The American left has long regarded itself as the antidote to the prudish puritanism displayed by the moralistic right. But as “liberalism” gave way to “progressivism,” this conceit has fallen away. As economic populism becomes fused with and is often superseded by the demands of identity politics, technocratic social engineering has once again become an urgent part of the progressive project. That urgency is accompanied by a sense of moral rectitude and historical inevitability. The result is a form of progressivism that looks a lot like the progressivism of the early 20th century.
The evidence for this trend is mounting, but nothing is so compelling as the revivification of the temperance movement. At the turn of the 20th century, advocacy for capital-“T” total abstention from alcohol was imbued with quasi-religious fervor, and the overlap among its advocates and first-wave feminists was considerable. This brand of overweening liberalism fell out of fashion when the mid-20th-century left indulged its libertine excesses, but it is making a comeback. Today, the argument that alcohol is uniquely pernicious for women, to say nothing of the general population, has surfaced again in an article published by the Atlantic’s Olga Khazan.
“Whatever happened to the anti-alcohol movement?” the article asks. As an exploration of the history of anti-alcohol advocacy in the United States, Khazan’s work is most valuable. As social analysis, though, it verges on the conspiratorial. After noting the potentially debilitating effects of chronic alcohol consumption and its record of contributing to preventable deaths, Khazan attributes America’s love affair with booze to “decades of careful marketing and lobbying efforts.” The alcohol industry itself has led successful efforts to “normalize and exculpate drinking.”
It could not be that American drinkers simply enjoy it. “Beyond how it tastes and feels, there’s very little good to say about the health impacts of booze,” Khazan notes. Indeed, its taste and intoxicating effects are generally alcohol’s two primary value propositions. There are better polar solvents on the market.
“Regardless of how much Americans love to drink, the country could be safer and healthier if we treated booze more like we treat cigarettes,” Khazan closes. If so, we get a relatively good idea of how the neo-temperance movement would pursue its vision—seeing as the constitutional remedy has been all but closed off, given the verdict history rendered on the Prohibition era. Advocates of a less boozy America would attach a stigma to alcohol consumption, up to and including its substitutes. More important, they would levy onerous taxes on the sale of the product. These burdens may limit Americans’ alcohol intake, but sin taxes are also particularly regressive. Higher-income Americans may not notice the increased cost, but those on the lower end of the economic spectrum surely would. For a movement that is particularly obsessed with classist prejudices, modern progressives seem incapable of identifying those bigotries in themselves.
The progressive impulse to limit the freedoms enjoyed by those perceived to be too irresponsible to have access to them isn’t entirely theoretical. At the left-leaning explainer site Vox.com, the great experiment is already underway. In late 2017, at the height of the #MeToo-era’s reckoning, the institution implemented a new policy designed to reduce the chances that its male employees would forget themselves and take advantage of their female employees. After the media outlet fired its editorial director over allegations of sexual harassment, Vox announced it would limit the number of free drinks available to its employees to just two. This was part of a company-wide effort to impose “tighter policies around alcoholic beverages at company events” to ensure that all “interactions meet the highest standard of professionalism.” Implicit in this directive is the assumption that Vox’s employees cannot be trusted to behave professionally in the presence of unlimited intoxicants.
There is, of course, nothing wrong (indeed, a lot right) with imbibing in moderation, which in the absence of a legal prohibition results only from the exercise of self-restraint. But the presumption that individuals are capable of that kind of agency is absent from Khazan’s article, just as it’s not apparent in Vox’s assumptions about its staff. Indeed, the Atlantic’s first appeal is to the state to rescue us from ourselves. It’s infantilizing and uncharitable. It invites hypocrisy and selective enforcement. It represents a determination to repeat the mistakes of the past with the assumption that we are somehow more enlightened than our predecessors. It is, in short, the essence of modern progressivism.