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Everything Old Is New Again

Walter Russell Mead

The New York Times has an in-depth report on the emerging phenomenon Harold Meyerson has described as “the war between the cities and the states”—that is, the increasingly pitched political battles between left-wing city councils and conservative state legislatures across the American South:

Jackson is among a group of Southern cities from Dallas to Durham, N.C., where the digital commons, economic growth and a rising cohort of millennials have helped remake the culture. Many of these cities have found themselves increasingly at odds with their states, and here in a region that remains the most conservative in the country, the conflicts are growing more frequent and particularly pitched.

… Lawmakers in Alabama recently blocked cities from setting their own minimum wages, while Charlotte and Jackson have fought with the states over control of their airports. North Carolina’s Republican legislature has redrawn city council districts and tried to stop municipalities from becoming “sanctuary cities” for immigrants. The Arkansas and Tennessee legislatures have passed laws that, like North Carolina’s, ban local anti-discrimination ordinances that differ from state law.

While the issues defining this conflict are new, the conflict itself is not. In fact, there is a long history of fights between relatively liberal Southern cities and even towns (including university towns like Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Athens, Georgia) and more conservative rural voters. In the not-so-distant past, the big fight was over Prohibition. Many Southern states retained strict alcohol restrictions for long after after the end of Prohibition, but cities trying to attract tourists and businesses wanted to sell liquor.

The biggest point of contention was often over “liquor-by-the-drink.” Most states allowed the sale of bottles of wine and liquor in state-owned liquor stores, but prohibited restaurants and hotels from serving alcoholic beverages. The most they could do was offer “setups“—the bar would serve a cocktail minus the alcohol, which the customer poured from his own discreet bottle in a brown bag. Ultimately, the forces of freedom (or libertinism, depending on your point of view) won out, and overpriced cocktails, beer and wine are widely available across Dixie.

One measure that worked relatively well as mores changed (and that is still operative in places like Tennessee) was the so-called “county option,” in which each county in the state could choose from a state-approved menu of options—ranging from bone-dry to setups to liquor-by-the-drink. But it remains to be seen whether the combatants in the new culture wars will be as amenable to compromise and accommodation as their predecessors.

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