My name is Upton, and I’m a prohibitionist.” Muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair had hoped to do to drink in The Wet Parade what he had done to food in The Jungle. “Maggie May had the overwhelming impulse to save other people from the consequences of their ignorance and folly,” Sinclair writes of the book’s crusading heroine. “She was sure that they were wrong, and that she was right, and so was entirely unchecked by fears as to their ‘personal liberty.’”
Alcohol’s a helluva drug, even (especially?) for those who don’t imbibe.
Rather than spoil the public’s unquenchable thirst for intoxicating drink, The Wet Parade un-whetted their appetite for Upton Sinclair. Henry Luce’s Time ridiculed the prohibitionist novel as a “sloppy tract.” The socialist scribe wasn’t just wrong; he was late. By The Wet Parade’s 1931 publication date, prohibition was a progressive cause better left in the past if progressives desired a political future.
Eighty years ago today, progressives woke up groggy after their fourteen-year bender in state-imposed sobriety. They had forgotten the cloudy night before, and the 5,065 nights before that. In the throes of a throbbing political hangover, they blamed the disaster on everybody but themselves. Forced teetotalism has that black-out effect on memory.
“Prohibition was a pseudo-reform,” historian Richard Hofstadter insisted in The Age of Reform. “To hold the Progressives responsible for prohibition would be to do them an injustice.” Certainly non-progressives played a role in passing the 18th Amendment — and the Orwellian postwar Wartime Prohibition Act before that. But they didn’t play the starring role. Progressives may remain oblivious to their boorish behavior when they crashed the party and stayed for 13 years, 10 months, 19 days, 17 hours, 32 minutes, and 30 seconds (surely parched Americans marked the days as though trapped on a desert island). But Americans need not indulge their collective amnesia on today’s anniversary.
The diverse strains of the American Left united on prohibition. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, the populist wunderkind of “cross of gold” fame, undiplomatically forbade booze at diplomatic functions. The workingmen Wobblies were wowsers. So, too, were Hull House’s Jane Addams and nearly all of her fellow Social Gospel activists. It’s no coincidence that the Anti-Saloon League got its start in the do-gooder hotbed of Oberlin, Ohio.
Articles published by the New Republic and the Nation overwhelmingly favored prohibition. The downward-eyed muckrakers of Collier’s and McClure’s fixed their ink-pen bayonets on the liquor interests as they had once had fixed them upon the railroad interests. Greenwich Village’s lighthearted Masses wrote favorably of illegalizing libations, and its stern successor The New Masses, with its editorial offices 4,700 miles to the East, hawked Sinclair’s screed supporting the 18th Amendment.
“The Progressive Party,” its Ohio affiliate proclaimed in 1914, “is the only political party this year that stands for State and Nation-wide Prohibition.” State parties, eschewing the time-tested political formula of ambiguity on hot-button issues, also formally endorsed prohibition in Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and beyond. The Hobson Amendment, despite receiving a thin majority in the House of Representatives, enjoyed the votes of seventeen Progressive congressmen (against a lone “no” vote).
Progressive causes seemingly unrelated to temperance somehow were seen as tightly intertwined with it. The fight to make the world safe for democracy in Germany extended to America with Budweiser, Blatz, and Schlitz serving as proxy Kaisers. Suffragette leaders often doubled as temperance leaders. Woman’s rights activist Alice Stone Blackwell explained, “In the main suffrage and prohibition have the same friends and the same enemies.” The campaign to cleanse biology through eugenics naturally embraced the movement to purify man of intoxicating poisons. “We are going to have purer blood as the poison of alcohol becomes eliminated,” William Jennings Bryan argued. “We are going to have a stronger race because of prohibition.”
Eight decades later, progressives, inebriated by the righteousness of their ideology, blame everyone else for the sins of their forefathers. Projecting one’s errors upon others ensures a repetition of those errors. This may not today manifest itself in relation to alcohol. But the crusading spirit to sterilize their fellow man of impurities — of tobacco and transfats, Big Gulps and Big Macs, and so many delights that make life worth living — surely remains.
As anyone in that crowd of reformed alcoholics on cigarette break from a “meeting” could tell you, people unwilling to conduct “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of themselves, admit a power higher, and “make amends” with those they have wronged can’t be expected to evolve.
No 12-step program can save them.