The strength of a voter’s identity as a Democrat or Republican drives political engagement more than personal gain. Better educated voters more readily form “identity centric” political commitments to their party of choice, which goes a long way toward explaining the strength of liberal convictions among more affluent Democrats.
When civic studies scholars write about civics and citizens, as Peter Levine does today, we will usually mention the following trinity: facts, values, and strategies. Here’s Levine:
The citizen is committed to affecting the world. Some important phenomena may be beyond her grasp, so that she sees them but sees no way of changing them. But she is drawn to levers she can pull, handles she can grab onto. To choose an action, she combines value-judgments, factual beliefs, and tactical predictions into a single thought: “It is good for me to do this.”
Citizens seek facts and work with beliefs; they orient their efforts with regard to values and judgments; and they develop and use strategies, tactics, and reliable predictions to achieve those values in light of the facts as they understand them.
There is much that this trinity illuminates about citizenship, but it can be contested too. The fact/value dichotomy is frequently challenged, and “strategic” thinking is often criticized for its instrumentalism. In general, the terms are discrete. So consider some alternatives:
We could speak in terms of means, ends, and constraints. Many things called “facts” are really tendentious or irrelevant. But action always proceeds against the backdrop of other events and interests, against some opposition, or with some set of finite allies and collaborators. The simple means-ends dichotomy embraces the instrumental critique while acknowledging that new means may be discovered or alternative ends may come to light.
We could use the language of needs assessment or SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.) “Constraints” are largely understood in terms of limits. Perhaps we should instead think in terms of “needs and assets” to capture the ways in which some of the things I mentioned as constraints are actually enabling. What’s more, a lot of a citizen’s work will require very careful, step-by-step organization and capacity-building. We often find ourselves in the middle of a project, taking as our main goal developing a new asset or bridging a gap between our current and desired capacities. SWOT analysis, and other rubrics like it, bring this to the fore: it recognizes that citizens are often operating with uncertainty that may yield an opportunity but threatens to harm them or impede their goals.
“Leftists” of various stripes might prefer the language of solidarity, ideology, critique, and mobilization. If we understand the basic structures of our world as oppressive, especially if we think that they are organized by various forms of gendered, racist, and class-based domination–as well as an international dimension of colonial cultural privilege, or a preference for certain kinds of able bodies–then we will be especially cautious about “facts” and “values” which are themselves part of what is being contested as ideological–deceptive, dominating, and produced in order to preserve certain kinds of hierarchies and dominations. Citizens using this approach will tend to prefer strategies of exposure, including the mobilization of bodies in protest and solidarity, to pierce the ideology that preserves and legtimates those hierarchies. The goal will not be to win particular conflicts–since these are too easily reversed–except when this serves to undermine the systematic oppression diagnosed through ideological critique.
Citizens living traditional or conservative lifestyles may think of themselves less as activists and more as preservationists or stewards of worldview in decline in the modern world. Thus, the lens through which they view their citizenship will privilege terms like stability and respect for history; resistance to or avoidance of corruption and temptation; reverence for certain values, communities, and sacred institutions. Facts are well-established and have survived the test of time; values can never be merely individual but are the product of a community’s mutual commitment; strategies are not tactical choices–is a funeral a “strategy”?–but understood in terms of the community’s practices, rituals, and traditions.
Obviously, each of these sets of distinctions (call them paradigms) is itself value-laden and rooted in some set of beliefs about the facts. I’ll note that my preferred paradigm is a mixture of #1 and #2, following Rachel Maddow, though I draw from each as it seems appropriate or as my audience requires.
What strikes me as particularly important is that each of these paradigms indicates a particular strategy. When I dither, as I often do, between these paradigms, I do so primarily because I wonder which metapolitical view of the world–which schematic of the effective levers and knobs of citizenship–is really correct.
