Podcast: America Has a Drinking Problem

Alcohol has been humanity’s social lubricant since 10,000 B.C., but its use as a coping mechanism is distinctly American.

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From the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth Rock to the rise of the pandemic “quarantini,” alcohol has been a foundation of American society and culture. The Atlantic’s Kate Julian explores how this tool for cohesion and cooperation eventually became a means of coping, and what history can teach us about improving our drinking habits.

This conversation originally ran on the podcast Today, Explained, hosted by Sean Rameswaram.

Further reading: America Has a Drinking Problem

A transcript of this episode is presented below:

Julia Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment.

(A synthesized chime, like that of a mechanical cuckoo clock, echoes out as a light ripple of electronic scales weaves in and out, up and down.)

Longoria: This week, as you may or may not still be recovering from the long weekend, we’re taking a look at the origin story of our country’s drinking problem.

Kate Julian recently wrote for The Atlantic about the history of our relationship with alcohol.

(A plucky electric-guitar loop plays over the synthesizers.)

Longoria: She spoke with Sean Rameswaram on the show Today, Explained, and today we’re featuring that conversation. Sean takes it from here.

(Bell-like sounds signal the end of the music, then quiet. After a moment, a brief musical cue indicates the start of the Today, Explained episode.)

Sean Rameswaram: It’s Today, Explained. I’m Sean Rameswaram. A month ago, President Biden challenged the nation.

Reporter: President Biden today announcing a national month of action to help the country reach his goal: 70 percent of adults with at least one dose by the Fourth of July.

Rameswaram: To sweeten the deal, Biden proposed a number of incentives.

President Joe Biden: Get a shot, and have a beer! Free beer for everyone 21 years or over to celebrate the independence from the virus.

Rameswaram: The president was willing to pull out all the stops, including a partnership with Anheuser-Busch.

(An Budweiser ad plays. The sounds of a swamp at night: bugs buzzing and chirping, frogs croaking.)

Frog 1: (As if croaking.) Bud—

Frog 2: (As if croaking.) Weis—

Frog 3: (As if croaking.) Er.

Rameswaram: It didn’t work. The nation’s still hovering around half-vaccinated. But the pledge to literally buy the country a beer if 70 percent of us got vaccinated said something about how we think—and how we drink.

Kate Julian: I’ve noticed, over the past few years, alcohol cropping up in all sorts of places that it didn’t used to be. Like, you used to be able to buy wine at the supermarket to take home. You could not buy wine in a plastic cup to carry around the supermarket while you shopped. You could not buy wine at Starbucks. You could not buy beer at the zoo when you were there, like, looking at the animals with your kids.

Rameswaram: Kate Julian is a senior editor at The Atlantic. She recently wrote about the nation’s drinking problem.

Julian: Americans have been drinking more and more for about 20 years, and we’re drinking it in a weirdly different way. It seems like we’re more likely to be drinking it alone, which tells us—I think—that something kind of interesting is going on.

We’re not drinking more because we’re hanging out and partying. We’re drinking more for reasons that have to do with coping.

We know that when people drink alone, or they drink outside of a social context, it’s usually because they’re trying to deal with negative feelings—like, they’re trying to feel less bad. And we’ve seen a sort of really dramatic experiment with that over the past year, where we’ve become really accustomed to drinking at home as a way of coping with anxiety.

Rameswaram: Okay, so people are self-medicating, which—not the best. But, on top of that, there are all these profoundly damaging and deadly effects of alcohol abuse, right?

Julian: Yeah, yeah. So it’s particularly surprising, given a couple of things. First, like, we know in a way that we didn’t used to that alcohol is associated with increased risk of certain cancers. So we used to think it was good for your heart. Now the evidence is way more mixed. And in 2018, there was a big meta-analysis—sort of the biggest meta-analysis to date of studies on alcohol’s effect on health and longevity. And it found across the board that alcohol will make you die sooner.

Rameswaram: So tell me, Kate: Why do we drink?

