Sunday, January 13, 2013

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, by Daniel Okrent (history)

This was actually the first book I finished in 2013, and it may wind up being the best book of history and politics read this year. Yes, that's even with the competition from Adam Goodheart's 1861: Civil War Awakening, which I've already praised lavishly.

Good histories bring you an understanding of the times, forces, and people of the period. Great histories do the same and link you to how the events of the past continue influence the present. In this, Last Call succeeds in spades. The epilogue opens with this statement:

In almost every respect imaginable, Prohibition was a failure. It encouraged criminality and institutionalized hypocracy. It deprived the government of revenue, stripped the gears of the political system, and imposed profound limitations on individual rights. It fostered a culture of bribery, blackmail, and official corruption.
In those four sentences, Okrent sums up Prohibition and what it did to the U.S. What is presented more strongly in the body of the book is how those events changed the nature of American politics and fostered the single-issue movements that have polarized Congress and society of today. It shows plainly the process by which a well-focused single-issue minority can override the will of a majority. For Prohibition, that process created a group of shock troop voters who subordinated every issue to one, regardless of how well a candidate did or didn't represent the rest of their interests. With some additional complexity, one can clearly see it in the US politics of the election of Ronald Reagan.

This is not to say that the time of Prohibition was identical to ours. There were a number of significant differences. In particular, during the period that Okrent covers we did not have the extreme division of Congress that we see today. Instead, politicians clustered more towards the middle and every race was more competitive. Under those conditions, a single dedicated group of single-issue voters could and did make a difference, strongly determining which candidates were elected. Even incumbents who didn't toe the line were regularly turned out of office if they did not vote the right way on the issue. The supporters of Prohibition exploited that ruthlessly. It was and is a model for litmus-test politics, and Okrent cites modern pols who pay homage to it.

The final section covers the combination of events that culminated in the unlikely passage of the 21st amendment. This is the only section that I'd really like to have seen more on. One can read between the lines and infer how the death of some of the major figures combined with their overreaching to splinter the movement, but it doesn't show enough about how the supporters of repeal managed to get it past some formidable hurdles. In particular, there's not enough presented to really see how repeal got passed enough of the more dry states to actually become the 21st amendment. There are probably some interesting histories out there on the topic; I'd love to see Okrent return to it.

In conclusion: highly recommended.

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