Ward Room
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How "Prohibition" Explains Today's Politics

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    NEWSLETTERS

    You would expect Chicago to play a prominent role in Ken Burns’s latest documentary, Prohibition, which began airing Sunday night on WTTW (accompanied by an ad for Binny’s Beverage Depot, which ought to tell you how the producers feel about alcohol.)

    Chicago was the nation’s bootlegging capital in the 1920s. Nearly a century later, our international image is still inseparable from Al Capone.

    The first episode didn’t cover any of that, though. It covered the campaign to outlaw alcohol. In doing so, it revealed how temperance divided political factions that still exist today: regulars and reformers, or, to quote the more colorful title of a book on Chicago politics, “grafters and goo goos.”

    Motivated by a paternalistic desire to protect the morals of the working class and immigrants, the reformers were in favor of prohibition. Restricting alcohol was seen as a progressive cause. It was championed by the same people who agitated for women’s suffrage, the income tax, and the direct election of senators, and whose grandparents had agitated for the abolition of slavery. The headquarters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was and is in Evanston, to this day a bastion of upper-middle liberalism. (The Frances Willard House, home of the WCTU’s founder, is now a museum open on the first and third Sunday of each month.)

    Prohibition also introduced us to a grafter, Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, saloon keeper and alderman of the 1st Ward. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago History, Kenna “created in the 1890s a First Ward political machine based on graft and protection money from the saloons, brothels, and gambling halls of the Levee district, just south of the Loop.”

    His customers, needless to say, were the very working men Willard sought to protect from their vices. As Prohibition points out, advocates of temperance, or “drys,” tended to be small-town, native-born Protestants. Those who wanted to keep the liquor flowing, or “wets,” were immigrants and Catholics who saw attacks on drinking as attacks on their culture.

    The issue of Prohibition is long dead, but the political factions that fought over it are not. The descendants of the drys are reform groups such as the Better Government Association and the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, which draw their support from the wealthier, WASPier areas of Chicagoland: the lakefront, the North Shore, Hyde Park. The descendants of the wets are…pretty much every Democrat on the City Council and in the state legislature, elected by the voters the reformers are trying to protect.

    The grafters were right about Prohibition. The goo-goos were wrong. No wonder the grafters have been winning ever since.

    Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!