Peter Levine always seems to work hard to accommodate conservative voices in his own paradigm. I’ve long suspected that he is motivated by the belief that many of our fellow citizens will answer best to that description, and that the solutions to our problems are most likely to be found in collaborating with our more conservative neighbors, which makes it important to find ways to accommodate oneself to them.
But this is most often at odds with that technocratic view of activism which seeks to steer the levers of bureaucracy that I find attractive: there, it’s more important to speak the language of the state and the market in order to be heard. Yet there’s a real risk that when you ignore your neighbors in favor of trying to make those larger institutions listen to you, you will both go unheard and find yourself corrupted by too-long attention to the state’s and the market’s values and worldview.
Though we like to think of political parties in the US on a single dimension, this obviously doesn’t capture the true range of political views. Yet even though we can conceive of massively more multifarious policy differences than this, only two dimensions explain the vast majority of political behavior in the US: one largely concerned with the distribution of economic resources and another with the treatment of African-Americans and other racial minorities.
Yet even the four permutations of these views are too many to perfectly represent within the US’s two viable political parties. The US political system seems almost to have been designed so that most citizens will hate the dominant political parties, and thus find politics vaguely distasteful.
Big Tents and Third Party Spoilers
Why should this be so? Why not have three or four parties, to segregate those dimensions or hit all the possible permutations? It is a truism that the US electoral system requires two big-tent parties, but that’s not quite right. What’s true is that the system has very strong incentives in place to encourage party elites to find a way to force very different interests to share policy goals and ideology: a third party will tend to disempower its voters by splitting its big tent, as famously happened at the outset of the Civil War and during the salad days of the Progressive Movement. Yet for some policy issues, such a split may not be avoidable!1
What’s more, the US political system has pretty good methods for allocating voters to its two main political parties in roughly equal numbers. Like your favorite sports league’s revenue sharing or draft-picking arrangements, the party system tends to reward short-term victories with unsatisfiable constituencies that undermine the party’s lead, which produces future upsets and reversals. Incumbency advantages turn into incumbency fatigue; midterm elections draw different demographics than presidential elections; victorious parties engage in divisive self-destruction over exactly which part of the big tent will dominate.
A Party for the Anti-Political Majority
Yet there are hints (if not evidence) that this may be changing, in a way that is partly inspired by the rise of Donald Trump and partly contributed to that rise. Voter turnout has been stuck below 60% of the voting age population since 1968, and is even lower in primaries, so a candidate who can get out the vote from a unique part of the demographics of his party or the nation has a strong chance of surprising us, as Trump did.
But there is a way a politician could appear to be honest and nonhypocritical without having to vie against other candidates pursing the same strategy: by standing for division and conflict without apology. Such a candidate might openly side with Christians over Muslims or atheists, or native-born Americans over immigrants, or whites over blacks, or the rich over the poor. In short, one could signal honesty by openly and explicitly rejecting what are presumed to be sacrosanct political values.
Trump, it seems, carries the promise of engaging the previously disengaged, those who have no stomach for politicians’ attempts to preserve a big tent by mobilizing disparate interests together. It’s difficult to pretend that business interests and “values” voters have much in common, and that you are adequately representing both without preference. Voters are smart enough to see through those efforts, if not willing to recognize the structural reasons why American politicians continue to try to straddle those fences.
There are always disaffected voters who give up on both parties. Usually, neither party can figure out how to reliably get out the vote from these truly independent voters while keeping the support of its base. These voters are largely mythical in third-party bids and usually for in-party insurgencies as well, but the idea that disaffected voters could show up at the polls in large numbers and destroy all the pollsters “likely voter” modeling is tenacious. We know it’s possible, and that when it happens we see surprisingly anti-establishment results. As the political participation of disaffected, unrepresented voters drops, this reserve army of the unallied gets bigger. It’s especially potent in party primaries, which are very low turnout events.
My suspicion is that if a group of disaffected voters could be reliably re-engaged, the parties would likely find wedge issues to divvy them up over a relatively short set of elections. But they may well divvy them up differently than the parties had previously done. This would be the seed of a realignment.
