Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent


Essay by Brian Tanguay

When the conservative supermajority of the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in June 2022, it overturned a half century of settled law. The Constitution, opined the majority, doesn’t confer a right to abortion so the right enshrined in Roe v. Wade in 1973 was stripped away and the issue remanded to the individual states, some of which, like Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and South Dakota, immediately moved to enact total or nearly total bans on abortion. 

As with all significant social change, overturning Roe was a long time in the making, the culmination of decades of relentless organizing and political advocacy, indoctrination, fund-raising, and coalition building. From the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family to The Federalist Society and the Republican Party, the Catholic Church and the American Enterprise Institute, overturning Roe was a cherished objective, the single issue that not only galvanized money and political capital, but aroused rank and file people to support the effort for as long as it would take. In that sense, it’s a remarkable achievement. 

Not long after the Dobbs decision was issued I came across Daniel Okrent’s excellent history of Prohibition, Last Call, published in 2010. As I read Okrent’s account I was struck by the similarity of the organizing that produced Prohibition and that which led to the overturning of Roe. In both instances an individual right that enjoyed broad popular support was curtailed by a determined, organized minority. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1919 by 46 of 48 states, and Prohibition took effect a year later, under the auspices of the Volstead Act. Okrent identifies the key individuals and organizations that fueled the drive to outlaw the manufacture, sale and transport of alcohol. 

The early decades of the 20th century were turbulent in America, and the nation witnessed an unprecedented burst of constitutional activity. Between 1913 and 1919 amendments were ratified to establish the income tax, direct election of senators, Prohibition, and women’s suffrage. At the same time the nation experienced bitter labor unrest and brutal suppression of unions, open racism against Black people, and widespread suspicion of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and their perceived socialist, communist or anarchist leanings. As the country prepared to enter the First World War fear begat excess and the loyalty of German-Americans was questioned. Playing Beethoven in public was banned in Boston; in Iowa it was a crime to speak German on the telephone or in public. It also happened that the most successful brewers of the day bore the names Pabst, Busch, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller.

Today we talk of polarization between red and blue states, urban and rural, coastal elites and salt-of-the-earth heartlanders. As Prohibition made its way to becoming reality, America’s large cities were perceived to be hotbeds of unrest, crime and anarchy sparked by immigrants who gathered in saloons and plotted the demise of the ideals cherished in America’s heartland. Along with immigration and racism and inequality, this perception added momentum to the push to abolish “intoxicating liquors,” uniting moralists and xenophobes in a coalition of righteousness. Alcohol was hardly a new problem — Okrent points out that America was awash in wine and whiskey from its very beginnings — but in the cauldron of the early 20th century it was linked with myriad social ills and threats to the American way of life. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union had been saying as much since 1879, but the WCTUs message resonated with greater urgency and reach when it was amplified by the most powerful single-issue advocacy organization in American history: the Anti-Saloon League led by Wayne B. Wheeler. 

One way to describe Wheeler’s influence for a contemporary audience is to imagine one person embodying the political instincts of Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Steve Bannon and Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, and to view the ASL as the NRA of its time. Wheeler’s mantra was, “This one thing we do” and that one thing was to make America dry. Single issue, unwavering focus. With funding from some of the wealthiest Americans, including John D. Rockefeller, a lifelong teetotaler, the ASL established more than 800 business offices across the country and boasted some 500 salaried employees. State and federal politicians who refused to support the ASL’s platform found themselves targeted and voted out of office. Crossing the ASL was political suicide. 

The 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act produced a host of unintended consequences. It failed in its ultimate aim as alcohol consumption only decreased by thirty percent in the decade after ratification. More significantly, the amendment eliminated a prime source of government revenue — the tax on alcohol — and fueled bootlegging and organized crime on a scale America had not experienced before. Fortunes were made in the illicit trade; corruption was rampant. In big cities the Volstead Act was flouted openly and easily circumvented; eighteen states refused to allocate any money at all for its enforcement. Where the Volstead Act was enforced, courts became clogged with cases. The drys could boast that they had their law, but wets countered by brandishing their liquor. 

Last Call is a deeply researched and well-written history of Prohibition that also illuminates a fundamental distortion in America’s democracy that remains to this day: the political power of rural and sparsely populated states. In essence, the distortion allows Republicans to win fewer actual votes but claim more legislative seats than Democrats. North and South Dakota, for example, have a combined population of roughly 1.7 million citizens, and yet have four US Senate seats between them. California, with a population of nearly 39 million, has two. Or take the example of the 2016 presidential election when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, yet lost the Electoral College to Donald Trump. Without this structural distortion, a legacy of the compromises of the Constitutional Convention, Prohibition might not have come to pass; it’s also possible that the conservative Supreme Court supermajority that overturned Roe wouldn’t exist either.