HATTIESBURG — Mississippians have criticized their state lawmakers for many things recently.
Being too liberal, however, is rarely among the complaints.
“But they keep leaning more and more left and I keep going, ‘Why are they doing this?’ When the state party supported John McCain in ’08, that was it. Because he may have an ‘R’ after his name, but everybody knows he’s a liberal Democrat,” said Hattiesburg resident Bill Bayes.
So, fed up with a party he said had abandoned its small-government principals, Bayes did something only a handful of other Americans have done this century: He joined the Prohibition Party. Within a month, the party had put him on the ballot as their vice presidential candidate for 2016.
“They wanted somebody a little bit younger, though I did turn 65 yesterday. A lot of them are older. They wanted to bring young blood in,” Bayes said with a grin.
He also said that people could be forgiven if hearing the words “Prohibition Party” conjures up images of women in bustle skirts and high neck blouses picketing saloons. But Bayes insists that the party has moved on since the 18th amendment was repealed 83 years ago.
“Prohibition, it’s not really the driving force of the Prohibition Party now. It is one of the planks. And of course it is the name, but primarily the Prohibition Party, and what drew me to it, is it’s the states rights party.”
Kyle Kondik, an expert on most things political at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said, “To be honest, I did not even know the Prohibition Party still existed.”
Still, the party has chugged along, putting up a candidate in every presidential election since 1869. It is the oldest third party in the country, and the third-oldest party, behind Republicans and Democrats. But it has searched for political relevance for much of the last century, according to party chairman Rick Knox.
“When the prohibition amendment was repealed, that pretty much was a death blow to the party,” Knox said. “We know we’re never going to pass prohibition again. The most we can hope for is getting stricter drunk-driving laws passed.”
But advocating reform requires members, something the party has had a difficult time attracting. Although the party experienced a brief second wave of popularity in the 1940s, their numbers have steadily declined since the 1952 election. In 2012, the Prohibition candidate appeared on the ballot in just one state, Louisiana, and garnered only 518 votes.
“Let me put it like this,” Knox said. “They nominated a very nice gentleman from West Virginia, but he did not have a computer, he did not have a cell phone. There were communication problems. And when you have candidates who will not complete the paperwork in time, it’s hard to get on a ballot.”
Bayes has a computer and email, though he admits he does not check it frequently. When he talks about politics, he talks about the past.
“When you read about the founding of this country, and you see where we are today, you say, ‘Wait a minute. How did we get here?’ Of course, I believe it all changed in the Civil War,” Bayes said, leaning forward in his chair. “What was the Civil War about? Well, it wasn’t about slavery. It was about an ever-encroaching federal government.”
Although today’s Prohibition Party leans older and conservative, the party’s roots are progressive. It was the first political party to accept women as members, and the first woman elected into office in this country ran on the Prohibition ticket, more than 30 years before women could legally vote.
But when the party started to shed members the 1950s, it shifted its platform, advocating states’ rights and social conservatism. Knox and Bayes agree that attracting young voters and women could give the party a much-needed jolt of energy. But whether the party can realistically do this while maintaining its conservative platform remains less clear.
“I will say I’m very pro-female, but females make a lot of decisions based on emotions. You’re emotional creatures far more than other people are,” Bayes said. “So with males, we think more logically, women think more emotionally. And the Democrats have always played on the emotions.”
Although Bayes knows only one other party member in Mississippi, the legacy of prohibition lives on in the state. Currently 36 of its 82 counties are dry or partially dry. And while Bayes may feel that Mississippi’s Republicans are moving left, he said he’s comforted that Mississippians, more than many others, stick to their ideals.
An example he cited more than once was House Bill 1523, which Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law in April. The bill, which advocates say expands religious freedom, is criticized inside and outside the state by opponents who say it endorses discrimination against gays and lesbians.
“I was proud that Phil took the side of individual rights. I was really proud of him. That took guts for him to make that decision, but I believe that he did the right thing,” Bayes said. “Mississippi is at least a more conservative state than a lot of the others.”
Currently the Prohibition Party has made the ballot in seven states, including Mississippi. As a result, Bayes said joining the party has given him the opportunity to do something he has been unable to do in over 30 years — vote for a candidate he believes in.
“I’m sick and tired of voting against the Democrat. The only president I’ve really ever voted for was Reagan,” Bayes said.
“I better vote for my ticket.”