When the Minnesota government shut down at the beginning of July, there were several days of relatively sober, national-level conversations taking place about the implications of the impasse. Nationally, many see this as a preview of deficit-produced budget battles to come and a microcosm of national problems. Fortunately for Minnesotans, the shutdown—at twenty days the longest state shutdown in modern American history—was resolved last Thursday after Democratic governor Mark Dayton dropped his demands for a tax increase on the state’s wealthiest residents and the GOP-controlled legislature agreed to abandon its social agenda and attempts to lay off fifteen percent of the state’s workforce.
But when it was reported on July 13 that beer distributed by beverage giant MillerCoors—and the bars in which it was served—was predicted to become the next casualty of the state shutdown, the story got some serious pick-up in papers around the world.
With so many other glaringly important issues at stake, this may seem trivial—perhaps even reminiscent of The Simpsons, when the voters of Springfield rioted over a lack of beer and cable TV. To some, it probably seemed absurd that MillerCoors, which had to pull its product from state shelves because of improperly filed paperwork, might exert some influence on state politics when construction, road maintenance, motor vehicle registration and parks had already fallen victim to the shutdown.
And while MillerCoors is, by far, the biggest kid on the block, small liquor retailers have been affected, too. Bars require the state to issue paperwork to get the beer flowing again and, so, hundreds of small businesses faced an uncertain future. Since bars tend to operate on tight margins and count on summer sales, this was a potentially devastating situation for many small business owners. The Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association appealed for the judicial process to intervene and force the state to process the pending permits. Judge Kathleen Blatz (who, to our knowledge, has no familial connection to the legendary Blatz brewery in Milwaukee that produced beer for some one hundred years) ruled that the judicial branch could not solve the problem.
Those who have paid close attention to the role alcohol and bars have played in American history will realize that “stamps” rather famously played a role in tavern politics once before, namely as one more intolerable tax British colonial powers imposed on tavern-owners shortly before the American Revolution. And many have argued that the hardships levied upon liquor importers, producers and retailers was a major factor in the success of the Revolution.
This may sound like an “alcohol determinist” point of view but, what it is, instead, is a small strand of economic determinism. The fact is, prior to the American Revolution, alcohol was a pretty serious commodity and, as a result, those who dealt in its import, production and distribution were major players, politically, economically and socially.
Rum was the game in colonial America. The tariffs most objected to were the ones that intervened with the production of rum in the new world. The Molasses Act and the Sugar Act were two of the most notable early points of contention. Of course, instituting taxes was one thing. What led many to conspire to revolt was that, leading up to the revolution, it became clear the Brits were going to get serious about enforcing these tariffs. This has led many to proclaim that the founding fathers were really just a bunch of louts trying to smuggle alcohol into the country to evade taxes.
That’s only a portion of the picture, though. In addition, many members of the Sons of Liberty were also tavern-keepers. And the tavern is where much public opinion was formed in the eighteenth century. Tavern-keepers were prominent community members—the “influencers” of the day. Taverns were communications hubs. It was in these spaces that news was shared and debated and where tavern-keepers served as moderators. At least as far back as the Boston Caucus, which formed in the early eighteenth century, this was where power was consolidated. Sam the Publican, for example, owed at least part of his success to his popularity in the local taverns and the ease with which he negotiated that medium. Thomas Paine’s famed work, Common Sense, was read aloud in these spaces and the network of Sons of Liberty taverns acted as propaganda cells in a larger web of public spaces. It’s no coincidence that the millennial internet phenomenon of blogging was compared to pamphleteering, which operated in and out of the taverns of the day.
Ever since the successful overthrow of British rule, the American government has been left with the no small question of what to do with the public space that is the tavern. And ever since Benjamin Rush suggested the tavern could be used to subvert democracy, there has been a battle over that sphere.
Rush’s observation was a good one. The tavern was used, in part, for debate and action by those who wished to keep democracy pure, but, simultaneously by those who wished to exploit the system. The buying of votes through alcohol sales was rampant throughout the nineteenth century as “machine” politics established itself in taverns and, as the century progressed, urban saloons—still important community centers—were often in the pockets of corrupt politicians. The Democrats became known as the party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion,” even though they were hardly the only party to campaign in the bar. The possibly apocryphal tale of the Ward 8 cocktail, which is said to have been raised to celebrate Boston political boss Martin M. Lomasney’s electoral victory (and alternatively is said to have originated in an area of New York rife with corrupt saloons), speaks to the very secure and unapologetic connection between drinking and politics in America.
On the flip side, we see that Fries’s Rebellion, Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion, all small, basically agrarian insurrections in which the questions raised—“what is democracy?”, “what is America?”, and “where will we go?”—all originated in populist taverns of the day. This rights-expanding tradition of raising rabble in bars continued throughout the nineteenth century when new immigrants, urban Democrat candidates, German anarchists, socialists and labor activists met in saloons to organize. In fact, although not a total slam-dunk, it’s easy to make the case that the Volstead Act, which outlawed the production and distribution of alcohol, was aimed squarely at curtailing the power of the tavern (and saloon, as it was more commonly referred to in the latter half of the nineteenth century). It was seen as a place for rabble-rousers and nascent bourgeois groups, like the African Americans who operated saloons in Atlanta and were targets in the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906.
And it’s worth pointing out that repeal in 1933, which re-established drinking in America, was, at least in part, an attempt to raise government revenues. Be mindful here that the institution of Prohibition had only been made possible after the establishment of a federal income tax and, when the depression cut into that stream, politicians eyed alcohol as a way to replenish the coffers.
Drawing parallels to today’s bars seems at least a little bit tricky, since the function of the tavern has altered so monumentally. Most of the aforementioned historical groups had literally nowhere other than taverns in which to organize. Post-Prohibition, the bar has, at least, managed to exert itself as a powerful force a couple of times—once, when women campaigned to get into men’s only bars (since that’s where business decisions were informally made), and again, when gay bars played a very similar role to pre-revolutionary taverns in the lead-up to the Stonewall Riots and the ensuing gay pride movement.
Aside from the splashy and well-known political battles, today’s neighborhood bar remains a place where a small segment of the political sphere is formed. It has been supplanted by the many other political forums in media, at universities, in community centers, in the arts, at the polls, and in the civic, legislative and judicial branches of the government. This is undoubtedly a very good thing, since debates over the future of American debt and government surely belong in a sober space.
But, to many, the bar is still an important third place, where politics—especially local and state politics—are discussed and debated. And, for at least the second time in history (but, arguably, the umpteenth), the tapster’s livelihood is being directly affected by the political upheaval of the day. The optics of shutting down a very organic and informal center of debate—the bar—can’t be overlooked.
Minnesota’s government went back to work on Thursday, meaning that Miller Lite, Coors, and Pabst Blue Ribbon aren’t going to be pulled from store shelves anytime soon, nor will Minnesotans be locked out of their favorite bars. But it was not the 22,000 furloughed state employees, the shuttered state parks, or the closed motor vehicle bureaus that finally brought the reality of the shutdown home to many state residents—it was the specter of unavailable beer, wine, and spirits.
Christine Sismondo is a writer and lecturer in English at Ryerson University in Toronto. She is the author of “America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns, Saloons, Speakeasies, and Grog Shops.“