Group processes and communication on the Prohibition Issue

Norman Jackman and Muzafer Sherif
Institute of Group Relations, University of Oklahoma

This paper touches upon the background of the present prohibition issue in a "dry" state, the groups involved, the impact of functionally related organizations, stereotypes of "wets" and "drys," interpretations of pressure tactics used by the in-group and the adversary, and briefly upon factors emerging under prevailing conditions. It is intended to serve as the starting point for a social-psychological study of wet and dry groups and their communications.

Oklahoma is the only state in the nation which completely bans the production and sale of spiritous liquor. Five attempts at repeal of the prohibition clause in the state constitution since the statehood referendum of 1907 and one attempt, in 1957, to restrict the sale of 3.2 beer, have failed.

The Referendum as a Focal Issue. The prohibition issue in Oklahoma reaches a climax every few years in a popular referendum. An approaching referendum serves as a focal point of interest for members of the groups concerned with the issue. When the issue touches the motives or interests of individuals, or group pressures are brought to bear on them, the uncommitted and unconcerned are forced to make decisions and so declare themselves. Lines are sharpened among community organizations as they tend to cluster about the poles of wetness or dryness. During this process groups may be torn by internal dissension.

After a prohibition referendum has been decided by popular vote, stereotypes of opposing groups which developed prior to voting are strengthened. Of course, an overwhelming victory destroys the opposition, but if decisions are close, as they have been in the past, the aspirations of victorious organizations are raised, while those of the losers are temporarily lowered. Thus, after the continued defeat of repeal measures, Oklahoma drys submitted a measure for local option which would

(266) have prohibited in various counties even the sale of 3.2 beer. Another referendum for the repeal of the prohibition clause is expected in the near future, following the defeat of the local option measure.

In-group and Intergroup Ties. The norms of wet and dry groups are those traditions, values, and definitions which are accepted by members as intrinsically right and proper. They serve as guides for the conduct of members as they interact with one another, with members of opposing groups, and within the wider community. These norms are subject to change over time as the composition of groups changes and as new social, economic, and political factors develop.

Since most individuals belong to many associations and organizations, conflicts among divergent norms may occur. For example, some members of church sects with militant prohibitionist orientations depend for their livelihoods on the brewery industry. Because of status aspirations, others with strong dry motivations will attend functions where liquor is served. Furthermore, groups with diametrically opposed norms may find themselves aligned on the prohibition issue. Thus, dry organizations are embarrassed by a common interest they share with bootleggers.

The common norms of organizations concerned with the prohibition issue cause them to unite in the pursuit of their aims and goals. The most effective organizations are those which pursue the single goal of prohibition, or its repeal. Thus, the liquor industry and the brewers, on the one hand, and the United Drys and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, on the other, function as leading organizations in the pursuit of their respective aims. Of course, the tendency of organizations to guard jealously their autonomy creates intergroup conflicts among organizations sharing common norms. For example, the anti-Saloon League was hostile to the Prohibition Party during the eighties and nineties of the last century because the former endorsed candidates of both major parties who were supporters of the dry cause. The Prohibition Party split the vote by entering their own candidates.[2]

Today in Oklahoma the United Drys and the W.C.T.U. work very closely with most Protestant sects. They recruit members through the established churches' recreational and educational organizations, and those of their leaders who are ordained ministers preach the gospel of total abstinence from the pulpit.[3] Conversely, the liquor interests enlist the support of business organizations, community service clubs, and labor unions.


Pressure Tactics. Prohibition has been largely a rural movement from the beginning. Charles Merz [4] has pointed out that only thirteen states had attempted total prohibition before the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1920. These states covered more than a third of the area of the United States, but held only one seventh of its population.

The prohibition movement remains largely a rural movement, as do the Protestant groups from which it draws its strength. As Odegard has noted,[5] the rural church is the principal center of social life and reflects such rural values as hostility toward the metropolis and toward the foreigner. Actually, the rural church is not a monolithic entity. Hostility toward urbanites and support of moral reform are strongest in the more fundamentalistic Protestant groups: the Baptists, the Methodists, the Assembly of God Church, and the Christian Church. Other Protestant groups, Catholics, and Jews represent a more sophisticated segment of the population and reflect the more tolerant drinking habits of their congregations. As organized groups they do not actively participate in the dry movement, though a small minority of their congregations belong to such organizations as the United Drys and the W.C.T.U.

The wet movement is spearheaded by distillers and, in the case of beer referendums, by brewers, who mobilize support during a campaign from business and service organizations, veterans' organizations, and political groups. Groups with the single goal of fighting dry legislation arise and are active for the duration of the campaign, after which they dissolve.

