Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

What Prohibition can teach us about civility and democracy

March 25, 2011 by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick


This is a guest post by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Directors/Producers of “Prohibition”, a documentary film series airing on PBS this fall.The hyperbole, hysteria, and character assassination that permeate our public life and political culture these days, that are ubiquitous on cable news, talk radio, and in the blogosphere, make many of us yearn for a bygone era when America was more polite, more measured, more considerate, dare we say it -- more civilized.

But we should be careful what we wish for. Perhaps a few years ago we treated each other with more respect and deference, but if we look just a bit farther back in our history to the turn of the 20th century, many of us might be surprised to learn that there was a time when the lack of civility in American public discourse was equal to, if not greater than our own.

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While working on our upcoming documentary film series, “Prohibition,” we were astonished to discover an eerily familiar era in which fear-mongering, polarization, cynicism and hypocrisy were the order of the day.

To get Prohibition passed, the “Dry” lobby, led by the ruthless and well organized Anti Saloon League, practiced the most uncompromising and effective brand of single issue, wedge politics we have ever seen. Prohibition, they claimed, was a magic bullet that would rid the nation of crime, domestic violence, poverty, slums, social unrest, child labor, corruption, prostitution, solving all of America’s problems in one fell swoop.

They adroitly encouraged mistrust and suspicion between immigrants and native born citizens, the countryside and the cities, Protestants and Catholics. And they painted their “Wet” opposition as un-American, treasonous, dissipated, untrustworthy. Millions of anxious small town “values” voters, who wanted to bring America back to what it used to be, rewarded them with their unyielding support.

Smear tactics and innuendo, fear-mongering and personal attacks, all were part of the Drys’ arsenal.

The Anti-Saloon League, its founder liked to boast, was formed for the purpose of administering political retribution, and for more than three decades they did so with great efficiency - not only getting the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act enacted, but also protecting the increasingly unpopular law for more than 13 years. Few politicians dared oppose the Drys, and many who did had their careers destroyed in some of the most mean-spirited political campaigns in American history. Smear tactics and innuendo, fear-mongering and personal attacks, all were part of the Drys’ arsenal, and the lack of civility that ensued was as vicious and destructive as anything we witnessed in the last election cycle.

Thanks in large part to the Drys’ scorched earth tactics, they amassed enough political power to saddle America with an unenforceable law that actually increased crime and corruption, turned millions of law abiding citizens into criminals, made thugs into heroes, glamorized illicit drinking, and corroded the social contract.

The so-called ”noble experiment” turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, which makes the story of Prohibition a prescient cautionary tale about unintended consequences, and what can happen when we don’t value civility and common decency.


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