Julian: So let me get the really obvious answer out of the way, and then we’ll get to the less obvious answer. The obvious answer is we do it because it’s fun. Scientists have recently learned that alcohol has a really large capacity [Laughs.] to produce endorphins. Endorphins, of course, are the natural opiates the body produces. So obviously we want to do it. But that kind of raises a second, larger question that’s a bit trickier, which is: Why has evolution set us up to do this thing that is so obviously bad for us? Right? And people who’ve looked at this, most recently—and, I think, provocatively—a social scientist named Edward Slingerland …

News Host: (Over upbeat talk-show music.) Edward Slingerland, your new book has a bit of an eye-popping opening. I wanna read it to our viewers.

“People like to masturbate. They also like to get drunk and eat Twinkies.”

Julian: … have sort of made the point that there must have been something it was doing that was really good that was balancing out the harms, or, otherwise, evolution would have fixed this, right? It would have favored people who hated the way alcohol tasted, for example. It didn’t do that, so what could have been going on? And this dovetails nicely with some recent archaeological findings.

(Mysterious, suspenseful flute music plays over persistent, low, droning strings. It sounds like the discovery of some ancient place.)

Julian: So, about 25 years ago, a site was identified in eastern Turkey—Göbekli Tepe, it’s called. It is the—we think—earliest human temple to have been found. It’s 10,000 to 12,000 years old. That means it predates, or was a very early part of, the agricultural revolution. It’s not only twice as old as Stonehenge; it’s made of these gigantic pillars of stone that would have taken hundreds of people working together to put together. And what’s perplexing about this site is it wasn’t a place where anybody was farming. It wasn’t a place where anybody was living. As far as the archaeological record suggests, it was a place where people were partying.

(The music shifts to a remix. The strings are replaced with a persistent beat, snaps, and a heavy bass.)

Julian: These stones have these elaborate drawings of people playing music and—it looks like—drinking alcohol, and they’ve also found these enormous vats that look like they were made to hold really old-school beer and wine.

Rameswaram: It’s basically an ancient brewery.

Julian: It’s basically an ancient—it’s not even just an ancient brewery. It’s like an ancient club! Right?

Rameswaram: Yeah.

(The hidden-temple-club music hits a treble-heavy feature.)

Julian: So archeologists who have sort of tried to puzzle this out think that what was happening is that hunter-gatherers were coming from all directions, periodically, to have these big alcohol-fueled feasts and, presumably, the draw of the food and the booze got them to cooperate and put up these gigantic pillars of stone. Um, it probably lent a lot of authority to the people who organized the whole enterprise, and it very likely motivated people to want to settle down and cooperate.

I mean, you have these sort of fractious, unrelated groups of people. It’s not obvious why they would want to come get together, but partying seems like actually a pretty good answer.

(The club music comes to a close.)

Rameswaram: Why is it significant that long ago people were getting together to drink and—and party?

Julian: Well, I mean, if you think about it, one of the really important things that we have to do to succeed as humans is work together. So we’re in some ways more like bees or ants than we are like chimpanzees, right? Chimpanzees are totally fractious and competitive, and you couldn’t possibly put thousands of chimps together and, like, expect them to have a party or, like, a bunch of stones.

Humans have to do this, right? Human civilization requires people to cooperate. And there’s a line of thinking that, you know, alcohol may have helped us to do that. It sort of socially disinhibits us just enough to sort of cooperate. In a way, it may be similar to what religion did for the early humans. I mean, essentially, just as early religions gave people something to rally around, alcohol may have played a pretty similar function.

Rameswaram: And what do we accomplish as a result?

Julian: So this guy I was referring to a moment ago, Edward Slingerland, came to this subject in sort of an interesting way.

Edward Slingerland: My day job is early Chinese philosophies, or early Taoism and Confucianism. So, all of these thinkers that I look at in early China want you to be spontaneous. They want you to be in this state. In Chinese, it’s called wu wei, or—I translate it as—“effortless action.” It’s kind of like being “in the zone.”

