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Constitutional Blemishes: American Alcohol Prohibition and Repeal as Policy Punctuation



Historical explanations for the American “noble experiment” with alcohol prohibition based on individual conspiracies, cultural changes, social movements, or self-interested bureaucracies are partial and unsatisfying. Recent advances in punctuated equilibrium theory shine new light on this historical enigma, providing a more persuasive account of the dramatic episodes associated with both constitutional prohibition and its repeal. Through longitudinal analysis of a unique data set reflective of early twentieth century public alcohol control sentiments, this article suggests that, as but one of a range of potential alcohol policy options, national alcohol prohibition was hardly a foregone conclusion. The ultimate adoption of prohibition over competing alcohol control alternatives, as well as its eventual repeal, can best be understood with reference to particular feedback processes inherent in the institutional structure of American policymaking, which readily account for both the mad dash for prohibition and the widespread clamor for repeal, which have traditionally eluded historical explanation.

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