Party Platforms are Contingent; So Is the Meaning of “Liberal” and “Conservative”
How far could this go? We frequently joke that the Republican Party switched places with the Democratic Party between the Civil War and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But so many of the relevant policy questions are different that this has always been a bit inexact.
Far too many of my friends and colleagues believe that there’s a natural connection between cosmopolitan attitudes towards other races and cultures and egalitarian economic preferences. There really isn’t; in fact, there’s just as often a tension! Terms like Republican and Democrat and conservative and liberal are free-floating signifiers that don’t really track particular policy preferences or ideologies over time.
Just one example: there’s a whole host of people who think that government should not offer certain sorts of assistance that they call “welfare.” But what they mean by “welfare” varies a lot, includes and excludes a lot of different services and cash transfers and tax treatments. Worse still, many people who oppose “welfare” think that the same program is justified or unjustified based on who will get it, and don’t think that their brother-in-law’s disability check is welfare while a stranger’s disability check is, nor see their home owner’s tax credit as similar to a poor person’s food stamp support.
The same thing goes for the Affordable Care Act: many of the Republicans who oppose it (and have voted to repeal it repeatedly) want to abolish something they call “ObamaCare” and replace it with an almost exactly identical program (i.e. RomneyCare). So at least for the vast plurality of Republicans elected to federal office, it’s clear that what is at stake is not a real difference in thinking or policy preference, but rather a partisan fight over votes which everyone is pretending is actually a deep ideological difference.
What we know is that we and our fellow citizens tend to seize on a few policy issues that matter to us, select a party on that basis, and then adopt a lot of the other policies of that party as equally important. This gets odd when the parties change policy positions (for electoral reasons) and partisans change their own views as if these things were demanded by rationality (often backdating their new policy beliefs as if they hadn’t changed at all) rather than merely a response to politicians competing for votes.
So while historically we can observe both massive and bipartisan shifts around specific policies (remember when the Democratic Party opposed same sex marriage?) and realignments (remember when the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln and Black people?) it is quite obvious that many people don’t have an accurate phenomenological or narrative account of what is happening in the moment. We think in terms of urban and rural, in terms of our neighbors and our transportation preferences and our religious traditions.
It’s a unique kind of privilege to be able to maintain strong coherence between our different beliefs, and indeed it’s actually presumptuous to pretend that only a couple of coherent ways to hold these beliefs together.
the party that loses an election has a strong incentive to try to peel away voters from the winning party. This is how a party grows its coalition to win in the next round. The party does this by taking policy positions that appeal to voters who may only weakly identify with the winning party. Think of these voters as the ones at the edges of the cleavage lines.
So losing leads to strategizing and better political competition for ignored voters at the winning party’s “rump,” which leads to winning. If one party’s “big tent” gets too large, the other party finds an opportunity to compete for some of the voters whose policy goals have been most ignored.
Yet neither party has had to actually compete for unallied voters for the last twenty-five years or so. They’ve been depending instead on GTFO efforts and incumbency-fatigue to restore them to power. This is why the Republican party has spent the last three decades working on “fusionism” to combine conservative Christianity with business-oriented small-government rhetoric. The Democratic party has spent those same three decades trying to keep mostly-white-male working class voters together with urban minorities and rich cultural cosmopolitans.
Thus the “clockwork” of party realignment has been momentarily frozen, and we can’t even say if we are now in one or if both parties will simply revamp their rule to prevent insurgencies in the future. Yet if we are in a realignment period, the model predicts which “side” will be the rump:
Miller and Schofield show that this cleavage line rather naturally rotates in a clockwise fashion across time. Bill Clinton broke up the previous partisan alignment when he proposed more conservative economic policies, like those of the cosmopolitans, moving the Democratic coalition from the liberal position more to the cosmopolitan one.
