More than 80 years after the US repealed a short-lived ban on alcohol, the political party that originally pushed for Prohibition is still running a candidate for president.
But Jim Hedges, the Prohibition Party’s nominee, isn’t optimistic about his chances. In fact, he has said that he’d be happy if he got 6,000 votes — far short of the nearly 66 million President Barack Obama got in 2012. “We understand that nothing much is going to happen anytime soon,” he told me, explaining that he doesn’t at all expect Prohibition to come back in the near future — even though that’s his party’s explicit goal.
So why is he running? Hedges said that a presidential campaign is the one way the party can keep its cause alive. “The best way to think about this is that we are doing an exercise of living history,” he said. “We would like to keep our issue in front of the public.”
That’s the best Hedges can hope for, really. His party doesn’t register in the polls. He’s not running a traditional campaign — or, really, a campaign at all, considering all he’s done is appeared on some media outlets and sent out the party’s quarterly newsletter. (When I first contacted Hedges, he described his campaign as “a McKinley-style ‘front porch campaign’ using print and electronic media.”) He will only appear on the ballot in three states: Arkansas, Colorado, and Mississippi. (This means Hedges, who’s from Pennsylvania, will have to write in his own name.)
It’s a dramatic fall for what was once arguably America’s most successful single-issue political party. This party, remember, helped (along with powerful lobbying forces like the Anti-Saloon League) get the US Constitution changed — through the 18th Amendment, which enshrined Prohibition into the country’s highest legal document before it was undone by the 21st Amendment. But Hedges has some ideas about how to modernize the Prohibition Party, even as it sticks to its signature issue.
The Prohibition Party’s main issue is still what you’d expect
When I asked Hedges why he supports Prohibition, he rattled off a list of “social costs” that he attributes to alcohol: “the emergency services, the hospital care, the police work, the lost hours in efficiency of jobs, the effect it has on the welfare of families.” Prohibition, he said, would help address all of these problems by preventing at least some excessive drinking.
Hedges insisted Prohibition wasn’t a complete failure despite its repeal. He pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, alcohol consumption really did fall under Prohibition. And he argued that it was worth the downsides — particularly, increasing crime and corruption tied to the massive black market for booze — and that those downsides have been exaggerated by the press and popular media since Prohibition fell.
Hedges argued, for one, that crime rates actually dropped in Chicago, a huge hub for alcohol trafficking, throughout Prohibition. That’s not true: The murder rate, the best historical proxy for crime, spiked shortly after Prohibition was enacted in 1920 and didn’t fall back down to old levels until the late 1930s. Crime really did spike as gangs fought for control of the black market for alcohol.
But Hedges is right that per-person alcohol consumption dropped during Prohibition. Daniel Okrent noted this in his fantastic historical analysis Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition:
In almost every respect imaginable, Prohibition was a failure. It encouraged criminality and institutionalized hypocrisy. It deprived the government of revenue, stripped the gears of the political system, and imposed profound limitations on individual rights. It fostered a culture of bribery, blackmail, and official corruption. It also maimed and murdered, its excesses apparent in deaths by poison, by the brutality of ill-trained, improperly supervised enforcement officers, and by unfortunate proximity to mob gun battles. …
But in one critical respect Prohibition was an unquestioned success: as a direct result of its fourteen-year reign, Americans drank less. In fact, they continued to drink less for decades afterward. Back in the first years of the twentieth century, before most state laws limiting access to alcohol were enacted, average consumption of pure alcohol ran to 2.6 gallons per adult per year — the rough equivalent of 32 fifths of 80-proof liquor, or 520 twelve-ounce bottles of beer. Judging by the most carefully assembled evidence, that quantity was slashed by more than 70 percent during the first few years of national Prohibition. It started to climb as American thirsts adjusted to the new regime, but even Repeal did not open the spigots: the pre-Prohibition per capita peak of 2.6 gallons was not again attained until 1973.
So the right question might be whether you believe reducing alcohol consumption is worth the cost of all the problems linked to Prohibition.
