There is something overbearing about politics today. Not that you could ever discuss it at the dinner table without risking a fight, but contemporary politics operates in a rigidly moralistic register. If you hold some contrary political position, it’s not just that you think differently than me or hold commitments incommensurable with my own but that you are also a straightforwardly bad person. Worse, politics appears to be infecting everything around it — corporate branding, scientific discussion, individual lifestyle choices. Historian Anton Jäger has deemed the moment “hyperpolitical,” or characterized by an “incessant yet diffuse excitation.” Politics is politics, but so too is everything from consumption patterns to movies to family life, and your political views on this wide variety of subjects indicate who you are as a moral being.
It wasn’t always this way. I remember the “post-political” ’90s and ’00s, when people would politely walk away if I launched into a rant. And in the postwar era, before the gutting of unions and mass membership organizations, politics was largely a reflection of associational life rather than individual preference; more a consequence of what lodge or local you belonged to, rather than your particular boutique viewpoint. Politics has always been personal in some way, but only recently has it become exhaustingly so.
If we’re looking for a rough point of historical comparison here, we would have to go back to the Gilded Age. As historian Matt Karp has written, the parallels between then and now are striking:
From the Civil War to the early twentieth century, two evenly matched national parties traded biennial bouts of apocalyptic rhetoric and claims of election fraud, amid an atmosphere of widespread, even routine, political violence….
Blue-collar workers remained fiercely divided by geography, race, religion, ethnicity, and culture — in a word, identity — with white Southerners and Catholics voting for Democrats, while northern Protestants and African Americans (where they could vote) backed Republicans. The voracious capitalist class at the helm of the economy, of course, remained flexibly bipartisan. This was a formula for half a century of ruthless capitalist domination, racial oppression, and imperial expansion.
Our second Gilded Age is similarly characterized by deepening inequality, social division, and an intensely acrimonious politics. Now, as then, heaping bitter insults on ostensible moral inferiors is a kind of national spectacle.
No late nineteenth-century phenomenon so approximates the grating excitation of contemporary hyperpolitics as the temperance movement. The temperance cause was about many things — evangelical spirit, status anxiety, anti-immigrant sentiment, worker discipline — but at root it was a moral response to the social ills that industrial capitalism had unleashed. Temperance had existed as a local movement from the early nineteenth century, but, tellingly, it only developed into a national movement with postbellum industrialization. A drunk field hand was no great cause for concern, but a drunk factory worker navigating a complex and demanding production process was a danger to himself and society — a position firmly shared by the likes of John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and William Randolph Hearst.
The routinization and exhaustion of industrialized work had also resulted in a new kind of binge drinking. Whereas before alcohol flowed with the rhythms of a slower, agricultural life, now it was consumed in indulgent spurts to escape the day. The image of the profligate male drunk was not spun out of thin air by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU): with urban concentration, ruinous forms of intoxication at the local saloon were painfully visible and clear cause for moral outrage. It was not so much alcohol itself as this demonic possession that reformers targeted for exorcism from the body politic.
The WCTU was formed in 1874 to represent the “voiceless victims” of male saloon culture. Dominated by middle-class leaders like Frances Willard, the WCTU had both populist and anti-populist, suffragist and non-suffragist, prolabor and anti-labor elements. Members aped the populists in railing against monopolies of transport, finance, and manufacture that squeezed the farmer and small-town businessman. But they also were supported by many upper-class targets of the populists’ rage, who were just as eager to see immigrant workers disciplined. Even in the very root of their mission, the WCTU was not free of contradiction: a survey conducted by the Ladies’ Home Journal, which “wrote to fifty members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union,” “found that three quarters of them were using highly alcoholic patent medicines” (which also contained things like opium and cocaine).
With such a confused political orientation in a country that has traditionally loved alcohol, how did the temperance cause not only thrive as a movement but also win? There are some important contingent factors to consider: the formation of the highly effective lobbying organization, the Anti-Saloon League, in 1896; the freeing of the federal government from reliance on customs duties on imports and taxes on alcohol with the Sixteenth Amendment; and the simple fact that the big brewers were predominantly Germans and thus easy to vilify before and during World War I. But none of these explanatory factors should take away from true astonishment at the fact that all forms of alcohol were officially prohibited in the United States for a full thirteen years. How on earth did this extraordinary “noble experiment” come to pass?
The key difference between the American and European temperance movements was the larger political context. Unlike Europe, the United States did not see the formation of powerful workers organizations and mass workers parties at this time, in large part due to the particular ruthlessness of the American capitalist class. US labor history from this period is a fantastically bloody affair. There were fits and starts of resistance, but no true countervailing political force coalesced in the United States to challenge runaway inequality and the social ills it birthed. In such a situation, where the avenue of political contestation appears blocked, it is no surprise that reformers invested in moral, rather than properly political, solutions to the problems of capitalist society. Temperance forces thus paradoxically derived their power from a situation of powerlessness.
With the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” it became painfully apparent that the dry cause issued from a backward critique of capitalism. Reformers celebrated Prohibition as the beginning of the end of poverty, urban blight, and political corruption. The reverend Billy Sunday rejoiced, “The reign of tears is over! The slums will soon by only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs.” Representative Andrew Volstead, the namesake of the enforcing act of the Eighteenth Amendment, promised that “all men will walk with their heads high, all women will smile, all children will laugh. The doors of hell will forever be closed.” Prohibition promised all of the goods of capitalism with none of its ills.
No extensive review of the failure and repeal of Prohibition is needed to conclude that this dream was not realized. Prohibition was far from a well-enforced project, but its shortcomings were ultimately not practical but substantive. Prohibition failed because it wanted to change capitalist society through a direct moral paternalism rather than through mass, working-class politics.
From depressing polarization to the housing crisis, from gun violence to deaths of despair, the United States today is convulsed by ever-more visible social ills, of the kind that temperance reformers reacted to with shock. As in the late nineteenth century, a variety of middle-class reform groups representing a confused mélange of political positions have arisen to combat them. Some of the newly trendy ideas, like federal jobs programs or industrial policy, are worthwhile; others regressive and practically infeasible. Regardless of the particular proposal, however, vicious moral condemnation lurks behind each one — as it did in the first Gilded Age.
Given geographical and cultural polarization today, however, the new temperance reformers have curiously coalesced on both sides of the political spectrum. Though stated opposites in style and substance, both are committed to rooting out and eliminating some form of ideological intoxication in the body politic, whether it be transphobia or pedophilia, neofascism or wokeness. Like the temperance reformers, they draw their fuming moral critique, involving a depersonalizing vilification of particular individuals and groups, from a situation of essential political impotence. They cannot change the structural conditions of contemporary society through concrete political reforms, and so they must channel their frustration into a charged moral response to American decline.
When the project of Prohibition failed, it was replaced by that of the New Deal, which actually remedied many of the ills about which temperance reformers were so concerned and set the United States on a course for a postwar prosperity that was widely shared by the working class. Today’s new moralism is also woefully inadequate to the tasks before us, and we need, as then, a structural transformation as ambitious in scope as the original New Deal. Given the splits in their ranks, the new temperance reformers are unlikely to bring about anything like a new “Prohibition,” but their exhausting moral critique is nonetheless an active barrier to the formation of a majoritarian movement and, in any event, is once again expelling mirth and good cheer from the few social places where it still exists.