Traditional and Emergent Factors. The norms and values of opposing groups in the present prohibition issue in Oklahoma are based on the traditions of the movement as it developed nationally during the nineteenth century. From a study of the W.C.T.U., Joseph Gusfield[6] concluded that this group has not changed its doctrine in order to preserve its organization, though the characteristics of its membership have changed. In its statement of aims when it organized in 1874, the W.C.T.U. stressed Christianity and abstinence.[7] In the February 1958 issue of The Christian Patriot, the Reverend John Coleman, D.D., Ph.D., professor emeritus of political science, Geneva College, wrote that

(268) the Woman's Christian Temperance Union has two aims: it is a society that seeks universal personal total abstinence and the adoption of local, state, and national prohibition, and secondly, the exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ and personal acceptance of him as Saviour and King.[8]

The values and tactics of the dry movement may be summarized as follows : (1) the consumption of alcoholic beverages is evil and should be prohibited by law, (2) those who advocate the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages are evil, misled, sick, or foreigners, and (3) they are more powerful politically and financially, but "God is on our side and the Truth shall prevail," through education, political pressure, and the mobilization of religious organizations.

The values and tactics of the wet resistance to prohibition may be summarized as follows : (1) drinking is a matter of personal decision, and the Constitution of the United States guarantees every man the right of his personal decision in matters not affecting the general welfare, (2) the liquor traffic is a legitimate business and, under laissez-faire capitalism, should not be the subject of special legislation, (3) facts prove that the free production and consumption of alcoholic beverages reduces crime, contempt for the law, alcoholism, and taxation, and (4) these values shall be implemented through advertising, political pressure, and the mobilization of business and service organizations.

In-Group and Out-Group Stereotypes. Both wet and dry groups standardize judgment of their members and of the adversary. In-group members view themselves as reasonable men who simply advocate that which any honest, right-thinking person must recognize as truth. On the other Band, they view their adversaries in an equally stereotypic manner, but as polar opposites. As Sherif and Sherif pave indicated, "stereotypes can be taken as one index of social distance,"[9] which develops out of the history of groups in conflict over divergent interests. Here we can present only a small sample of stereotypic statements from several periods of wet-dry conflict.

As with all in-groups following diametrically opposite goals, drys and wets pave standardized favorable stereotypes in regard to their values and goals and unfavorable stereotypes for the adversary. Prior to national prohibition, established in 1920, the enemies of total abstinence were viewed as un-American foreigners and greedy corrupters for profit of all that was fine, Christian, and democratic in this country. At the

( 269) same time, dry organizations constantly presented a picture of their members as representative of all that was good, righteous, and patriotic. They identified themselves with God and Christianity.[10]

Wet groups viewed their opponents as "canting hypocrites and jesuitical grafters,"[11] and themselves as representatives of hard-working, child-rearing, honest immigrants.

Since the repeal of national prohibition in 1933, dry forces pave generally been on the defensive. Values regarding social drinking pave changed under increased urbanization and industrialization. Gusfield noted the occupations of the husbands of local W.C.T.U. leaders in thirty-eight cities in five states from 1885 to 1950. Using this factor as an index of socioeconomic status, he concluded that there pas been a steady decrease in skilled and professional groups within the prohibition movement. The awareness of this shift is recognized by present W.C.T.U. members whom Gusfield interviewed.

Recent Interviews. Interviews recently conducted among members of both wet and dry groups in Oklahoma substantiate Gusfield's findings and point to a number of other factors. The factor of revenue is of increasing importance, particularly since the beginning of the present recession which pas cut deeply into state tax revenues needed for the development of schools, highways, and aid to the needy. In this initial interviewing we were concerned with members' stereotypes of themselves and of the adversary and the tactics of organizations mobilized over the issue of prohibition.

The stereotypic attitude of drys toward their opponents is illustrated by the statement of the chairman of a county United Drys group: "The leading proponents of repeal. . .are conniving, cheap and petty. They are misguided through satanic influence."

On the other hand, the stereotypic attitude of wets toward their adversary is illustrated by the statement of an editor of a newspaper advocating repeal: "There is a lot of hypocrisy which is illustrated by some people who teach Sunday School on Sunday and at other times use a complete bar in their basement for parties. . . . They drink wet and vote dry."

In contrast to this statement, the local leader of a United Drys unit declared that many politicians "vote dry and drink wet." The same

( 270) pattern of behavior is attributed by each group to the adversary.

The attitude of the drys toward themselves is illustrated by the statement of a former leader of a W.C.T.U. unit: "Of course ours is a Christian organization. Being on the side of the Christian people, we take the Bible as our guide."

The attitude of wets toward themselves is illustrated by a man who was formerly active in politics and in dry organizations: "I am more or less objective about it. Liquor means little to me, but I realize that the law enforcement of prohibition is costing a great deal of money and will have little effect on illegal activities concerning liquor. A pretense at law enforcement creates an attitude of contempt."

