100 years since Prohibition: Could it happen again?

100 years since Prohibition: Could it happen again?
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In the annals of American public policy failures, one of the biggest and most disastrous is about to have its 100th anniversary. A person might even be inclined to raise a toast for this anniversary in a truly ironic way.

Jan.17, 2020, marks a century since the United States implemented Prohibition. Unlike other major anniversaries, such as women winning the right to vote, there is no commission to honor this anniversary, no big media events, no public recognitions.

But we would be wise to learn from the failures of this national constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages that lasted from 1920 to 1933.

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Historians view Prohibition as a flop because people kept drinking and it created an underground economy that led to the rise of gangsters such as Al Capone. Law-abiding Americans found themselves becoming entrenched in the criminal world just because they wanted to drink beer.

It’s critical that we realize all this happened because of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Unfortunately, not enough people understand it all.

Only 15 percent of Americans we surveyed knew when the Framers wrote the Constitution; most incorrectly thought it occurred in 1776. Twenty percent of New Yorkers answered the question correctly, the highest percentage of any state; West Virginians came in last, with only 9 percent knowing that the Constitution was written in 1787.

Only 25 percent of Americans knew how many amendments there are to the document. Montana residents topped the country with 30 percent of residents able to identify the correct answer, and Hawaii rounded out the list with just 17 percent able to identify that there are 27 amendments in the Constitution.

In addition, when given a multiple-choice question about the First Amendment, 25 percent of Americans didn’t know that freedom of speech was guaranteed under the First Amendment. Others identified the right to “bear arms” (11 percent) and “no one shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property” (8 percent), when in fact those are in the Second and 14th Amendments, respectively. Wyoming residents did the best on this question, with 85 percent identifying this correctly. New Yorkers were the worst in the U.S., falling well below the average with only 66 percent answering this correctly.

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Perhaps high school students, who are conceivably studying the Constitution right now, might have more excitement about the topic. In fact, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation found fewer than one-third of today’s high school students said social studies would be important to them after graduation; only the arts were seen as holding less value. 

Half of those students surveyed believe that American history knowledge is very important to help understand current events and to be a responsible citizen.

A quarter of students say learning history is exciting, while female students are most likely to say it is not. A quarter of students also found learning American history to be “bad” or “boring.”

Adults and students can use Prohibition as a way to overcome this knowledge deficit. Prohibition demonstrated how our system of government can work. It began because concerned citizens petitioned the government. After its failures were recognized, other citizens, including the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, were able to end the alcohol ban.

In retrospect, historians, activists and public policy experts are more aware of the unintended consequences that can result from well-meaning legislation that’s unrealistic. It’s essential that all of us understand the power of the Constitution — for this anniversary and beyond.

Patrick Riccards is the chief communications and strategy officer for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, N.J.