The Huffington Post reported at the end of April (April 21 to be exact) that certain Republicans in the State of Wisconsin – in an “effort” to gather signatures to “trigger a recall” against State Senator and Democrat, Robert Wirch – used alcohol to induce female patrons to sign. At a bar in Burlington called “John’s Main Event,” a bartender offered “free shots” if women signed the recall petition.[1] An audio recording of the exchange accompanied a complaint filed by the Wisconsin Democratic Party to the Government Accountability Board. By the way, offering of free booze to gather signatures is not illegal.

A scene from the print "A Court Conversation," depicting ample alcohol given to a crowd burning an effigy of an unpopular Briton.

As a historian, my reaction to this story was… “what’s new?” Buying votes, bribing, imbibing, cajoling, or other techniques to push a certain political agenda is as old as the Ancient Greek alphabet. The use of alcohol to influence the public sphere actually was part of my master’s thesis. In a print engraving from 1756 Britain called, “A Court Conversation,”[2] a scene from that artwork depicts an effigy burning – but one in which the participants are consuming alcohol. Context of course is necessary. The participants in this engraving are London’s poor. They burn an effigy of Admiral John Byng, unpopular at the time (in the drawing, Byng also watches his effigy burn from a third-story prison window). Five figures appear in the foreground waving tankards and drawing alcohol from a barrel. These effigy burnings were popular in mid-eighteenth-century Briton. Those that wished to influence popular opinion often supplied the money to purchase a number of crowd pleasing treats such as booze, beef, musicians, fireworks, and yes, the clothes in which to dress the effigy. Even though the influence of the mob upon politics in 1750s England is debatable, the fact remains that the political leaders of the state felt that public opinion was important enough to hold such “hanging parties.”

So if Wisconsin Republicans do indeed buy booze to persuade bar patrons to sign recall petitions, these Republicans are only pulling on past historical precedence where elites attempt to influence the public sphere. Democrats in Wisconsin retort that this booze buying binge only goes to show how little grass roots support Republicans possess within the state. Only the summer recall swing will bare that out. In the mean time, perhaps Democrats can offer a fine wine and cheese sampling? (tongue in cheek, sorry).

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