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by Daniel Okrent, AARP Bulletin, June 24, 2010
The Anti-Saloon league may not have been the first broad-based American pressure group, but it certainly was the first to develop the tactics and the muscle necessary to rewrite the Constitution. …
The two ideas that drove the ASL were focus and intimidation. The decision to declare war on alcohol and only on alcohol—to choose one target at which all the organization’s weapons could be fired—was a direct rebuke to the unfocused efforts of both the WCTU [Women’s Christian Temperance Union] and the Prohibition Party. Francis Willard’s “Do Everything” policy had been distracting (how could members concentrate on the Prohibition effort if they were also supporting the Armenians against the Turks, as they did in 1895?) and divisive (it was a rare antialcohol industrialist who would cooperate with an organization led by a socialist, even if a Christian one.) The Prohibition Party was no better; among the many reasons for its dismal electoral record—it had never gained more than 2.2 percent of the vote in a presidential election—was its earnest devotion to a list of diffuse (and sometimes nutty) causes ranging from government ownership of public utilities to judicial review of post office decisions. The ASL would abide no such diversions. “The Anti-Saloon League is not in politics as a party, nor are we trying to abolish vice, gambling, horse-racing, murder, theft, or arson,” one of its early leaders said. “The gold standard, the unlimited coinage of silver, protection, free trade and currency reform, do not concern us in the least.” They cared only about alcohol, and freeing the nation from its grip.
Strategically focused, the ASL could more effectively apply its intimidating tactics. “Intimidation” might seem too tough a word for the forthright application of democratic techniques, but as practiced by the ASL, democracy was a form of coercion. [Founder Howard Hyde] Russell was direct about this: “The Anti-Saloon League,” he said, “is formed for the purpose of administering political retribution.” The ASL did not seek to win majorities; it played on the margins, aware that if it could control, say, one-tenth of the voters in any close race, it could determine the outcome. Russell liked to cite rail baron Jay Gould’s credo—that he was a Republican when he was in Republican districts, a Democrat when he was in Democratic districts, but that he was always for the Erie Railroad. The ASL had no problem supporting a Republican today and a Democrat tomorrow, so long as the candidates were faithful on the only issue the league cared about. As an ASL official in Pennsylvania put it, there was “one big question mark before the name of every candidate for public office. Is he right on this question?”
Excerpted from Last Call by Daniel Okrent. Copyright © 2010 by Last Laugh, Inc. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Read an interview with Daniel Okrent.
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