Julian: And he looked at sort of the functions of this state of being, and how it might be useful in the modern world. And then he made the observation, in an aside, that—

Slingerland: You can’t try to be relaxed. So maybe chemical intoxicants, especially alcohol, are this cultural tool that we have used to reach inside the brain and turn down the prefrontal cortex, the part that’s in charge of attention and control, just turn it down a couple of notches.

Rameswaram: This is not unlike the plot of the recent Danish independent film Another Round.

Thomas Vinterberg: Four, depraved, white, drunk men, basically, [Laughter from the audience.] who teaches children to drink, as well …

Julian: Everybody keeps telling me I have to see this, and I haven’t. So, clearly, I need to.

Rameswaram: (Incredulous.) You haven’t seen it? You’re, like, the alcohol writer!

Julian: I know. I know! I know. It’s ridiculous. It’s—maybe I’ll watch it tonight.

Rameswaram: You can wait, because, apparently they’re remaking it with Leonardo DiCaprio.

Julian: Yeah, I saw that. But all the more reason to watch the Danish version. No offense, Leo DiCaprio.

Jordan Belfort: (Played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street, screaming.) I will not die sober!

Julian: Slingerland then visited Google and gave a book talk where he made the same point. And people in the audience got really excited.

Slingerland: When the talk was over, someone in the audience put their hand up right away. And he said, “Have you ever heard of the Ballmer Peak?” And I hadn’t. But this is supposedly—it may be apocryphal—but supposedly Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, discovered this very narrow blood alcohol content level where he was supernaturally good at coding.

[Laughs.] So he was not so good, not so good, and then he got really great at this blood alcohol content, and then it went down again. And supposedly he would keep himself hooked up to an IV of alcohol to—to hover right at that sweet spot.

Julian: And Slingerland says that, like, he had this, like, “Aha!” moment. He was like, “Huh! Alcohol is actually really doing this thing that I was just speculating that it might be doing.” And he started thinking about his own career and how at his university—the University of British Columbia—there hadn’t been a pub on campus until several years earlier.

Rameswaram: Hmm.

Julian: And once the pub opened, he and a bunch of colleagues from different fields started gathering there on Friday before going home. And that’s how they all got into this evolution of religion thing. They just started having these kind of freewheeling, shooting-the-shit kinds of conversations. They were a little bit more ramble-y and discursive than they might have been without the alcohol. And they were just, like, a lot less inhibited, and more friendly.

And, sort of having had this realization that that was this thing that had enabled this other sort of important area of work, decided that he wanted to examine alcohol through a similar lens—and basically make the argument that alcohol does for humans and did do for early humans a lot of the same stuff that religion did in terms of helping us to coalesce.

Rameswaram: Like, where is this best exemplified, this idea that you can drink with restraint and have it be a social lubricant that is perhaps enriching culturally?

Julian: So I feel like this is the really obvious and boring answer, maybe, but it’s the one that I have to give. It’s Southern Europe.

(Italian folk music plays: A plucky mandolin bounces around an up-tempo melody.)

Julian: They have, in Italy, some of the lowest rates of alcohol-use disorder—or alcoholism as it’s sometimes called—in the world. It’s not because they don’t drink. They actually drink quite a bit. But they drink in a way that treats alcohol as a food to be consumed socially, not as a drug. So it’s pretty unusual to drink alone. Most of what’s drunk is wine. When hard alcohol is consumed, it’s consumed in the context of a meal—like right before or right after. And the meal is really crucial, right—the alcohol isn’t separate from the meal in most cases.

(The folk music echoes and fades out.)

Rameswaram: How does that compare to the United States?

Julian: Um, it’s the opposite of what most of us are doing here right now, I’d say.

(A brief, minor-key piano cover of the Cheers theme song plays.)

Rameswaram: Turns out America’s bad drinking habits are as old as the country itself.

More with Kate, after a break.

(The break.)

(The sound of liquid pouring from a bottle: glug-glug-glug. Then, as the pour stops, waves crash. The waves continue under the narration.)