The “clockwise” directionality comes from a supposedly natural movement of the cleavage line in this chart over time:
So we should expect that the Republicans will lose cosmopolitan pro-business types represented by the likes of Michael Bloomberg, while the Democrats will lose the remaining supply of white men without college degrees who are economically liberal but “socially” conservative (here meaning: they are anti-diversity.) And indeed, this is basically what seems poised to happen.
The fact that state support for the poor and working class is orthogonal to the state’s treatment of African-Americans and other racial minorities is certainly vexing: it seems to extend from the American experience with slavery and persistent white supremacy, yet we see similar trends in Europe towards immigrants and Jews. But the key here is that attitudes towards racial difference just are unmoored from attitudes towards the distribution of economic assets among whites, and so we need these two dimensions (and yet oddly: not much more than that) to explain most of American political behavior, especially in the legislature.
Today, there is a least an ostensible connection between the liberalism of diversity and the leftism of equality. Tomorrow, even that thin thread might be cut forever, and so much the worse for us.
Basically, deBoer imagines a future where the boot forever stomping on the face of humanity is gender equitable and racially diverse. But what if having a more Black or female Senators–or a Black President–isn’t necessarily better for that President’s or Senator’s female or Black constituents?
The impetus of deBoer’s piece seems to be this zinger of a tweet from Dan O’Sullivan):
“Our political future: a snakepit of insane fascists on one side, & on the other, a Wall Street party that’s culturally liberal & nothing more.”
I think this is really the crux of deBoer’s piece, as an elaboration of that perfect tweet, and I think there’s something odd about it. Is it possible for realignment to turn today’s educated leftists into completely alienated voters with no party to support at all? As I’ve tried to show above, the answer is probably not: one or another party will almost always have something to offer the educated people who currently self-identify as Leftists. If Democrats really start leaving the Left, the Left will learn how to get along with nationalists and chauvinists, like they did when nationalists and chauvinist were running labor unions. And perhaps this is where the oddness in deBoer’s view emerges:
“The entire purpose of the elite-building mechanisms of our country is to keep that elite small. There’s only room for 1% of people within the 1%, after all.”
Every society has a top 1%, whether it’s the billionaire class or the Politburo. It has been the case that the people with the PhDs were among that class of elites, but not recently. It’s an open question who the elites should be. It’s historically been the case that US elites were white men, and while that’s changing, it’s not actually changed very much yet. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford will achieve truly representative diversity, but without expanding their first year classes. Perhaps tomorrow’s elites will be truly representative of the rest of the country.
It’s also an open question for political debate how much better off the elites should be than the people below them: I tend to favor egalitarian distributions of well-being, myself, but I recognize that there are lots of people who disagree, and for something approaching good institutional reasons. Specifically, the existence of a top 1% doesn’t actually tell us anything about the material conditions of the bottom 99%.
A few things follow from all this. First, it seems highly desirable to have two healthy, reasonable parties at all times. Constitutional hardball is dangerous in a way that threatens to shatter the conditions of possibility for our overt disagreements. Yet the best evidence suggests that the Republican Party has been growing increasingly extreme for almost twenty years. This is easy for opponents to celebrate, as it tends to render Republican politicians and Republican voters less effective at making progress on their policy goals, and might well help Democrats win in November. But in the medium and long-term, it’s deeply unstable (it has already been destabilizing.) The survival of a political order has to be compatible with either party losing elections.
Second, the ideal should not be to have a permanent victory that utterly destroys the other party; we should aspire to the Aaron Sorkin West Wing fantasy of principled idealists representing the divergent but reasonable views of the Good Life and the Good Society. Reasonable pluralism is better than a fragile modus vivendi; deliberative disagreement that preserves the possibility of compromise and collaboration is better than dirty tricks and pitched winner-take-all political battles.2
The problem, of course, is that without a healthy and rational opposition party, we’re going to have a hard time living up to that fantasy of democratic deliberation.
