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.

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