Star PBS filmmaker Ken Burns appeared on The Colbert Report Wednesday night to sell his new PBS documentary Prohibition. Perhaps he’d had a few drinks, because he tried to compare the political environment that passed Prohibition to today’s Tea Party. Both eras apparently demonized immigrants and ruined civility in politics, and speak in racist code words about “taking our country back.”
This is the kind of clumsy dot-to-dot drawing you get from spoiled millionaire documentarians who spend their off-hours making woozy cinematic valentines to "amazing, amazing" Ted Kennedy. It may have happened on Colbert, but it’s sad, not funny:
KEN BURNS: This is a story of single-issue campaigns that metasasize into horrible unintended consequences – the demonization of immigrants, smear campaigns and the loss of a civil discourse, and a whole group of people who feel –
STEPHEN COLBERT: but wait a second, how could be possibly understand a political system like that/
BURNS: Yeah (laughs), but wait! It gets even better! There’s more, you know. There’s a whole group of people who feel they’ve lost control of their country, and want to take it back. Do you know Ecclesiastes 1:9?
COLBERT: Of course.
BURNS: There is nothing new under the sun. This is – today.
This came right after Burns insisted Prohibition was favored by a broad coalition of strange bedfellows; the KKK and the NAACP, the radical socialist Wobblies and the capitalist barons. How is that like today?
At the Opinionator blog, New York Times columnist Timothy Egan takes the Burns "purists gone wild" thesis and runs with it, from Prohibition to Grover Norquist:
The coalition against drink was hardly a majority. The Anti-Saloon League played an outsized role at the margins, killing off moderates at the primary level, or in legislative deals, and forcing politicians to pledge to their cause.
Sound familiar? Today, virtually every Republican in national office, and a majority of those seeking the presidency, has taken a pledge to an unelected, single-issue advocate named Grover Norquist. His goal is to never allow a net tax increase — under any circumstances — and in the process reduce government to a size where he can “drown it in the bathtub,” in his well-known statement of mortal intentions.
In times of war, category 5 hurricanes or other national emergencies these mind-locked pledge-takers must answer to Norquist before country. “We are your constituents,” an angry voter said to pledge-bound Representative Chris Gibson, Republican of New York, at a town hall meeting last week, “not Grover Norquist.”
So, even though huge majorities support keeping Medicare and Social Security strong, and raising taxes on the very rich in the interest of sustainable government, one single-issue group drives national affairs — to the bafflement of average citizens. This dysfunction was on full display in August when Republicans nearly pushed the government into default by refusing to budge from their fealty to Norquist.
The other parallel from the dry years concerns personal liberties. With the 18th Amendment, the prohibitionists took away the right to make a basic choice. Gov. Rick Perry, now leading the Republican polls for president, has vowed to do the same, promising to amend the Constitution in several ways to take away freedoms. One would prevent gays from ever getting married. Another would outlaw a woman’s right to decide when to end a pregnancy. A third would repeal the 17th Amendment, which gives citizens the right to directly elect their senators.
Could any of this happen? It did, with Prohibition — the urge to dictate the private actions of citizens is a character trait that has never left the American gene pool.