Economic Equality and Nationalism
Insofar as nationalism in the US is understood as a kind of jingoistic, nationalist chauvinism–a defense of the traditional perquisites of white men–we will all be better off and richer insofar as the political parties can find a way to preserve the disaffection and disengagement of the anti-diversity voters.
This is the world highlighted in those maps, brought to the fore by drug deaths and bullets to the brain- a world in which a significant part of the population has been rendered unnecessary, superfluous, a bit of a pain but not likely to last long. Utopians on the coasts occasionally feel obliged to dream up some scheme whereby the unnecessariat become useful again, but its crap and nobody ever holds them to it. If you even think about it for a minute, it becomes obvious: what if Sanders (or your political savior of choice) had won? Would that fix the Ohio river valley? Would it bring back Youngstown Sheet and Tube, or something comparable that could pay off a mortgage? Would it end the drug game in Appalachia, New England, and the Great Plains? Would it call back the economic viability of small farms in Illinois, of ranching in Oklahoma and Kansas? Would it make a hardware store viable again in Iowa, or a bookstore in Nevada? Who even bothers to pretend anymore?
By linking education to jobs in the way that we have, we’ve guaranteed that a large number of our citizens will not be qualified for the majority of dignified work. It’s hard not to fault their resentment, even as it seems misguided for failing to understand a hypothetical Kaldor-Hicksian analysis of their error.
The whole problem is that the loss of dignified work is concentrated among people who can’t readily understand such arguments. This allows us to pretend that the correlation between education and income is noble and meritocratic without challenge. But in fact, we’ve installed an invidious systematic bar to recognizing the real pain of poor people without college educations, especially men. We hold out the promise of both self-sufficiency and effective citizenship only to those who can jump through all the hoops between kindergarten and a Bachelor’s degree.
In the best of all possible worlds, maybe both parties would ignore anti-diversity interests and find a way to make economic policies that reduce racist and sexist resentments. That’s right: I’m suggesting that maybe we should not hope for 100% political participation, at least insofar as that requires that white supremacists and chauvinists find viable politicians who will court them openly. In the second-best world, both parties would court the anti-diversity vote while remaining conveniently but systematically paralyzed in the realization of their anti-diversity policy preferences, and thus blunt their power.
Yet with Trump poised to run as a populist nationalist demagogue explicitly recognizing and courting this demographic, it may already be too late even if he loses. The neo-reactionary movement will become self-aware and have a single partisan home.
So in the third-best world we actually inhabit (or is it even worse than that?), the uneducated white vote (call them George Wallace Democrats) is lost to the Democratic Party. Miller and Schofield point out that this had already mostly happened by 1996, and called it “The Decline of Class and the Rise of Race.”
Perhaps deBoer shouldn’t worry so much: if the clockwork thesis continues to hold up, we should expect the next few elections to reverse the focus on race and develop conflicts along the very dimensions of class inequality that the Left has championed. Soon the Republican Party should begin courting disaffected economic liberals who are willing to overlook the party’s racism. In fact: they’re ahead of schedule:
1. Of course, there were actually four serious parties competing in the 1860 election before the Civil War. If there had been three, though, the result would have been quite different. Both the Republican and Democratic parties’ inability to ally behind a single candidate because of regional differences over slavery and unity produced not two but four Presidential candidates. Lincoln’s victory was thus mostly a matter of chance, and indeed Stephen Douglas and John Bell together–both “centrists” convinced that avoiding the slavery issue could stave off secession–received more votes than Lincoln did, as many Southerners preferred union to secession. With their influence split, one of the more radical parties was victorious; but it could have gone differently.↩ 2. I’m being inexact: what I’m describing could easily be understood as simply a much more desirable modus vivendi than our current equilibrium between neoliberalism and nationalism.↩
There is nothing intrinsic or essential enough about political ideologies. Ideologies are arbitrary assemblages of procedural and substantive policy preferences that are aggregated sociologically, so “diversity” may be either an infinitely receding goal or it may end up mistaking sociological groupings for natural kinds.