Rameswaram: Okay. So, Kate, when exactly did Americans start drinking? Was it at the start of America?

Julian: Yeah! Literally. So the reason—sort of unbelievably—or one of the reasons, I should say, that the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock is because the ship was running low on beer.

Rameswaram: Amazing.

Julian: People back then drank beer instead of water—or they preferred it to water.

Rameswaram: Same.

Julian: And the sailors freaked out. And they thought that, at the rate that they and the Pilgrims were drinking the beer, they weren’t going to have enough beer to get them back to England.

(The sound of the waves slowly fades out as a fiddle plays a light, melancholic, simple melody. It sounds like something you might hear in a historical village.)

Julian: So, rather than sail on to the mouth of the Hudson, which had been the plan, they pulled ashore and kicked the Pilgrims off and, um, that is why the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Of course, the truth may have been a little more complicated than what was indicated in their diaries as they complained bitterly that winter about the beer and having been kicked off. There were other things going on It was December; the weather was bad; the food was running low. But the beer was a big part of the picture.

Rameswaram: People are dying, and they’re like, “Where’s the booze?”

Julian: Yeah, right! So William Bradford—who would go on to be the governor of the Plymouth Colony for 30 years—that winter, in his diary, couldn’t stop talking about the beer!

Actor: (Pretending to read from William Bradford's diary) Dearest diary,

It has been another long and thirsty day here at the Plymouth Colony. How I long for the cool, sweet feeling of a droplet of beer rolling down my parched [Two syllables, emphasis on the second.] throat.

(The music slowly fades out.)

Rameswaram: (Cracking up.) Parched? That’s not real.

Julian: Almost half of the pilgrims were going to die that winter, and the beer is what he was worried about. Now, to be fair, people back then were very leery of water. There had been sort of problems with water purity in England, and they thought that beer was safer. Nonetheless, they really enjoyed their liquor and their wine.

As soon as they got going and got established, they were importing the stuff from Europe. Soon they were making their own beer, making their own hard cider. And from then on, you know, Americans were both importing and producing a very healthy amount of alcohol. One of the sort of funny details I love is that George Washington first got elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses by literally, basically, bribing voters with alcohol.

Rameswaram: (Shocked.) What?! What did he do?

Julian: He gave away alcohol in exchange for, like, 300 votes. And that is how he became a politician.

Rameswaram: Sneaky George! Our first president.

Julian: Sneaky George! And then he would go on to become one of the nation’s leading whiskey distillers. Now, he was a total scold. If you go back and look, he said, you know, hypocritically, even as he was making money off of liquor, that liquor was, you know, going to be the downfall of half the country.

And he had a point, actually. It turns out that by the early 19th century, Americans were drinking a pretty bonkers amount of alcohol.

Narrator: (From Ken Burns’s Prohibition.) Americans routinely drank at every meal, including breakfast. In many towns, a bell rang twice a day to signal what was called “grog time” so that men could stop whatever they were doing in factories and offices, mills and farm fields to raise a jug.

Julian: In 1830, which remains the sort of all-time high-water mark of American alcohol consumption, Americans were drinking, like, three times what they do today. It was something like nine gallons of spirits a year. That’s not including the hard cider, which was the other national drink, which people drank like water, but which was fortified and actually a lot stronger than the beer that the Pilgrims had drunk.

Slingerland: (Over a rooster crowing.) In farm families in New England, particularly, there was a barrel of cider by the door. And you came in, and you would have your ladle of cider. Now, this wasn’t as powerful as whiskey, but, you know, it wasn’t the kind of cider that we have with donuts today.

Julian: People drank it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Kids drink it. A family went through, like, a barrel a week, easily.

Rameswaram: What was going on in the 1830s? Why were people drinking like fish?

Julian: So historians who have looked at this point out that the early 19th century was a time of breakneck change. And they argue that people were self-medicating, basically, for anxiety. You had more people living in total isolation than at any point before or since. You had—in cities, you know, the population was, like, doubling every 10 or 15 years. You had industrialization leading to a huge mismatch between jobs and skills, which sounds actually sort of familiar to what we’re going through now.

