In October 1931, union men in Newark, New Jersey, staged a protest march. During the previous two years, the United States had tumbled into economic depression, with the unemployment rate rising as the stock market sank. Industrial jobs were especially devastated, leading to dozens of unemployment rallies and anti-eviction protests across the country. But the Newark men took no interest in that. Instead, with their ranks stretching for block after block, they held up signs proclaiming their top political priority: We Want Beer. What they cared about, ardently and urgently, was bringing an end to the disastrous national experiment known as Prohibition.
In The War on Alcohol, Harvard historian Lisa McGirr seeks to explain this political passion: Why, at the height of the Great Depression, did so many Americans care so much about beer? The answer requires a sober look at Prohibition not as a quaint episode of moral overreach, but as a near-impossible challenge of governance and one of the most fiercely fought political contests of its day. McGirr shifts our attention from gangsters and flappers to policemen and agency chiefs in order to explain the critical role of Prohibition in the creation of the modern American state. Histories of temperance often stop in 1919, with the unlikely passage of the 18th Amendment. McGirr picks up where those stories leave off, exploring the daunting political problems and personal casualties that came with trying to enforce this strange new law.
With her emphasis on the American “state,” McGirr steps into what has become one of the most fruitful, if sprawling, areas of inquiry in academic political history. Half a century ago, political historians tended to write about the so-called great men: presidents, statesmen, legislators, and the like. Today, prodded by sociologists such as Theda Skocpol, they more often explore the “state,” shorthand for what is described outside of academia as the “government.” The word “state” has always been an awkward fit in the US context; for most Americans, it conjures up images of Connecticut or California rather than the Social Security Administration. Historians have nonetheless embraced the term, producing a spate of recent books like Warfare State, The Straight State, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, and Debating the American State. As academic shorthand, the word signals a set of concerns beyond elections and lawmaking, focusing instead on the grand structures and dark corners of government administration.
McGirr makes two main contributions to this debate. First, she notes that many studies of the American state have focused on the peculiarities of the country’s social-welfare system, with its odd blend of private and public insurance. By that standard, the 1920s seem to be a period when nothing much happened; “Wobbly Warren” Harding and “Silent Cal” Coolidge kept the shop running (more or less), but without the big ideas of the Progressive Era or the New Deal. McGirr shifts the focus from social reform and welfare legislation to the police, prisons, and courts—areas in which the 1920s were a period of tremendous government experimentation, energy, and growth.