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The Points Interview: Mark Schrad

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

The second installment in our continuing series of author interviews features Mark Lawrence Schrad, author of The Political Power of Bad Ideas: Networks, Institutions, and the Global Prohibition Wave (Oxford University Press, 2010).  Mark Schrad is currently Assistant Professor of Political Science at Villanova University.  After checking out the interview, readers may also wish to learn more about his current book project, Vodka Politics.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

Most people think of temperance and prohibition as a uniquely American phenomena, but as I demonstrate in The Political Power of Bad Ideas, temperance was one of the very

Cover of Mark Schrad's Bad Ideas

On the one hand, my book places the American experience with temperance and prohibition in its proper international context. On the other, I use this seemingly bizarre global event—the rapid international diffusion of a “bad” policy idea in the form of prohibition—to say something about how ideas travel, and how they are filtered within different domestic policymaking structures.

With these dual objectives in mind—one historical, and one theoretical—the book doesn’t read like a standard historical monograph. I first try to chart the origins and growth of a temperance movement that is truly transnational in scope beginning in the early nineteenth century. From there, I demonstrate how policy-relevant ideas came to influence policy in my three country studies—the United States, Sweden, and imperial Russia—based on extensive archival investigation in each of these countries. I argue that this approach does a better job in explaining a number of historical puzzles: how can we systematically account for both prohibition and repeal in the United States? Why didn’t Sweden adopt the bad policy of prohibition, even though some polls suggested that the overwhelming majority of Swedes were in favor of it? Why, of all places, was imperial Russia the world’s first prohibition nation, and how did Russian prohibition endure two revolutions, and the transition from Europe’s most conservative monarchy to the world’s first communist regime?

By the end, the focus shifts almost completely away from historical narrative to analysis of different institutions of national policymaking, and what we can discern about the effectiveness of early transnational advocacy networks in achieving their policy aims in various target countries.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Since this project is an eclectic mix of history, policy studies, comparative politics, sociology, international relations, and American, Scandinavian, and Russian area studies, I am hoping that the book brings some “outsider” perspective to the growing literature on alcohol history. In particular, I hope that alcohol historians will enjoy seeing how their works have the potential to teach a great deal to scholars in these other disciplines, and can be enriched by them in turn. At the very least, I hope placing the American experience with prohibition alongside parallel developments in other countries will broaden some horizons by showing that alcohol politics and alcohol history do not stop at the water’s edge.

On the flip-side, I hope that American alcohol historians appreciate the trade-off: that making broad comparisons requires occasional simplifications, and many of the rich historical details that make the American historical experience that we all find so fascinating unfortunately wound-up on the cutting-room floor. One thing I’ve learned in writing for all of the diverse literatures is that it is impossible to satisfy everyone. So while each community will find something of value to take away from the book, many can (and do!) point to shortcomings based exclusively on their own disciplinary standpoints.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

For me, the most interesting aspect was uncovering evidence of transnational policy learning over a century ago. In particular, it was fascinating to see what policymakers in other countries had to say about American prohibition.

Even before the Eighteenth Amendment and Volstead Act codified prohibition nationwide, many American states experimented with prohibition. My home state of Iowa, for instance, went through three different cycles of prohibition and repeal from 1855 and 1893, well before the so-called Prohibition Era. For policymakers both in the United States and in various European countries, this seemed to be a natural policy incubator to compare what policies—high license, dispensary systems, local option, prohibition and so on—“worked” and which ones did not. So, many European governments and concerned private citizens commissioned detailed studies of American state alcohol policies based on extensive fieldwork. Teams of policy researchers sailed for America, and oftentimes spent years traveling from state to state, interviewing policymakers and experts, studying relevant social indicators, and investigating the effectiveness of policies both in city and countryside. Their subsequent reports were extremely detailed and full of objective data, rather than the moralistic puritanism of the temperance movement. Consequently, they did not paint a glowing picture prohibition. For instance, a voluminous study by H. J. Boström conducted in 1906-1907 noted that seventeen states had experimented with prohibition, but it had been repealed everywhere except Kansas, North Dakota and Maine—the latter two having only been recently reinstated following contentious repeal episodes. A Swedish study from 1909 mocked the American förbudskomedien, or “prohibition comedy,” for its ineffectiveness at achieving even the most basic of its proponents’ goals.

Even a study from a semi-official Alcohol Commission in imperial Russia in 1898, based on solid and objective data on the American states, condescendingly advised against the ineffective policy of prohibition, “lest we follow in the footsteps of American temperance societies, like fanatics from the Middle Ages.”

Not only was the sheer quantity of these detailed, objective studies surprising, but so too was the degree to which these studies informed policy and policymakers. Somewhere buried in the footnotes of the book I commented that, for instance, many of the Swedish studies of American alcohol policy that I read in the holdings of the Labor Movement Archive in Stockholm came from the personal libraries of Prime Minister Hjalmar Branting and other influential politicians.

And it wasn’t just foreigners who had severe misgivings about the effectiveness of prohibition—objective studies conducted by the Committee of Fifty came to similar conclusions about the ineffectiveness of prohibition, which were shared by government bureaucrats and politicians throughout the era. Indeed, regardless of what Glenn Beck would have us believe, President Woodrow Wilson did not give us prohibition, but rather he vetoed the Volstead Act because he believed that experience showed it to be an ineffective policy. His veto was overridden by Congress later the same day, which as I argue in the book, tells us a great deal about the structure of American policymaking when compared to that in Sweden, Russia, or elsewhere.

This research really reinforced some of my cynicism about the frequently-used description of the Eighteenth Amendment as a “noble experiment,” which suggests nationwide prohibition was indeed some grand “experiment,” and that no one could have known that it would have been such an incredible failure until it was actually implemented in practice. Wrong. Based on objective study, policymakers the world over knew that it would fail—that it was a “bad idea”—or at the very least it was a far inferior option when compared to the other policies alternatives available at the time.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned.  What stone from The Political Power of Bad Ideas are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I really think that someone (other than his son) needs to write a biography of American temperance pioneer Robert Baird who, in the 1830s and 1840s travelled extensively in Europe, spreading both the word of temperance, as well as the exemplar of the American temperance movement—their lodges and pledges—to eager European audiences. He was granted an audience with the kings of France, Denmark, Prussia, Sweden, Russia, and innumerable queens, crown princes, princesses, barons, ministers, archbishops and liaisons. Baird may well have been the world’s first international ambassador advocating on behalf of a social cause rather than a country.

BONUS QUESTION: When Ken Burns makes a documentary of your book, who will do the voiceover?

I can’t even imagine that Ken Burns would make a documentary of my book. Back in 2005 or 2006, when I heard of his project on prohibition, I wrote his Florentine Film company, imploring them to also consider the international aspects of alcohol prohibition. As a lowly, then-unpublished graduate student, I should not have been surprised that a kindly-worded letter of disinterest was all that would come of it. But as long as we’re in the realm of the unfathomable, I’d have to go with the late Vincent Price.

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