Rameswaram: Yeah.

Julian: So it seems like people were … drinking to ease their sorrows. It’s kind of wild to sort of think back on this, but people who’ve studied this say that, like, Americans of that time—by and large—were, like, rarely what you would consider sober.

Rameswaram: Is this what leads to the temperance movement?

Julian: It sure does! So that’s right around the time that activists start to get really worried about alcohol. And, you know, interestingly, the early temperance movement looks pretty rational in retrospect. So it’s very heavily overlapping with the suffrage movements and the abolitionism movements, and it’s sort of based on this idea that, you know, some people are selling liquor, it’s hurting people, it’s destroying people’s lives and livelihoods, and that something ought to be done with it.

Rameswaram: Hmm. Where’d it end up, for people who, uh, don’t know their history?

Julian: We basically tried to ban it. There was an amendment to the Constitution that said, “No selling of alcohol.” And it didn’t work out, but it actually wasn’t as much of a failure as people tend to think that it was, in retrospect.

Rameswaram: Say more.

Julian: So [Chuckles.] it obviously didn’t stop drinking. That’s why it was repealed in 1933. It did decrease drinking a lot, though. Like, two years after repeal, people were still drinking half of what they had been early in the century.

Rameswaram: Huh.

Julian: It had some unintended consequences, though, which sort of have stayed with us in the decades since. So, first of all, it led to women drinking more, right? ’Cause saloons had been really male-dominated spaces.

Unidentified voice 1: (From Demon Rum.) And of course, that changed entirely with Prohibition and the speakeasy and the blind pig. Everybody went.

Unidentified voice 2: (From Women Who Drank.) You know, everybody likes to do things they’re not supposed to. The women started drinking, smoking. I think it was great for women!

Rameswaram: Why did we get rid of Prohibition? What’s—what’s the quick version?

Julian: Quickly, people got really fed up with it. It wasn’t working. I mean, people were still drinking. They were drinking less, but they were still drinking. It had led to a rise in organized crime.

Narrator: (From Ken Burns’s Prohibition, quoting Al Capone.) “Some call it bootlegging. Some call it racketeering. I call it a business.”

Julian: Think sort of Al Capone and all of these sort of bootleggers who use this as a way to launch big crime syndicates.

Narrator: (From Prohibition.) “They say I violate the Prohibition law. Who doesn’t? All I ever did was to supply a demand that was pretty popular.”  — Al Capone

Julian: I think there was also a widespread feeling that it led to hypocrisy. Like, if we’re supposed to be sort of a nation of law-abiders, and we have this constitutional amendment, which pretty much nobody is following, that can’t be good for the country. And so, another amendment is passed repealing Prohibition in 1933. And from then on, you know, the drop that had been seen continues to have an effect, right? People are drinking less than they were early in the 20th century. But year after year, it ticks back up, decade after decade, until it hits its modern high in 1980.

(Rock music comes in hot.)

Julian: So, basically, we have, in the 1970s, the Boomers hitting drinking age, right? Biggest generation to date. We have the drinking age lowered from 21 to 18 because in the Vietnam era, the voting age had been lowered to 18, and so the thought was like, If you can serve in war and vote, then you might as well be able to drink. And so, as a result, there was a lot of drinking in the ’70s. Like, think about Animal House. Although that’s actually set in the early ’60s, it was a 1978 film.

(A clip from National Lampoon’s Animal House plays.)

John “Bluto” Blutarsky: What’s going on?

Robert Hoover: They confiscated everything, even the stuff we didn’t steal.

Bluto: (Yelling, after a loud slam.) They took the bar!

Julian: Or think about, like, Dazed and Confused, which is set in 1976.

David Wooderson: (From Dazed and Confused.) There’s a new fiesta in the making as we speak. It’s out at the Moon Tower. Full kegs. Everybody’s going to be there. You ought to go.

Julian: You just have time of, like, totally hedonistic … binging.