One of the main problems here is the criterion by which we judge philosophical results. Kristie Dotson’s paper “How is this Paper Philosophy?” does a really good job at laying out how the absence of stable criteria for the acceptance of scholarship allows white and male scholars to privilege their own work and exclude the work of non-white and non-male scholars. The same holds for liberal and conservative scholars: if there’s no criterion for good work, it is far too easy to use political heuristics and litmus tests to stand in for the quality of a person’s scholarship.
Insofar as we are engaged in a collective project, we must both mutually support each others’ inquiry and avoid errors. These two goals are at odds: homogeneity can also lead to unchallenged motivated reasoning and thus to polarization and error. But mutual inquiry requires some degree of shared values, assumptions, and methods which make political diversity divisive and paralyzing.
It’s not clear what we want when we say we want more political diversity or conservatives. Much of Haidt’s argument is deliberately equivocating about the relevant terms and tendencies. (That is: using partisan identification as a stand-in for shared values, assumptions, beliefs, and topical interests, where most of the work done by psychologists doesn’t have either explicit or implicit political valence.) According to Haidt’s early work, the problem is that liberals somehow just don’t recognize several fundamental moral intutions: liberals don’t think purity, loyalty, and appropriate authority matter. So he’s been telling this “liberals have broken moral compasses” story for a while now, and it’s dumb, and he’s mostly backed away from it, only to replace it with this other kind of story: liberals have different hobby horses than conservatives, and we need as many hobby horses as possible to keep everyone honest.
The liberal response has largely been to say that Haidt’s (early) description is right (i.e. liberals really don’t care about purity, ingroup loyalty, or hierarchical moral intutions) but that this is really liberals being rational and overcoming bad impulses. I think that story is bullshit, too: everyone on both sides of partisan debates finds ways to incorporate the full panoply of moral intuitions. We just do it differently, on different topics: liberals don’t find homosexuality unpure and thus immoral, they find GMOs and pollution unpure and thus immoral. Liberals don’t respect priests, they respect scientists. Etc.
So if that’s right, then it’s not about a “diversity of thinking styles” when we see calls to include conservative researchers. You won’t be including lost moral intuitions, but rather missing beliefs and priors. There’s no natural liberal/conservative divide, just commitments and policy views that get stacked together arbitrarily or sociologically. So political diversity is about whether we need to include, not just moral conservatives or libertarians, but Republicans. Perhaps without their arbitrary ideological constellations to counter our own, our research communities are prone to systematic errors and biases. But if political diversity gathers people with arbitrarily assembled constellations of beliefs, rather than Republican and Democratic brains, there is value in seeking out disagreement just for its own sake, to engage in some helpful motivated skepticism to counter our own motivated reasoning. When like-minded researchers engage in motivated reasoning to pursue lines of inquiry that support their arbitrary priors, they are likely to fall into error or polarize their results. This is even more likely when the criterion of evaluation is itself murky. (“Philosophers admit falsifying results of thought experiment,” etc.)
To be clear, if the cultural cognition view is correct, it’s not ideology or psychology that is driving my partisan affiliation, assumptions, values, beliefs, and topical interests; it’s identity-protective cognition garnered from my friends and our shared identity. So we can’t have a professional community that won’t have some of that: by dint of calling ourselves philosophers we’ll have some priors we’re not well-placed to challenge. Certainly we COULD do a lot to reduce the potential for bias in this way, but it’s just not clear that we SHOULD. The evidence suggests that research communities require shared beliefs and goals to engage in inquiry at all. It’s really difficult to build professional communities around fundamental disagreements, precisely because that community requires shared goals and methods, and identity-based disagreements create schisms and hunkering down and bullet-biting. Philosophy already suffers pretty badly in that area.
