The Agenda

Status Politics

My latest column for The Daily is on status politics:

In 1963, sociologist Joseph Gusfield published “Symbolic Crusade,” a fascinating book on the history of America’s temperance and Prohibition movements. By midcentury, Prohibition was mostly remembered as a collective lapse into insanity. Yet as Gusfield made clear, Prohibition was more than that. It grew out of a broader reformist tradition in American life. Just as the Progressive movement promised to cleanse democratic politics of corruption through civil service reform and rule by experts, the Prohibition movement promised to combat the moral rot that, in the view of its members, threatened to consume the nation.For both the Progressive and Prohibition movements, the threat to civilization was often identified with Catholics, immigrants and urbanites, groups that America’s rural, Protestant, native-born majority saw as alien and hostile. There was also a class element, as middle-class Protestant mothers panicked over the supposed threat posed by drunken Catholic workers, or by anarchist radicals from Sicily and Russia. It was immigrants who were blamed for corrupt political machines in the nation’s biggest cities, and it was immigrants for whom the use of alcohol was an essential part of cultural and religious life.

Lingering just beneath the surface of the Prohibition movement was an anxiety over rapid demographic change. What had been an overwhelmingly rural Protestant majority was melting away as cities teemed with immigrants and their growing families. Some immigrant groups, like the Irish and the Italians, started flexing their political muscle, and asserting that they had as much of a right to determine the American future as citizens of British and German stock. Prohibition was, in a sense, a way to put the newcomers in their place — to demonstrate that the United States did not belong to the new arrivals from Southern and Eastern Europe, and that the shrinking Protestant majority would not go down without a fight.

We are living through a similar moment. In the space of just a few years, two grass-roots political rebellions have erupted in the United States.

And both of them, I go on to argue, reflect anxieties of Americans who feel that they are losing ground economically and, just as importantly, socially.