(The rock music plays up for a moment, and then slowly fades away.)

Rameswaram: You write in your piece about these contractions and expansions of American drinking habits. There’s always a lot of drinking, and then there’s less drinking, and then there’s a lot of drinking, and then there’s less drinking. And so, there’s a lot of drinking in the ’70s, and it peaks in the early ’80s. And then there’s the subsequent contraction, right?

Julian: The ’80s have been described as, like, an age of neo-temperance. This is when we finally started paying attention to the problem of drunk driving, when penalties for drunk driving got serious. It’s when awareness of fetal alcohol syndrome became really widespread.

Rameswaram: As Miles Bryan, the producer of this episode, pointed out to me earlier, the biggest sitcom of the 1980s was set in a bar, and the biggest sitcom of the 1990s was set in a coffee house.

Julian: Right? I mean, it’s so ironic. So Cheers starts in 1982, which is right around the high-water mark for American drinking.

(A clip from Cheers plays.)

Norm Peterson: Excuse me. I was—I was sitting—uh, sitting there.

Man: Well, there was no one here when we came in.

Peterson: No, I mean, yesterday. [Laughter.] And, really, since the Ford administration.

(Canned laughter as the clip ends.)

Julian: And then drinking declines every year after that for, like, almost two decades. And, of course, Friends is set in a coffee house.

(A clip from Friends plays.)

Rachel Green: Hmm. Let me just see if I’ve got this right. So this is a half-caf, double-tall, easy-hazelnut, nonfat, no-foam, with-whip, extra-hot latte, right? [Audience laughter.] Okay, great. [Mumbles and clears her throat.] You freak.

Julian: This is sort of the beginning of Starbucks’s rise and sort of our caffeinated culture. It’s a pretty funny contrast.

Rameswaram: And, as you write, this never lasts. And it doesn’t last.

Julian: It never does. Because we go back and forth, right? So, around 1999, we start drinking more, and we keep drinking a little more each year all the way up until last year.

Rameswaram: And then we get a pandemic.

Julian: And then we get a pandemic, right? There is reason to think that more alcohol is being consumed in this country. We know that liquor sales are up over the past 15 months or whatever. We know that other studies found that people were drinking more days on average, um, and having more heavy-drinking days. We also know that the people who were drinking more during the pandemic were disproportionately women, and disproportionately people who had kids at home, which, again, suggests that the drinking was maybe about stress.

Rameswaram: So for the entire history of this country, people have been swinging wildly between abstinence and—and complete indulgence. Of course, there’s always been people in the middle. But, for people coming out of this pandemic right now, for parents who use drinking as a coping mechanism, for people who started drinking more alone, even though it didn’t necessarily make them feel better … A lot of people might be trying to reevaluate their habits. What should they be keeping in mind as they do that?

Julian: I tend to think that what we would do well to do right now is to harvest some of the lessons of human history, right? And, specifically, American history.

(Soft, gentle keyboard music plays. It sounds like a quieter version of a sitcom theme song.)

Julian: Maybe liquor’s not such a good idea. Like, I really like margaritas, but maybe liquor is not such a good idea. Like, maybe I should stick to beer and wine. And maybe I should—in a departure from my habits over the past 15 months—not be pouring that glass of wine, or two, every night.

Maybe I should wait and save alcohol for fun times. Like, I don’t actually enjoy the glass of wine that I’ve been drinking—or the two glasses of wine some nights—that I’ve been drinking for the past 15 months. Like, they’re not actually that fun. I sometimes don’t even finish what I’ve poured. So maybe the thing to do is to say this is going to be something that I do when I want to have fun, not when I want to stop feeling bad. And maybe it’s something that I’m only going to do with other people, because I know that other people is when it’s going to be fun.

(The music plays up for a moment, then slowly fades down.)

Rameswaram: Kate Julian is a senior editor at The Atlantic. You can find her great piece on America’s drinking problem at TheAtlantic.com. It’s called “America Has a Drinking Problem.” I’m Sean Rameswaram. It’s Today, Explained.

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