The Anti-Saloon League pioneered tactics activists can use today.
By Ambreen Ali
The Constitution was designed to resist change. Americans have to really agree on something before enough states and lawmakers get on the same page to amend it.
Yet most Americans didn’t want alcohol banned when Prohibition passed in 1920.
It was a small, determined minority that methodically elected dry lawmakers and got America to hesitatingly hop on the wagon. To do so, they pioneered grassroots tactics that activists can apply even today.
The story of the 18th Amendment begins with Wayne Bidwell Wheeler , a savvy organizer who transformed the Anti-Saloon League from a local group in Ohio into the powerful national lobby that it eventually became.
“As practiced by the ASL, democracy was a form of coercion,” former New York Times editor Daniel Okrent wrote in his new book, “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.”
In an interview with Congress.org, Okrent explained how the ASL got its way and what present-day activists can learn from the group’s success:
What tactics helped the ASL succeed?
There was one primary tactic, which is that they said they had only one issue. [Prohibition] was all they cared about. They didn’t confuse their message or dilute their power by bringing in other issues in which other people within the organization could disagree with.
It enabled them to build this incredibly broad coalition from the KKK to a lot of members of Progressive Party because they only cared about this.
Were there downsides to having such allies?
If you have a singular goal, I don’t see a downside. The ASL didn’t get on a platform with the KKK or the Progressive Party. They simply brought pressure to bear to elected officials with the threat of retribution at the polls.
They didn’t have to declare a coalition. They just had to draw people, draw support – financial and electoral – to their cause.
Take the anti-abortion movement today. It is more effective when it sticks to that alone than when it confuses it with other issues. And it hasn’t been nearly as effective as the ASL, but the litmus test standard for legislators is something they use very effectively.
On the flip side, do groups suffer when protesters hold up signs for all sorts of causes at their rallies?
Exactly. When it comes to motivating people to go to the polls, you don’t want your followers to ask, “Do I support this candidate on this one issue even though I disagree with him on the other issues?” You want them to think that this is the issue above all issues and that’s the only one that matters.
That enabled the ASL to throw their support behind the Democrats as well as Republicans, behind liberals as well as conservatives, if they were okay on this one issue.
You also wrote about how the ASL, which was an electoral minority, focused on close races to be most influential.
They created majorities by taking their minority – that let’s say is 10 perfect of the electorate in a given district – and delivering that 10 percent to a candidate to give that candidate the majority.
So the choice between two candidates was very simple: Are you with us or are you against us. If you’re with us, we support you. If you’re against us, we’re going to support your opponent and deliver our 10 perfect and that would make the difference.
And that was effective?
It was phenomenally effective.
By any standard, the pro-prohibition forces in the U.S. didn’t have anything remotely representing a majority at any time. In a few states, they might have. But what they had was visibility to deliver on the one issue.
The best example was Missouri in 1918. The ASL helped elect a very dry legislature that ratified the 18th amendment overwhelmingly.
But on a separate ballot issue, the anti-prohibition forces won the issue about whether there should be a state law dealing with prohibition.
So it was clear from the results of the election that the majority was wet, not dry. But there were enough dries who were able to deliver their votes in a bloc to elect legislators who would ratify the amendment.
Do you see activists using that approach today?
I know there are groups that rate politicians on a particular issue like theLeague of Conservation Voters . They don’t care what else you vote on. But are they really out there trying to deliver votes, or are they trying to provide information for their followers?
The American Conservative Union rates politicians on how conservative they are. But that’s not one issue. That’s very fuzzy.
I would say the issue of abortion rights on both sides is a very clear one where it not only could work but it has worked in some places. That becomes the litmus test by which people are judged and, if you don’t pass that litmus test, you’re losing a lot of votes.
The Club for Growth is an interesting one. They do confuse some issues with their primary issue, which is anti tax. But all the other issues that they’re involved with are fiscally related.
They don’t get into the social issues. They don’t get into gun control. They don’t get into foreign policy. They’re very clear what they’re doing. I think that they’ve been modestly effective because of it.
What do you think of the tea party strategy?
That to me is a muddled movement. I think that there’s great passion, but there’s no organization that I can see on any national scale. And secondarily, I think that there is a confusion of issues.
I think Nevada is going to be a really interesting test for that. Sharron Angle right now is leading the polls against Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), but as this wide range of issues comes out, she may hold on to tea party support but nothing else.
The tea party movement is made a little vague. Are they anti-government, are they anti-liberal, are they anti-Obama? I don’t know what they are or whether they could define what they are.
Are there any cases where groups can get away with having a broader set of issues?
Get away with, sure. I think that many groups get away with it in the sense that they have some influence in the electoral arena.
But they don’t have nearly the influence that they would if they could deliver a block of votes specifically. The narrower you focus, the fewer votes you may be able to deliver, but you can actually deliver them.
To get back to the abortion issue, I think of those specific races where there are candidate who might be considered liberals by many other standards but then they take an anti-abortion position because if they hadn’t they couldn’t possibly get elected from their constituencies.
The ASL pushed legislators to pass local referendums on prohibition, even though their opponents represented the majority and could outvote them. Why?
The more local you got, the more likely you’re going to have a majority vote in a particular locality. If you can reduce your campaign to the smallest unit, then you’ve got more units you can carry.
The local option took place in the first decade of the ASL’s life. It was a first step and it worked effectively in a lot of states. The next step was let’s go further, let’s try to get statewide prohibition. After that worked, let’s go further, let’s try to get a Constitutional amendment.
It wasn’t until 1906 or 1907 that they began to expand their efforts to pass prohibition laws and then they did it state-by-state-by-state. It wasn’t until 1913 that they saw the chance to get a Constitutional amendment.
That was 20 years after they were founded.
Should modern-day activists also start at the local level and work up to the national?
I think it makes sense. If you believe in grassroots organization as effective, then you build an organization that way. But it takes time.
Maybe it doesn’t apply as much to the modern age because of modern communications. That’s something the ASL didn’t have.
But if you begin trying to elect just your two state representatives, that may be the foundation of something that can expand beyond that.
Is that what is happening with immigration in Arizona ?
Yeah, I think that’s an interesting example. And in fact we’re now seeing, at least we’re seeing in the polls and some legislative action in other states, that people are following Arizona’s lead.
Victory in Arizona indicated that this is something that can be taken on a wider basis.
This bill that’s part of the Massachusetts legislature right now looks like it may well pass. Can you find a state that is more dissimilar from Arizona than Massachusetts?
Could the ASL use the same tactics to be effective in today’s age of special interest and rapid communication?
You couldn’t say that on any given issue it would necessarily work. If it’s the right issue and it’s the right moment, yeah I think that it can work.
Can you build a majority to pass a Constitutional amendment? No. That cannot happen. If you look at the history of Constitutional amendments since the prohibition, they aren’t anything ideologically or emotionally controversial.
I just don’t think it can happen in the media-dominated society that we live in today. You just can’t have three-fourths of the legislature agreeing on whether the sun rises in the east much less pass a constitutional amendment.
What about efforts to repeal amendments such as the 17th?
It’s the same thing. I think it’s utterly futile. I’m trying to imagine 38 state legislatures agreeing on something. Try to imagine what that list of states would be.
Repealing something is a lot harder than enacting it. Playing offense is always easier than playing defense in politics.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ambreen Ali writes for Congress.org.