There is a good public health case for cutting down on alcohol use — alcohol is linked to around 88,000 deaths annually, 40 percent of violent crimes in the US, and millions of emergency room visits every year.
But an outright ban, historians and drug policy experts broadly agree, goes way too far, causing more problems than it solves. There are other policies that studies show can help stop some problematic drinking without the dangerous side effects of Prohibition — like a higher alcohol tax and innovative 24/7 Sobriety programs that target people who repeatedly get into trouble with the law due to their drinking.
Hedges and the Prohibition Party simply fall on the other side of the question, arguing that Prohibition’s benefits outweigh the costs.
The Prohibition Party is apparently okay with personal marijuana (and alcohol) use
Hedges does have his limits on Prohibition.
Take his answer when I asked him about what he thinks of marijuana legalization: He said that it’s “a bad idea.” But when it came to personal use, he clarified: “Some of our people would disagree with me about this. But I think that personal use ought to be allowed — the same as personal use of alcohol was allowed during Prohibition.”
This is how Prohibition was originally enforced: People could keep and drink their stashes of alcohol, but the big commercial industry around alcohol was shut down.
To Hedges, the concern with alcohol and other drugs isn’t so much what people do in the privacy of their own homes, but rather that a big industry shouldn’t be selling and marketing a dangerous substance to millions of people.
“If somebody wants to grow a marijuana plant on the windowsill for personal use, fine,” Hedges said. “And if they’re stopped on the street and found to have a joint in their pocket, who should care?” On alcohol, he echoed the sentiment: “If people have grapevines in their backyard and want to make themselves a jug of wine, it might be a personal problem, but it’s not a social problem because it doesn’t extend beyond the person’s own home. And the government ought to stay out of our own houses.”
This mirrors what a lot of modern drug prohibitionists say about marijuana and other illicit substances. Kevin Sabet, the country’s leading crusader against pot legalization and the co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, previously explained his opposition to marijuana legalization in similar terms:
If we were a country with a history of being able to promote moderation in our consumer use of products, or promote responsible corporate advertising or no advertising, or if we had a history of being able to take taxes gained from a vice and redirect them into some positive areas, I might be less concerned about what I see happening in this country. But I think we have a horrible history of dealing with these kinds of things.
The research does suggest that the for-profit motive can lead to more problematic drinking. A 2014 report from the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, for example, suggested that when state governments monopolize alcohol sales through state-run shops — in effect removing the explicit for-profit incentive — they can keep prices higher, reduce access to youth, and reduce overall levels of use. And several studies have found that greater exposure to alcohol advertising correlates with increased drinking among young people.
This is what the Prohibition Party wants to fight: Hedges isn’t interested in throwing the individual drinker in prison, but he is interested in taking down a big industry that might push that drinker to consume way too much and put others in harm’s way.
The Prohibition Party’s biggest problem: “Almost everyone doing this work is over 60”
For all his hopes, Hedges seems fairly realistic about the Prohibition Party’s chances.
By his admission, his party faces a bit of an existential crisis. Membership has steadily dropped since the 1920s. Young people don’t seem interested in the cause. “Almost everyone doing this work is over 60,” Hedges, who’s 78, acknowledged.
Some people within the party want to stick to its religious roots, doubling down on a socially conservative message. But Hedges sees a more progressive path forward: The Prohibition Party was fairly progressive in the old days — it played a significant role, in an alliance with suffragist groups, in winning women the right to vote. Hedges thinks the party today can play a progressive part in pushing for action on climate change, for clean energy over fracking, and for free college education.
It’s hard to imagine this working. It is true that young people, who tend to be more liberal, would like policies that take on global warming, fracking, and college debt. But taking on those issues won’t suddenly make the political party that wants to ban alcohol seem palatable.
That’s especially true since young people are among the biggest supporters of marijuana legalization, with Pew Research Center surveys consistently showing that millennials support legalization far more than other age groups.
It’s really hard to square support for marijuana legalization with a platform that, first and foremost, wants to prohibit alcohol. Most young people want to legalize another drug, not ban one that’s already legal.
And that suggests that the Prohibition Party — despite Hedges’s best efforts — may not have too much time left.