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?