Mass Incarceration and the Great Shift Right

I’ve just finished Heather Ann Thompson’s new article, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History,” 97 J. Am. Hist. 703 (2010).  This purports to be a first effort by an historian to write about the place of mass incarceration in recent American social and political history.  For the most part, the article strikes me as a modest repackaging of work done by sociologists and legal scholars; I don’t see much here that carries us beyond the contributions of folks like Jonathan Simon, Jim Whitman, and David Garland.  Still, students of mass incarceration may find something of interest in Thompson’s efforts to link mass incarceration to three of the most important phenomena in postwar American history: urban decay, the collapse of the labor movement, and the breakup of the New Deal political coalition and ascendance of the right.

I found the latter discussion especially thought-provoking.  Although it is well-recognized that Republicans have emphasized law-and-order themes since at least 1968 and that the era of mass incarceration has also been an era of conservative domination in national politics, Thompson challenges the conventional view that mass incarceration was a result of the right’s political success.  She argues that liberal Democrats, no less than conservative Republicans, embraced law-and-order themes in the 1960’s.  President Johnson, for instance, made crime a major political issue well before the pivotal ’68 election. Thompson thus suggests that mass incarceration might have proceeded even if Democrats had retained their preeminent position after 1968.

Thompson contends that mass incarceration may have been as much a cause of conservative ascendance as its result.

She points in particular to the way that mass incarceration has resulted in the mass disenfranchisement of black voters, and to the reallocation of legislative representation away from urban areas (which have lost much population due to mass incarceration) to the rural areas that host most prisons (which receive “credit” for the inmates when legislative districts are drawn).  In a closely divided electorate, Thompson argues, these effects of mass incarceration may prove politically decisive in favor of Republicans (e.g., in the 2000 presidential vote in Florida).

And maybe there is another important political effect that Thompson does not discuss, albeit more at the state than the national level: burgeoning corrections budgets have created fiscal crises in many states.  These crises, in turn, provide justification for dismantling the social service infrastructure and privatizing everything in sight, thereby crippling reliably Democratic constituencies (government employees, social service providers, social service clientele).  More generally, the crises also fuel perceptions that government is intrinsically incompetent and untrustworthy.  How, I wonder, would government budgets and national political culture look different today if our incarceration rates were what they were a generation ago?

4 Replies to “Mass Incarceration and the Great Shift Right”

  1. I think when it comes to democrats there should be distinction between New Democrats like Bill Clinton and traditional Democrats like LBJ and FDR. I don’t believe Jimmy Carter was anywhere near as aggressive as Bill Clinton in increasing sentences.

    You mention increasing penal budgets crowding out social services. I am curious if there is any specific economic data regarding your that point. Also, I have not had a chance to read Thompson’s article; does she mention Prison Keynesianism at all or have you in any other post?

  2. On Carter, there is an interesting and illuminating shift midway through the presidency as Carter followed the rest of the country in a more law-and-order direction. For instance, marijuana legalization initially had significant support from some in the administration, but then went nowhere. You are right that Clinton has a lot more to answer for than Carter when it comes to sentencing missteps, but I think it also fair to say that few, if any, “liberals” on the national political stage have prioritized the humane treatment of criminal defendants in the same way that they have championed, say, reproductive rights or gay marriage. It seems to me that politicians of all political stripes are quick to throw criminals under the bus come election time.

    I don’t have any specific data on the “crowding out” thesis, although it seems fairly self-evident — at least here in Wisconsin, where we are in the midst of slashing spending on education and social services in the name of deficit reduction but the corrections budget remains sacrosanct. Perhaps other states are different.

    Thompson does not mention prison Keynesianism, and I am unfamiliar with the term.

  3. Prison Keynesianism is the corollary to military Keynesianism in that we as a nation use the incarceration industry to create jobs and employment.

    I can’t help but think our incarceration rate is directly tied to the criminal justice industry, and we will never reduce incarceration rates that industry and establishment finds work elsewhere. Paul Street has a good article on the topic at

    I also saw that you have some posts on evidence based reform. I will be reading those in the next few days as I know the Pew center had a big release a couple weeks ago, and the results seemed like selective auditing. I would be curious as to what you have to say about that study.

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