dickensian name Carry Nation strode into the bar at a hotel in Wichita, Kan., and proceeded to smash glasses, liquor bottles, and anything else she could destroy. She was promptly arrested, which was her goal.
The temperance movement had officially gone intemperate.
“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” Barry Goldwater would avow at the 1964 Republican National Convention. “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Six-and-a-half decades earlier, Carry Nation practiced an amalgamated version of this sentiment. She practiced extremism and immoderation in the pursuit of stamping out the liberty to pursue vice — and not only alcohol.
“While I was at Harvard,” Carry Nation proclaimed with alarm after a visit to the Cambridge, Mass., campus, “I saw professors smoking cigarettes.”
But it was the great 19th century boom in American beer drinking, and the accompanying proliferation of saloons, that galvanized Nation and her ever-present hatchet into action. In “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” author Daniel Okrent provides a colorful introduction to this scourge of America’s barkeeps:
“Carry Amelia Moore Gloyd Nation was six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache. Her mother believed herself to be Queen Victoria. Her first husband was a rotten drunk. Her religious passions led her to sit on her organ bench and talk to Christ … [and] she once described herself as ‘a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus barking at what He doesn’t like.’”
Total abstinence in Jesus’ name seems an unlikely obsession to attribute to the man who turned water into wine. But it’s not easy for prohibitionists or absolutists of any kind to exhibit historical consistency, a lesson we are reminded of in our own time.
Today, we often talk about political compromise as though it’s an end in itself. But the ruinous experiment known as Prohibition shows what can happen when diverse groups of activists with differing motivations coalesce around a single and simple-sounding solution to varied and complex social ills.
The movement to make alcohol illegal was pushed by an uneasy coalition of religious leaders, social reformers, medical do-gooders, and women’s rights activists. The groups included the Anti-Saloon League, the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and the World League Against Alcoholism.
Just as many of today’s activists tend to infantilize those they would protect, so did the temperance crusaders. Their pious self-certitude can be captured in the 1919 Lew Brown/Albert Von Tilzer song “I Never Knew I Had a Wonderful Wife Until the Town Went Dry.”
Carry Nation blamed her failed first marriage on her husband’s drinking. But as the Library of Congress points out in an online exhibit, her extremism came to be viewed “as progressive social reform that would improve and protect the lives of women and children.”
Instead, Prohibition made criminals of tens of millions of law-abiding Americans, bred contempt for the law, institutionalized political hypocrisy, and gave organized crime a foothold in numerous big cities. Did anything good come from the 18th Amendment, other than its repeal in 1933?
Perhaps one thing, maybe two, both described in Okrent’s book: First, dinner parties (with hoarded or bootlegged wine) became an American convention. Second, one week after Prohibition took effect, Anna Gordon and the WCTU launched another campaign designed to help the women of this country. Its slogan said it all: “Equal Pay for Equal Work.”
Are there valuable lessons for our time from any of this? If so, they aren’t linear. For one thing, Americans often move in two directions simultaneously when it comes to civil liberties. Today, many of the same people pushing for new controls on firearms are busily legalizing marijuana.
This is not as incongruous as it seems. In “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson predicted such paradoxes, and offered a rationale in their defense.
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” he proclaimed. “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”
Carl M. Cannon is Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics.