Smithsonian historian says democracy could use the saloons of old

Historians in the News
tags: election 2016



Jon Grinspan, a historian at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, is the author of “The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century.”

… Between 1890 and 1920, Prohibitionists closed saloons on Election Day, then in whole counties, then states, and finally across the nation. By shuttering saloons, they suppressed poor people’s votes. Many of us are (finally) familiar with the atrocious Jim Crow voting laws used to kill Southern black politics. But this is the lesser-known story of Jim Crow’s white, Northern cousin, the forgotten movement to snatch democracy from the working classes.

For their part, many upwardly mobile laborers joined in a historic bargain, trading saloons for the promise of the middle class. As one union man wrote during Prohibition, “there is neither profit nor pleasure in getting drunk,” instead, laborers get “more ‘kick’ out of an auto or a decent home than out of the corner saloon.”

For nearly a century, this was a very good trade. But in 2016, we see what was lost. Neither work nor unions nor “decent homes” seem stable anymore. And older social institutions like saloons, constructed to cope with such instability, are long gone. In the gap between the two, poorer communities tend to have weaker civic institutions, higher levels of social isolation, and far lower rates of voting.

Bringing back the saloon will not solve America’s problems. And there are, of course, major substance abuse concerns today. But the point of the saloon was never the lager. It was the shared institution. Today it often feels as if the only shared spaces are big-box checkout lines and fast-food parking lots. What we need, more than tweets or memes, is the kind of civic life that transpires when men and women gather face to face and, as a fan of old saloons put it, “political matters ebb and flow free as froth on the beer.”





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