Schumer is Ignorant and Wrong About the Temperance Movement

They were the kind of liberal reformers who today go to work as community organizers.

Not the Tea Party Not the Tea Party

Senator Schumer's op-ed attempts to draw a line connecting the Tea Party and the Temperance movement. It's probably an idea that he thought was clever because they're both liquids that people drink and political movements.

The second deep-seated force that fueled the emergence of the tea party is the rapid pace of change in America's cultural, technological and demographic makeup. Let me draw a historical analogy here to the temperance movement.

In the 1880s the U.S. was a rural country and people were on farms and small towns living a clean life. By 1920, America had been urbanized and diversified because of manufacturing, immigration, and so many other forces. And the cities were a totally different way of life with slums, bars and dance clubs, emerging suburbs and country clubs.

Prohibition was not simply about abolishing alcohol; it was an attempt by rural Americans to pull their country back to an agricultural ideal that was being rapidly replaced by a new cultural and economic order.

Just as the temperance movement at the turn of the last century convinced its millions of followers that if you simply got rid of alcohol, America would almost magically revert back to the American they preferred, the tea party elite have manipulated their millions of grassroots followers to believe the same about government at this moment in time.

You don't have to know much history to see how the analogy breaks down in the final paragraph. The temperance movement was fighting liquor. The Tea Party is fighting big government.

But without going into the Tea Party issues, which others have already addressed, let's look at the temperance movement instead.

Senator Schumer is, predictably enough, reciting a revisionist leftist version of American history. Reducing the Temperance movement to reactionary anti-urban and anti-immigrant sentiments is looking at history through a Marxist lens.

This is what happens when your history comes from Howard Zinn instead of actual history.

The idea that the temperance movement was some special American rural reaction doesn't hold up because it wasn't an American movement. (Sorry Charlie, it's not all about America.) It had a far more to do with trends within Christianity at the time than with a rural ideal, which had already come apart.

The temperance movement was also part of a larger multi-pronged attack on social breakdown. The campaigns on liquor are best remembered because of Prohibition, but there were aggressive efforts to raise the age of consent for girls, campaigns against prostitution and for cleanliness. Many of these campaigns were Christian in nature, but would either morph into the left or be taken over by the left.

Schumer is viewing Prohibition as a unique event. It wasn't. It was the outgrowth of a previous century of social reform and turmoil.

Finally, the American Temperance movement was often associated with a liberal strain of reform, particularly in New England. Some of these people did have a weakness for agrarian utopianism, but that was a general problem for the left until fairly recently when it decided to abandon rural areas and entrench in the cities.

The people most likely to push temperance were exactly the kind of liberal reformers who today go to work as community organizers.

They weren't the rural gun-clinging Tea Partiers that Charles Schumer imagines them to be. They were anti-slavery, anti-Catholic, pro-Negro, social reformers who fought urban political bosses with vigor, were wealthy, lived in cities, would eventually favor Socialist schemes, opposed immigration and were ahead of their time in gender roles and had a tendency to believe in communication with spirits and the coming of a new age of transcendence.

For all the strange twists and turns that history would take, they were people whom Senator Schumer would recognize quite well.

Let's look at the example of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union which stood for things such as...

shelters for abused women and children
the eight-hour work day
equal pay for equal work
pure food and drug act
world peace

Not exactly the Tea Party.