In my column for CNN, I discuss the possibility that abortion might one day become a non-issue in politics:
And yet — incredible as it sounds now — there is reason to expect that the abortion issue may someday just vanish from national politics. After all, that’s what happened to the last great moral issue to rattle the American party system: alcohol prohibition.
For 70 years from the end of the Civil War to the Great Depression, a human lifetime, the “drys” and the “wets” mustered all the passion, commitment, and moralism of the pro-life and pro-choice movements of our day.
“It is my opinion that the saloonkeeper is worse than a thief and a murderer. The ordinary thief steals only your money, but the saloonkeeper steals your honor and your character. The ordinary murderer takes your life, but the saloonkeeper murders your soul.”
That’s from the famous “booze sermon” of Billy Sunday, the great popular preacher of the 1910s and 1920s. Thousands of such passionate speeches — millions more passionate words — were uttered by names now brown with history: William Jennings Bryan, Carrie Nation, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It was not all talk. Ferocious legislative battles were bought to prohibit alcohol at the county, state and then ultimately national level. The great scholar of American politics, Judith Shklar, estimated to her graduate students that through the long run of American history, more elections at more levels of government have turned on alcohol than any other issue, including slavery.
Politicians hated the alcohol issue for the same reason they now dislike the abortion issue: It sliced apart the existing party structure.
The Republicans could not win a national majority without the support of Protestant immigrants from Germany in cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis. The Democrats could not win without the enthusiastic support of Irish Catholics in New York and New England. City-dwelling Germans and Irish intensely resented attempts of their country-dwelling neighbors to regulate their behavior for them.
“If they don’t feel like takin’ a glass of beer on Sunday, we must abstain,” a contemporary Irish-American politician bitterly complained. “If they have not got any amusements up in their backwoods, we mustn’t have none.”
National politicians responded to Prohibition then in the same way they respond to abortion now: by looking for ways to avoid and de-escalate a destabilizing issue. “Questions based upon temperance, religion, morality, in all their multiplied forms, ought not to be the basis of politics,” declared Senator John Sherman of Ohio in 1873. “We don’t want to alienate anybody!” complained a Michigan Republican leader of the 1880s as quoted in a contemporary newspaper.
As Richard Jensen observes in his classic history, “The Winning of the Midwest”, “Very few prominent Republican politicians were abstainers … The politicians were not less likely to be churchgoers (many voters, after all, attended church), but they had developed their own standards of personal morality.” Then as now!
And yet a century later … the issue is dead. Vanished. Forgotten. What happened?