These indications of stereotypes of the out-group are pertinent to results of an earlier study of communication on the prohibition issue carried out in Oklahoma during the year following the most recent referendum on repeal, and recently reported by Hovland, Harvey, and Sherif.[12] In that study it was found that a communication presenting a strongly antiprohibition or a proprohibition position was viewed by listeners with opposing stands on the issue as "propagandistic" and "unfair." Exposure to communication from the opposite camp usually resulted in individuals remaining unchanged in their stands and strengthened in their values. The persons influenced by strongly proprohibition or antiprohibition communication were those who took a moderate or noncommittal position on the issue. On the other hand, a communication presenting a moderate position on prohibition, in this case a moderately wet stand, was judged by persons committed to a definitely wet and dry stand as being more divergent from their own stands than it actually was. Thus drys regarded the moderate communication as quite prorepeal, while wets displaced the position of the moderate communication toward the dry position.

These findings are substantiated in recent interviews of wet and dry leaders. Neutral individuals tend to be displaced toward the opposition. This judgmental tendency is exemplified in the response of a W.C.T.U. leader toward a clergyman who remains noncommittal on the prohibition issue. The W.C.T.U. leader stated: "X is wet; he favors package houses."

A clergyman, who is also a leader of a county unit of the United Drys, felt that the failure of some clergymen to preach total abstinence from the pulpit indicated their complete abdication of the ministerial

(271) role. "In the ministry indolence, complacency, indifference, and so forth, is taking its toll. It hurts me to see among my own brethren what has developed. You'll find it in your own profession. There are professors who do the minimum and simply get by and draw their salaries."

The tactics of both groups are roughly the same. They attempt to mobilize a following through organizational appeals, they bring pressure to bear on legislators through lobbies, and they seek to gain the vote of the uncommitted voter through the media of mass communication and direct advertising.

Each group, however, pictures the tactics of the opposing group as unfair. Drys accuse wets of buying votes, frightening voters with false propaganda, and seducing voters by pouring immense sums of money into propaganda. The belief that wets spend millions of dollars on a campaign was stated by a dry leader as follows: "The breweries can invest a million dollars, because they will make it back in beer profits. After an election they are out several millions, but this isn't as hard on them as the several thousand the United Drys are out."

The tactics wets impute to their opponents also include the charge of corruption through bribery. A political candidate running for office on a repeal ticket told one of our interviewers that "the bootleggers... are donating to the professional drys. One dealer donated five thousand dollars to a Tulsa organization. Some of the others who are fighting repeal are paid religious drys in Oklahoma."

Conclusion. The projected research is intended to be a study of pressure groups utilizing the wet and dry issue as a paradigm, bringing into focus the factors mentioned above. Specifically, the plan is the investigation of the following problems: (1) In-group and out-group stereotypes, (2) stereotypes related to the organizational patterns of the groups involved, (3) pressure group tactics and their evaluation in terms of in-group and out-group values, stereotypes and goals, and (4) the effects on the above of newly emerging situations and factors in economic, social, and organizational life.

A combination of methods will be utilized which will include participant observation, interviews, in-group and out-group stereotypic ratings, and specially arranged experimental situations.


  1. "Paper read on program "Studies in Group Process and Social Judgment," arranged by the Institute of Group Relations, University of Oklahoma, at the annual meeting of the Southwestern Social Science Association, Dallas, Texas, April 4, 1958.
  2. Cf. Peter Odegard, Pressure Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1928), p. 83.
  3. The evidence for this statement, and following statements not otherwise cited, is found in our interviews with members of wet and dry organizations.
  4. Charles Merz, The Dry Decade (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc., 1932), pp. 22-23.
  5. Op. Cit., p. 30.
  6. Joseph Gusfield "Social Structure and Moral Reform: A Study of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union," American Journal of Sociology, 61: 221-32, November 1955.
  7. Odegard, op. cit., p. 38.
  8. John Coleman [n.t.], The Christian Patriot, 14: 4, February 1958.
  9. Muzafer Sherif and Carolyn Sherif, An Outline of Social Psychology (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1956), p. 653.
  10. Cf. Odegard and Merz, op. cit., passim. Also Luke Ebersole, Church Lobbying in the Nation's Capital (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1951) ; Wayne B. Wheeler, "The Inside Story of Prohibition," The New York Times
  11. (March 29, 1926) ; The Anti-Saloon Year-Book (1909-1931).
  12. Odegard, op. cit., p. 147.
  13. Carl 1. Hovland, O. J. Harvey, and Muzafer Sherif, "Assimilation and Contrast Effects in Reactions to Communication and Attitude Change," Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 55:244-52, September 1957.

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