No Reason To Blame Liberals (Or, The Unbearable Lightness of Perversity Arguments)


Margo Schlanger reviews Naomi Murakawa's The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, in The New Rambler:

Moving then to what Murakawa demonstrates about federal law-and-order politics, I think it is useful to reslice her arguments a bit crosswise. Murakawa is most successful, but least novel, when she argues that liberals, or, at least, Democrats, have contributed importantly to mass incarceration. President Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill was undoubtedly a highly punitive intervention in federal crime policy. And it must have had effects (though they are hard to quantify) on state incarceration levels too: All those thousands of cops must have arrested people. And federal truth-in-sentencing incentives had at least a marginal effect of increasing incarceration in a number of states. (Although abundant recent work undermines the claim that increased sentences, rather than changes in other aspects of the criminal justice process, have been the main drivers of increased incarceration in recent decades.) The 1984 Sentencing Reform Act was, likewise, a consequentially punitive change in federal policy, and likewise passed with Democratic support. But we didn’t need a new book to make those well-recognized points. The contribution of The First Civil Rightis not to argue that President Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill was punitive and problematic, that Clinton was a triangulator, or more generally that sometimes Democrats aren’t very liberal. Nor is Murakawa’s novel contribution the argument that liberals in 1984 got rolled, when compromise after compromise led Ted Kennedy and his fellow Democrats to acquiesce to a punitive federal sentencing regime change.

Rather, Murakawa’s contribution—the attention-grabbing claim at the core of her book—is her argument that liberalism has built modern American mass incarceration. Her major point along these lines is that the liberal preoccupation with using fair, non-racist procedures has contributed importantly to the growth of the carceral state, taming reform urges, entrenching the punitive regime. This argument sounds in perversity—on Murakawa’s account, liberalism’s attempt to improve racial justice using procedural tools not only fails, it is counter-productive, entrenching and worsening the system’s inequities.

Albert Hirschman, in The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy, analyzed the appeal of the perversity argument as a reactionary trope: “What better way to show him up as half foolish and half criminal than to prove that he is achieving the exact opposite of what he is proclaiming as his objective?”

More here.