Answers by Andrew Wender Cohen, historian, author of Contraband: Smuggling and the Birth of the American", on Quora.
A: It's rare for an non-politician to vie for a major party presidential nomination. Businessman Ross Perot won millions of votes in 1992 and 1996, but as an independent.
It's only happened once before. In 1940, the GOP named utilities executive Wendell Willkie its candidate for president. A Democrat opposed to one of Roosevelt's signature programs, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Willkie attracted the attention of Republicans. In 1939, he switched parties, and GOP leaders began talking about him as a possible presidential nominee. Favoring public regulation, but opposed state-ownership of industry, Willkie had cross-over appeal. An internationalist, Willkie was attractive to Republicans worried by war in Europe and Asia. He ran in no primaries, but attended the convention, where he was chosen to represent the GOP against Roosevelt. He lost, of course.
Now, people who made their fame outside politics have won the White House-- e.g. Ronald Reagan, Woodrow Wilson-- but only after serving as governor of a major state.
A: It was what scholars call a mutually constitutive process. That is, gangs developed to smuggle goods, and existing criminal organizations saw liquor and drug laws as an opportunity for profit.
The Sicilian Mafia is just one of the many criminal organizations in American history. In the nineteenth century, gangsters were English, Irish, Jewish, Chinese, Spanish, Canadian, etc., but seldom Italian. This is because few Italians lived in the United States until after 1900. These gangs made most of their profits running gambling casinos and houses of prostitution.
Contraband silk, tobacco, diamonds, liquor, and sugar were big business in the nineteenth century, but smugglers were often affluent and politically connected. Most smuggled goods passed through the custom-house through bribery or trickery.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, the Sicilian Mafia and Neapolitan Cammorra appeared in American cities like New Orleans, New York, and Chicago. But they focused on extortion, specifically the "Mano Negro" or Black Hand.
But in 1920, the United States banned alcohol. During Prohibition, Italian gangs became the dominant criminal organizations in many cities. And they grew wealthy smuggling and manufacturing alcohol for consumption in homes and speakeasies. It was during this period that the Italian gangs often referred to as the Mafia become a potent force in American society.
A: Crime is a very important problem. And the criminal justice system even more so.
Between 1965 and 2000, violent crime rates exploded in the United States. The nation also saw an explosion in non-violent crime, in particular, drug use. These two trends may have been connected, but the correlation and causation were far weaker than people believed at the time.
The states and federal government strengthened police and prosecutors, vitiated the rights of the accused, and lengthened prison sentences. The government adopted mandatory minimums not only for violent crimes, but also for victimless drug offenses. Three-strikes laws, intended to discourage recidivism, meant life sentences for petty offenders. All of this resulted in more police brutality and an exploding prison population.
This crackdown hit the African-American community especially hard at a moment when Civil Rights legislation liberated them to participate equally in American democracy and prosperity. If Michelle Alexander's "New Jim Crow" thesis is overstated, in my opinion, the extraordinary black incarceration rates in states like Louisiana, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Mississippi suggest that some police have used the drug war to achieve the social control once established by segregation.
Since 2000, violent crime rates have plummeted, but drug use has only risen. Social scientists have posited many theories for why: incarceration itself, improvements in policing, the ban on leaded gasoline, legal abortion, immigration, demography, etc. But the decline in urban violence illustrates that drugs did not cause crime, as people imagined in 1990. As such, it likely makes sense to start decriminalizing non-violent crimes like drug possession. It also might make sense to commute the sentences of non-violent offenders sentenced under mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws.
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