These are all good reasons to hope for more diversity in philosophy, though mostly on race, gender, sexuality, class, and disability lines. But not just the big stuff…. For instance, how many geologists do we have in philosophy of science? Wouldn’t that expand the kinds of research questions there? Where are the dentists and home health aids in bioethics? And sure, where are the great climate change skeptics? Where are the great defenders of Catholic sexual morality? Where are the great pro-IQ philosophers? (And are those even what we mean when we talk about conservatives? I prefer to think not, but Haidt et al explicitly mention IQ issues, so….)
Those dimensions of diversity seem (to me) to be of only minor importance compared to the big stuff, though of course worth cultivating. So far, though, I haven’t yet seen an argument for weighting it comparatively heavier.
Recently I’ve been thinking about a book by Erin McKenna which I read as an undergraduate: The Task of Utopia: A Pragmatist and Feminist Perspective. I read it then because it promised to bridge the divide between my favorite genre, science-fiction, and my interest in philosophy. But the book profoundly changed me, and I’m always surprised that others haven’t read it; it feels like a classic. Using John Dewey’s work, McKenna articulates what she calls a “process model” for utopias, whereby we distinguish disputes about “end-states” from judgments about the “ends-in-view.” And this has always deeply affected my politics and thinking about political philosophy. I tend to think that far too many theoretical and practical divides are reducible to debates about end-states, such that even though progressives, libertarians, and anarchists all share the same criticism of some aspect of the state, they cannot work together. Usually these disputes are bolstered by philosophical and theoretical apparatus. The divide between prison reformers and abolitionists, for instance, is understood by abolitionists through the lens of Foucault’s critique of the 19th Century reformers, whose reforms, though sometimes well-meaning, only intensified incarceration by making it more exacting and effective while empowering the reformers. Meliorists who merely protests injustices or inequities but do not loudly call for the absolute abolition of prisons are falling into a “carceral logic” by which prisons will inevitably be preserved in all their evils.
Where I find McKenna helpful is, first, in her claim that end-state disagreements tend to be associated with masculine utopias, while feminist utopias emphasize ends-in-view (which jives with my readings of the relevant science-fiction utopias, and also of polital theories that have utopian elements), and second, in her Dewyan typology for judging ends-in-view. According to McKenna’s reading of Dewey, there are five criterion (five questions, really) by which we can judge an end-in-view:
Does it promote education and participation? Will the people participate in decision-making and goal formation?
Is it realistic? Does it acknowledge our embeddedness in constraining contexts?
Is it flexible? Can it be modified as new conditions emerge?
Does it aim to develop capacities and abilities, not just states of affairs?
Does it open up possibilities or close them off? Does it promote plurality or isolation? Cooperation or competition? Power or paralysis?
This is where I find abolitionism frustrating: the project of prison abolition seems like an end-state rather than an end-in-view. It deliberately ignores (1) the wishes of victims, citizens, and even many of the incarcerated (all of whom are understood to be duped and epistemically blinded by the ideology of carcerality unless they adopt abolitionism.) It doesn’t start with our current carcerality and work away from it, but rather starts with a rejection of the current context and the constraints it creates (2). It’s inflexible (3) in the sense that it does not allow that some limited carcerality (a la Norway?) might still be reasonable. Though there’s the sense that that is the direction that abolitionism must proceed, it does not currently emphasize the development of the skills and abilities (4) that alternatives to incarceration would require. And though it does aim to foreclose carcerality forever, I do think abolitionists are most concerned to promote plurality, cooperation, and empowerment (5) for some of the most dominated people in our world today, which is why I can’t help feeling the pull of abolition even as the other objections I mention raise red flags.
