There are few things rarer than a major politician doing something that is genuinely courageous and principled, but Jim Webb’s impassioned commitment to fundamental prison reform is exactly that. Webb’s interest in the issue was prompted by his work as a journalist in 1984, when he wrote about an American citizen who was locked away in a Japanese prison for two years under extremely harsh conditions for nothing more than marijuana possession. After decades of mindless “tough-on-crime” hysteria, an increasingly irrational “drug war,” and a sprawling, privatized prison state as brutal as it is counter-productive, America has easily surpassed Japan — and virtually every other country in the world — to become what Brown University Professor Glenn Loury recently described as a “a nation of jailers” whose “prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history.”
What’s most notable about Webb’s decision to champion this cause is how honest his advocacy is. He isn’t just attempting to chip away at the safe edges of America’s oppressive prison state. His critique of what we’re doing is fundamental, not incremental. And, most important of all, Webb is addressing head-on one of the principal causes of our insane imprisonment fixation: our aberrational insistence on criminalizing and imprisoning non-violent drug offenders (when we’re not doing worse to them). That is an issue most politicians are petrified to get anywhere near, as evidenced just this week by Barack Obama’s adolescent, condescending snickering when asked about marijuana legalization, in response to which Obama gave a dismissive answer that Andrew Sullivan accurately deemed “pathetic.” Here are just a few excerpts from Webb’s Senate floor speech this week (.pdf) on his new bill to create a Commission to study all aspects of prison reform:
Let’s start with a premise that I don’t think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have 5% of the world’s population; we have 25% of the world’s known prison population. We have an incarceration rate in the United States, the world’s greatest democracy, that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice. . . .
The elephant in the bedroom in many discussions on the criminal justice system is the sharp increase in drug incarceration over the past three decades. In 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; today we have more than 500,000, an increase of 1,200%. The blue disks represent the numbers in 1980; the red disks represent the numbers in 2007 and a significant percentage of those incarcerated are for possession or nonviolent offenses stemming from drug addiction and those sorts of related behavioral issues. . . .
In many cases these issues involve people’s ability to have proper counsel and other issues, but there are stunning statistics with respect to drugs that we all must come to terms with. African-Americans are about 12% of our population; contrary to a lot of thought and rhetoric, their drug use rate in terms of frequent drug use rate is about the same as all other elements of our society, about 14%. But they end up being 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of those sentenced to prison by the numbers that have been provided by us. . . .
Another piece of this issue that I hope we will address with this National Criminal Justice Commission is what happens inside our prisons. . . . We also have a situation in this country with respect to prison violence and sexual victimization that is off the charts and we must get our arms around this problem. We also have many people in our prisons who are among what are called the criminally ill, many suffering from hepatitis and HIV who are not getting the sorts of treatment they deserve.
Importantly, what are we going to do about drug policy – the whole area of drug policy in this country?
And how does that affect sentencing procedures and other alternatives that we might look at?
Webb added that ”America’s criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace” and “we are locking up too many people who do not belong in jail.”
It’s hard to overstate how politically thankless, and risky, is Webb’s pursuit of this issue — both in general and particularly for Webb. Though there has been some evolution of public opinion on some drug policy issues, there is virtually no meaningful organized constituency for prison reform. To the contrary, leaving oneself vulnerable to accusations of being “soft on crime” has, for decades, been one of the most toxic vulnerabilities a politician can suffer (ask Michael Dukakis). Moreover, the privatized Prison State is a booming and highly profitable industry, with an army of lobbyists, donations, and other well-funded weapons for targeting candidates who threaten its interests.
Most notably, Webb is in the Senate not as an invulnerable, multi-term political institution from a safely blue state (he’s not Ted Kennedy), but is the opposite: he’s a first-term Senator from Virginia, one of the “toughest” “anti-crime” states in the country (it abolished parole in 1995 and is second only to Texas in the number of prisoners it executes), and Webb won election to the Senate by the narrowest of margins, thanks largely to George Allen’s macaca-driven implosion. As Ezra Klein wrote, with understatement: “Lots of politicians make their name being anti-crime, which has come to mean pro-punishment. Few make their name being pro-prison reform.”
For a Senator like Webb to spend his time trumpeting the evils of excessive prison rates, racial disparities in sentencing, the unjust effects of the Drug War, and disgustingly harsh conditions inside prisons is precisely the opposite of what every single political consultant would recommend that he do. There’s just no plausible explanation for what Webb’s actions other than the fact that he’s engaged in the noblest and rarest of conduct: advocating a position and pursuing an outcome because he actually believes in it and believes that, with reasoned argument, he can convince his fellow citizens to see the validity of his cause. And he is doing this despite the fact that it potentially poses substantial risks to his political self-interest and offers almost no prospect for political reward. Webb is far from perfect — he’s cast some truly bad votes since being elected — but, in this instance, not only his conduct but also his motives are highly commendable.
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Webb’s actions here underscore a broader point. Our political class has trained so many citizens not only to tolerate, but to endorse, cowardly behavior on the part of their political leaders. When politicians take bad positions, ones that are opposed by large numbers of their supporters, it is not only the politicians, but also huge numbers of their supporters, who step forward to offer excuses and justifications: well, they have to take that position because it’s too politically risky not to; they have no choice and it’s the smart thing to do. That’s the excuse one heard for years as Democrats meekly acquiesced to or actively supported virtually every extremist Bush policy from the attack on Iraq to torture and warrantless eavesdropping; it’s the excuse which even progressives offer for why their political leaders won’t advocate for marriage equality or defense spending cuts; and it’s the same excuse one hears now to justify virtually every Obama “disappointment.”
