With the watershed national election last month, millions of Americans will begin to experience many irrational, subconscious fears melting away, having a collateral effect akin to curing at least selective blindness.
The election’s historic impact includes the fact that it represents the first genuine shift away from the fear-driven social policy agenda that has dominated the U.S. political landscape since the period leading up to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
One of the cornerstone components of the mass reactionary impulse of that time was the issue of domestic crime. Democrats were routed by the nasty neo-conservatives who took over the GOP following Watergate on grounds they were “soft on crime.”
As the fundamentalist churches were marshaled in the mid-1970s to break from their earlier tradition and enter the political arena, cutting their teeth on an array of Anita Bryant-led anti-gay referenda, they also brought an angry, strident “get tough on crime” agenda into every local, state and national election.
The result was a whole series of new laws that denied parole, denied a judge’s discretion in sentencing, advocated “three strikes and you’re out,” and otherwise were aimed at locking away as many supposed bad guys as possible, and throwing away the key.
The philosophy of incarceration shifted from the goal of rehabilitation of the prisoner, to purely vindictive retribution. An entire new generation has grown up completely unfamiliar with the notion of rehabilitation as the core of prison policy.
Politicians of both parties dared not push back against the advancement of increasingly inflexible and angry legislative initiatives coming from the far right. They feared it would be the fastest path to a shortened political career, even when they passed laws that clearly violated due process and the notion of “innocent until proven guilty.”
Thus, between 1925 and 1975, the average of U.S. citizens per 100,000 people in prison remained constant. But with the late 1970s began a steep climb, almost as steep as the growth in unregulated market derivatives. It has grown from the 100 people per 100,000 held generally steady over the earlier 50 years, to over 500 per 100,000 in 2005.
The statistics are equally stunning for the disproportionate number of African-Americans in U.S. prisons. Thirteen percent of the total U.S. population, African-Americans are more than 50 percent of the prison population.
To a greater and greater degree, those in U.S. prisons are there because new laws denied them parole, because of drug or other non-violent offenses, due to technical violations of parole or probation, or, fundamentally, because of mental illness. It was in the same mid-1970s era giving rise to the angry anti-crime right wing that mental rehabilitation institutions were also closed all across the nation, throwing countless helpless victims onto the streets with nothing but their “meds.”
Thus, the political right not only made the rich richer through its abolition of regulatory restraints on usury and speculation, it made the poor poorer by throwing them in the slammer.
It is worth noting that the election of Bill Clinton and his eight years in the White House did not deter this trend. Clinton was elected because of a deep economic recession, and because he was a talented candidate. But the right wing remained in control of the nation’s social agenda, and reaffirmed that with the so-called “Republican revolution” in the mid-term congressional elections of 1994.
Democrats remained back on their heels on social, including crime and military policy, issues throughout the 1990s, and reached their spineless nadir in their Fall of 2002 vote to authorize President Bush’s invasion of Iraq. They’d decided that for tactical reasons, they would do better in that November’s mid-term election if they didn’t appear “soft.” It didn’t help them.
So, now the important task for Americans is to make sure that last month’s election does not leave the social agenda in the hands of the right wing. The election was, but still must most emphatically be driven home as, a true cultural paradigm shift.
Thirty years of fear and intolerance must now give way, with a blizzard of concrete legislative initiatives, to a new era of compassion, smart economics and second chances for those who need them most.