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March 07, 2019


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Not sure

While this is a fascinating history based on a very interesting unearthed historical record, I am skeptical about the relevance to today's politics. Not only is the electorate very different today rather than in 1932 (demographically and economically in almost every way), the fact that we have a completely different administrative state ushered in by the old New Deal makes the idea of a "Green New Deal" understandable and even logical in the eyes of the electorate. I do wonder what the "Prohibition" analogy might be in today's election as well. Perhaps the Russia investigation or other corruption in government?


What utter nonsense. Somebody who's writing a book about Prohibition is incentivized to make his subject a central issue in American history. There are no shortage of books whose title is "How (fill in the blank) changed America." Can you reference a single general history regarding the onset of the Depression and the election of 1932 that argues that Prohibition played a significant effect upon the outcome?

You are correct, though, when you point out that FDR's election platform was dramatically different than how he governed. It's forgotten (or never learned) by most that the Democrats who took control of Congress following the 1930 election were led by men far more conservative than Hoover and who believed that the solution to the declining economy was to cut spending and raise taxes. People voted for FDR and Democrats for Congress in 1932 not because they analyzed the party platform and decided that was the best answer to the country's problems, but because they were desperate and wanted the incumbent leadership out.

David Kennedy's Freedom From Fear (part of the Oxford History of the United States series) gives an excellent sense of how the American economy was falling apart with no apparent end in sight during 1930-32

Anthony Gaughan

Not sure,

Rest assured, I am not making any predictions about 2020. I have no clue what will happen next year (after all, I predicted that Hillary Clinton would win in 2016!). But I do think it's helpful to examine the historical context in which FDR operated, particularly now that the New Deal's legacy is a subject of renewed public interest. In any case, thanks for your comment!

Anthony Gaughan


I absolutely agree with you about David Kennedy's book, and I also agree that common sense would indicate that the Depression must have played a big role in the 1932 election.

But don't you find it interesting that the politicians of the time interpreted the 1932 election as a referendum on Prohibition?

Moreover, it's interesting that Prof. Kennedy himself notes that Prohibition played a surprisingly large role in the early Depression-era elections. On p. 60, writing of the 1930 midterm elections (which occurred one year after the stock market crash), he observes that "[r]eflecting the still imperfect national focus on the severity of the economic crisis, many races turned more on the issue of Prohibition than on the depression . . . ."

At a minimum, I think this is a subject worthy of more scholarly scrutiny.

Thanks for your comment!

Patrick S. O'Donnell

There are a variety of reasons an individual may want to drink alcohol (some apparently availing), and the Great Depression no doubt provided both the masses and elites with one such rather ample reason. In a society economically, socially, and culturally conditioned by capitalism there is a tendency to assume, perhaps subconsciously, or at least without full awareness (owing, say, to self-deception, denial or wishful thinking) that, in the words of Jon Elster, “the best life for the individual is one of consumption, understood in a broad sense that includes aesthetic pleasures and entertainment as well as consumption of goods in the ordinary sense.”* While a would-be Liberal democratic capitalist society advocates and is said to realize freedom (which it upholds as a paramount if not absolute value), often in terms of an ill-defined or constricted conception of “free choice,” endogenous preference formation is ubiquitous if only because that putative freedom of choice (of life-style, etc.) is “to a large extent preempted by the social [in this case, capitalist conditioned] social environment in which people grow up and live” [and opportunities for conspicuous consumption entrench the belief that one is enjoying the full benefits of ‘freedom’]. The conception of the good life, therefore—and unsurprisingly—is often framed in terms of an updated version of “bread and circuses” (this need not be imposed from above, as we’re perfectly capable of forging the chains that bind us).

Consumption of alcohol would undoubtedly serve to temporarily alleviate (i.e., provide an escape from) the widespread material and psychological conditions of insecurity, anxiety and fear brought about by the dreadful socio-economic conditions of the Great Depression. And I suspect a tendency towards instant gratification in conjunction with an understandable desire for some respite from suffering in such times of widespread misery could well motivate an electoral focus on the repeal of Prohibition. Alas, however, just like the pleasures of consumption generally, the pleasures associated with alcohol consumption are subject to the law of diminishing utility, indeed, in this case they often “become jaded overt time, while the withdrawal symptoms become increasingly more severe. The consumption activity remains attractive not because it provides pleasure (or masks one’s suffering), but because it offers release from withdrawal symptoms[!].” To better appreciate this, consider, conversely, “the attractions of self-realization [which] increase over time, as the start-up costs diminish and the gratification from achievement becomes more profound [there are ‘economies of scale in self-realization,’ unlike consumption.]”

It would seem uncontroversial that FDR’s appeal was soon enhanced with the development of New Deal programs, the effects of which, unintentionally in most cases, provided increased opportunities not only for tangible diminution in material and psychological suffering (put differently, a minimal level of social welfare and well-being) but even opportunities for the intersubjective experience and joint benefits of self-realization.

* More abstractly perhaps, and viewed from the perspective of production and production relations, this same society created a market in labor power that, historically speaking (and alongside other conditions and effects of capitalism), served to distort, corrode, or destroy the communities, traditions, and reference groups that were the sources of conceptions of the “Good life” (or better, the life of the Good), and thus the principal repository of moral values and principles. As Michael Luntley wrote some years ago, “[f]or capitalism to flourish, moral agency must be replaced by economic agency and therefore it is no good trying to put a ‘human’ face upon capitalism.” These facts are further entrenched by related processes of belief formation under capitalism (well understood by Marx and clearly explained by Elster) which is conducive to cognitively-based ideological illusions, like the belief that many workers remain in the working class (rather than becoming capitalists) out of choice, rather than necessity.

Anthony Gaughan

Thank you for your comment, Patrick.

Prohibition did work in one respect: it decreased per capita alcohol consumption, even in the years after repeal of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act. For example, David Kyvig notes in his book that per capita alcohol consumption in 1941 was only 60% of what it had been 30 years before (as measured by federal liquor tax payments).

At the same rate, however, adoption of the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition had a remarkably strong impact on the economy. As Prof. Kyvig points out in his book, by 1940 alcohol production and sales created over 1.2 million jobs and generated one billion in wages and another one billion in tax revenues.

Of course, those figures do not include the lost work hours and the social costs associated with alcoholism. But there is no doubt that in the 1930s a critical mass of Americans believed that Prohibition undermined the economy by driving down tax revenues and increasing law enforcement expenditures.

Thanks again!

Wes Oliver

I am not sure about the New Deal (and am no expert on it all) but am pretty thoroughly convinced that Prohibition gave us modern criminal procedure.

Anthony Gaughan

Your book looks great, Wes! It's on my list of books to read.

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