These are the necessities of politics: exposure, campaign contributions, volunteers and votes. If you want to reward or punish politicians, these are the tools at your disposal. If, like the Anti-Saloon League in the early 20th century, you hope to achieve massive national political change, you’ll need to cast your web wide to find dedicated allies across the country.
The ASL focused like a laser on one issue, Prohibition. Its goal was to pass anti-liquor laws. This tight focus allowed the ASL to reach out to a diverse coalition of allies.
[Texas Sen. Morris] Sheppard was a Yale man, a Shakespeare scholar and one of the Senate’s leading progressive figures. But all that mattered to [ASL lobbyist Wayne] Wheeler was that Sheppard also believed that the liquor sellers preyed most dangerously on the poor and uneducated.
In fact, Wheeler’s devotion to the dream of a dry America accommodated any number of unlikely allies. Billy Sunday, meet pioneering social worker Jane Addams: you’re working together now. The evangelical clergy of the age were motivated to support Prohibition because of their faith; reformers like Addams signed on because of the devastating effect that drunkenness had on the urban poor. Ku Klux Klan, shake hands with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW): you’re on the same team. The Klan’s anti-liquor sentiment was rooted in its hatred of the immigrant masses in liquor-soaked cities; the IWW believed that liquor was a capitalist weapon used to keep the working classes in a stupor.
Progressives, labor unions, evangelicals, the Klan and women’s suffragists did not have much in common. Although they all strongly agreed on the “evil” of alcohol, they had very different and sometimes counter-intuitive reasons for doing so.
The ASL realized this and was able to bring together a powerful cross-cultural coalition, spanning loyalties and ideologies. The Prohibition movement’s broad coalition helped it reach into communities all over the nation, and it became an overwhelming force.
The lesson is clear. If you want to achieve significant policy change, you need to look for allies who might be equally dedicated to this narrow cause, outside an obvious political or tribal identity. People can be dedicated advocates for your issue but for completely different reasons. This means not just working with your enemies but repackaging your sales pitch for different audiences. Finding out how to do that is critical for building popular support.