Single Use Politics

Wayne Wheeler was born in Ohio. While working on the family farm, one of the farm workers stabbed him with a hayfork. The worker was drunk. This incident led to a lifetime crusade against the consumption of alcohol.

When studying at Oberlin College, he was offered a part-time job with the Anti-Saloon League (ASL). It was an ideal job for Wheeler which continued after college. While working for the ASL, Wheeler earned his legal degree.

He became the legal counsel for the ASL, bringing lawsuits to restrict the production, sale, and use of alcohol. Wheeler subsequently became the executive director of the ASL. He led the ASL to advocate for the prohibition of alcohol as opposed to treatment and education on responsible drinking.

Under Wheeler’s leadership, the ASL began to enter political campaigns and opposed candidates who did not support prohibition. This single-issue activism became known as Wheelerism. This single issue targeting of politicians became effective in defeating candidates who were not true believers.

When President Taft vetoed an early attempt at the prohibition of alcohol, the ASL had enough support in Congress to override his veto. The problem was that the federal government depended on revenue from alcohol sales. When the 16th Amendment was enacted authorizing income taxes, the dependence on alcohol revenues declined.

The ASL was in position to pass an amendment outlawing the production, sale, and use of alcohol. Wheeler worked in Congress to pass the Volstead Act and the 13th Amendment.

Eventually, Wheeler’s influence declined as the prohibition of alcohol was unenforceable. Increasing crime and deaths caused by the addition of poisons to industrial alcohol led to the repeal of the 18th

While Wheeler lost his legacy in the prohibition of alcohol, he did leave another legacy. It is a legacy that has become a plague on American democracy. That legacy is one of single-issue politics. Candidates for office have played to constituents’’ single-use obsessions. The inability of Congress to achieve compromise on vital national issues is the consequence of single-issue obstinacy. While the term Wheelerism is little-known today, the unfortunate legacy of single-use activism is a real threat to America.

Just imagine how our national political scene would change if elected officials were not worried about the influence of single-issue activists. Might the tough issues of our time actually get resolved?

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“There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we don’t live single issue lives.”
                                                                                                 – Audre Lorde (author, professor)

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