Meliorism, on the other hand, has all the problems that the abolitionists describe. Reformers work with and within the system to resist it, which requires all sorts of rhetorical and practical compromises. By chipping at the edges and living too comfortably with “constraints” and “realism,” (2) meliorists leave the status quo mostly untouched. We adopt democratic projects and processes (1), but leave the fundamental injustices in place. We develop capacities (4) but usually we can’t create the institutions and conditions (5) where those capacities will be actualized. We are, at base, flexible (3) with evil, and thereby compromised by it, while the righteous know that evil requires inflexibility and even sacrifice.
Angela Davis puts it this way at the start of Are Prisons Obsolete?:
“As important as some reforms may be-the elimination of sexual abuse and medical neglect in women’s prison, for example-frameworks that rely exclusively on reforms help to produce the stultifying idea that nothing lies beyond the prison. Debates about strategies of decarceration, which should be the focal point of our conversations on the prison crisis, tend to be marginalized when reform takes the center stage. The most immediate question today is how to prevent the further expansion of prison populations and how to bring as many imprisoned women and men as possible back into what prisoners call the ‘free world.'”
No reformer wants to “produce the stultifying idea that nothing lies beyond prison,” but much of the rest of Davis’s book is devoted to the claim that reform is inextricable from that consequence. Ultimately, she equates prison reform with the absurdity of “slavery reform.” America’s prisons are historically and in current practice entangled with the Black Codes, the convict-lease system, Jim Crow, sexism, and antiblack racism; therefore, reformers are merely (hopefully unknowingly) fluffing the pillows while white supremacy and patriarchy is maintained:
If the words “prison reform” so easily slip from our lips, it is because “prison” and “reform” have been inextricably linked since the beginning of the use of imprisonment as the main means of punishing those who violate social norms.
Yet consider: Davis assumes that the majority of the increase in incarceration has been driven by the drug war, and that alternatives to incarceration will foreground drug treatment and decriminalization of drugs. In fact, though the largest group of arrests are tied to drug use, the largest group of prisoners are incarcerated for violence; this reflects sentencing differences and the kinds of treatment diversion programs for which she calls. There’s good evidence that the drug war, poverty, and racist policing produce some of that violence, but not all of it. Plus, prison populations are already shrinking, but at least some of this decline is due to the increase of post-release strategies that export carceral logics into a parolee’s (or even an unindicted suspect’s) everyday life. The goals of decarceration can fall into the logic of carcerality as easily as the goals of reform. So how much really separates reformers from abolitionists? A reformer might call for the restoration of prison education and voting rights, for the creation of schools that teach rather than prepare students for prison, for decriminalization and treatment of drug abuse, for poverty-reduction and racial justice, while still thinking that certain kinds of violence should lead to coercive detention, that restorative justice has dangerous implications when applied to cases of sexual assault or organized violence.
And we see similar strands in Davis:
“In thinking specifically about the abolition of prisons using the approach of abolition democracy, we would propose the creation of using an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render the prison obsolete. There is a direct connection with slavery: when slavery was abolished black people were set free, but they lacked access to the material resources that would enable them to fashion new, free lives. Prisons have thrived over the last century precisely because of the absence of those resources and the persistence of some of the deep structures of slavery. They cannot, therefore, be eliminated unless new institutions and resources are made available to those communities that provide, in large part, the human beings that make up the prison population.”
A reformer sees nothing objectionable in those prescriptions, wants to join with the abolitionists for all their ends-in-view and put off the day when end-states might divide us. When the day comes that prisons truly are obsolete, reformers hope that they will be able to see that, too. But who really thinks that today is that day? Not Davis, who wants to “solve social problems” before throwing open the prison doors. In the meantime, why can we not work together to shrink and ameliorate the torturous institutions we all abhor? Why isn’t the reified distinction between abolition and reform as meaningless, today and for the foreseeable future, as the division between those who want to live in a world where the state withers away (Engels) and the world where the state has become small enough to drown in a bathtub (Norquist)? (Norquist now favors some decarceral strategies: is he an ally or an enemy?) If ends-in-view divide us, we must deliberate, compromise, and fight; so long as we are only divided in our utopias, why not collaborate?