Culture Wars Then and Now

In my course on Christianity and Politics in the U.S., I assigned Thomas R. Pegram’s Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800-1933 (published by Ivan R. Dee, who remains one of the genuine mensches in American publishing). I continue to be struck, not only by how good the book is, but also by how little the dynamics between Democrats and Republicans have changed. Yes, the contested issues have — abortion and marriage instead of alcohol and women’s suffrage. But Republicans are still the moralists and the Democrats are the libertarians. For instance:

. . . controversies over temperance laws tended to strengthen Democrats and hurt Republicans. Although many Democrats practices personal temperance and even supported some regulation of the liquor industry, the party as a whole expressed its commitment to “personal liberty” in the matter of drinking. “Why do you allow the dyspeptic Boston to tell you want to drink, and when and how you must behave on Sunday?” asked a New York Democratic congressman in 1867. Prohibition not only endangered the preferences and customs of drinkers, including Protestant Germans who normally voted Republican, it also provoked among Democrats the old Jacksonian fear of arbitrary power. The 1870 platform of the Indiana Democratic party denounced Republican intentions [are you listening David and Tim Bayly] “to regulate the moral ideas, appetites, or innocent amusements of the people by legislation.” By challenging anti-liquor laws, Democrats in the mid-1870s won elections in Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. In the highly competitive politics of the Third Party system, issues that energized voters in one party and alienated small groups in the opposition party enough to keep them from voting or even cause them to “scratch” their ballots and cross party lines, were often decisive in elections. Alcohol regulation became such an issue in the decade following the Civil War.


10 thoughts on “Culture Wars Then and Now

  1. The moralistic proclivities of Mayor Bloomberg when it comes to guns and soda guns certainly presents one flaw in this narrative. And may opposition to women’s suffrage fairly be named a “libertarian” position?


  2. The Republicans are the party of “The Man” (as my wife would say) and the Democrats are the party of those who want to stick it to the man. The Democrats are also the party of the immigrant, especially of the Irish & Italian immigrant in the 19th century, thus the affinity for freedom to consume strong drink.

    If you like to learn about publishers I recommend the DVD “Obscene” about Barney Rosset & The Grove Press on Netflix. If I find a book about a publisher, editor, bookseller, or book collector it immediately earns a spot in my library, whether I have a spot for it or not.


  3. If you ever get a hold of Bennett Cerf’s “At Random” he has lots of good stories about founding Random House and about purchasing the Modern Library from Boni & Liveright.


  4. Nick Basbanes is maybe the best current writer on all things book-related. He has a history of the Yale University Press, publisher of Hart’s forthcoming global history of Calvinism.


  5. I always kinda appreciated William F. Buckley’s unique libertarian position on drugs. Many know that he advocated legalizing all drugs for adults. What gets forgotten is that along with that he also advocated a mandatory death penalty for any adult who sold or gave those legalized drugs to minors (under 18).


  6. What’s surprising to me about the political divides then and now–at least as it is portrayed in the popular debates and by some historians, perhaps including the above–is less what the distinctions really capture, and more what they leave out. Confessional P&Rs, for one, don’t fit into that schema, but neither do most political philosophers.


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