Webb’s commitment to this unpopular project demonstrates how false that excuse-making is – just as it was proven false by Russ Feingold’s singular, lonely, October, 2001 vote against the Patriot Act and Feingold’s subsequent, early opposition to the then-popular Bush’s assault on civil liberties, despite his representing the purple state of Wisconsin. Political leaders have the ability to change public opinion by engaging in leadership and persuasive advocacy. Any cowardly politician can take only those positions that reside safely within the majoritiarian consensus. Actual leaders, by definition, confront majoritarian views when they are misguided and seek to change them, and politicians have far more ability to affect and change public opinion than they want the public to believe they have.
The political class wants people to see them as helpless captives to immutable political realities so that they have a permanent, all-purpose excuse for whatever they do, so that they are always able to justify their position by appealing to so-called “political realities.” But that excuse is grounded in a fundamentally false view of what political leaders are actually capable of doing in terms of shifting public opinion, as NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen explained when I interviewed him about his theories of how political consensus is maintained and manipulated:
GG: One of the points you make is that it’s not just journalists who define what these spheres [of consensus, legitimate debate and deviance] encompass. You argue that politicians, political actors can change what’s included in these spheres based on the positions that they take. And in some sense, you could even say that that’s kind of what leadership is — not just articulating what already is within the realm of consensus, which anyone can do, but taking ideas that are marginalized or within the sphere of deviance and bringing them into the sphere of legitimacy. How does that process work? How do political actors change those spheres?
JR: Well, that’s exactly what leadership is. And I think it’s crippling sometimes to our own sense of efficacy in politics and media, if we assume that the media has all of the power to frame the debate and decide what consensus is, and consign things to deviant status. That’s not really true. That’s true under conditions of political immobilization, leadership default, a rage for normalcy, but in ordinary political life, leaders, by talking about things, make them legitimate. Parties, by pushing for things, make them part of the sphere of debate. Important and visible people can question consensus, and all of a sudden expand it. These spheres are malleable; if the conversation of democracy is alive and if you make your leaders talk about things, it becomes valid to talk about them.
And I really do think there’s a self-victimization that sometimes goes on, but to go back to the beginning of your question, there’s something else going on, which is the ability to infect us with notions of what’s realistic is one of the most potent powers press and political elites have. Whenever we make that kind of decision — “well it’s pragmatic, let’s be realistic” — what we’re really doing is we’re speculating about other Americans, our fellow citizens, and what they’re likely to accept or what works on them or what stimuli they respond to. And that way of seeing other Americans, fellow citizens, is in fact something the media has taught us; that is one of the deepest lessons we’ve learned from the media even if we are skeptics of the MSM.
And one of the things I see on the left that really bothers me is the ease with which people skeptical of the media will talk about what the masses believe and how the masses will be led and moved in this way that shows me that the mass media tutors them on how to see their fellow citizens. And here the Internet again has at least some potential, because we don’t have to guess what those other Americans think. We can encounter them ourselves, and thereby reshape our sense of what they think. I think every time people make that judgment about what’s realistic, what they’re really doing is they’re imagining what the rest of the country would accept, and how other people think, and they get those ideas from the media.
We’ve been trained how we talk about our political leaders primarily by a media that worships political cynicism and can only understand the world through political game-playing. Thus, so many Americans have been taught to believe not only that politicians shouldn’t have the obligation of leadership imposed on them — i.e., to persuade the public of what is right — but that it’s actually smart and wise of them to avoid positions they believe in when doing so is politically risky.
People love now to assume the role of super-sophisticated political consultant rather than a citizen demanding actions from their representatives. Due to the prism of gamesmanship through which political pundits understand and discuss politics, many citizens have learned to talk about their political leaders as though they’re political strategists advising their clients as to the politically shrewd steps that should be taken (“this law is awful and unjust and he was being craven by voting for it, but he was absolutely right to vote for it because the public wouldn’t understand if he opposed it”), rather than as citizens demanding that their public servants do the right thing (“this law is awful and unjust and, for that reason alone, he should oppose it and show leadership by making the case to the public as to why it’s awful and unjust”).
It may be unrealistic to expect most politicians in most circumstances to do what Jim Webb is doing here (or what Russ Feingold did during Bush’s first term). My guess is that Webb, having succeeded in numerous other endeavors outside of politics, is not desperate to cling to his political office, and he has thus calculated that he’d rather have six years in the Senate doing things he thinks are meaningful than stay there forever on the condition that he cowardly renounce any actual beliefs. It’s probably true that most career politicians, possessed of few other talents or interests, are highly unlikely to think that way.
But the fact that cowardly actions from political leaders are inevitable is no reason to excuse or, worse, justify and even advocate that cowardice. In fact, the more citizens are willing to excuse and even urge political cowardice in the name of “realism” or “pragmatism” (“he was smart to take this bad, unjust position because Americans are too stupid or primitive for him to do otherwise and he needs to be re-elected”), the more common that behavior will be. Politicians and their various advisers, consultants and enablers will make all the excuses they can for why politicians do what they do and insist that public opinion constrains them to do otherwise. That excuse-making is their role, not the role of citizens. What ought to be demanded of political officials by citizens is precisely the type of leadership Webb is exhibiting here.