The Conservative War on Prisons: how an unlikely coalition of evangelicals and libertarians changed the politics of crime

By Alan Bean

I heartily commend this well-crafted article on the unlikely evangelical-libertarian coalition that created the Right on Crime movement. David Dagan and Steven M. Teles appreciate that liberal organizations like the ACLU, the Open Societies Institute and the Public Welfare Foundation carried the torch for criminal justice reform during the dark ages (1980-2000) of tough-on-crime politic and ever-expanding prison populations.  But liberal politicians have been too afraid of the soft-on-crime label to associate themselves with the reform movement; in fact, Democrats like Bill Clinton built careers on out-toughing the conservatives.

Real political change required a bi-partisan approach, and this meant that the impetus for reform had to come from the political right.  Democrats will vote for change, but only if conservatives give them political cover.  Conservatives, especially in deep-red states like Texas, don’t have to worry about looking soft.

But it goes deeper than that.  The initial inspiration for the reform movement came from the evangelical world.  Pat Nolan, an evangelical Catholic Republican who once carried a torch for the lock-’em-up movement, went to prison in 1993 on corruption charges.  Nolan still claims he was innocent (and I am inclined to believe him) but, like many defendants, he accepted a plea deal rather than roll the dice with a jury.  In the joint, Nolan encountered the brokenness that is the American criminal justice system.  Because he was plugged into the evangelical world of Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship and the Republican political establishment, Nolan found ways to make things happen.

If Dagan and Teles were writing a book rather than an article they might have nuanced their argument a bit.  While it is true that evangelicals and libertarians shaped the Right on Crime movement, most of the enlistees, to this point, are ex-public officials and public intellectuals.  It remains to be seen whether conservative elected officials with seats to defend will join the reform movement.

In addition, more could be said about the role of the ill-famed Tulia drug sting and related phenomena like the Dallas Sheetrock scandal and the unraveling of the Texas regional narcotics drug force system in softening the political soil for reform in the Lone Star State.  Tulia (and its step-children) undermined the credibility of the war on drugs in Texas, the primary driver of growth in the prison system.  Conservative politicians like Rick Perry were temporarily working in an environment in which the criminal justice system was viewed with a measure of suspicion.  I would like to see Scott Henson’s take on this issue.

But you can only say so much in a single article and the Dagan-Teles argument is generally convincing.  I urge you to read this piece clear through because some of the best stuff is saved for last.  The authors believe that reform doesn’t come when convincing arguments transform misguided conservatives into well-informed liberals.  Liberals are convinced by folks from their own tribe wielding arguments that are consistent with the liberal worldview and conservatives are no different.  This means that conservatives are unlikely to be converted by liberals; they must get the message from trusted brokers in their own community.  Here’s a good summary of the argument:

This shift in meaning on the right happened mainly because of creative, persuasive, long-term work by conservatives themselves. Only advocates with unquestioned ideological bona fides, embedded in organizations known to be core parts of conservative infrastructure, could perform this kind of ideological alchemy. As Yale law professor Dan Kahan has argued, studies and randomized trials are useless in persuading the ideologically committed until such people are convinced that new information is not a threat to their identity. Until then, it goes in one ear and out the other. Only rock-ribbed partisans, not squishy moderates, can successfully engage in this sort of “identity vouching” for previously disregarded facts. Of course, there are limits to how far ideological reinvention can go. As political scientist David Karol has argued, it is unlikely to work when it requires crossing a major, organized member of a party coalition.

Walter Fisher, who did his best work during the Reagan years, arrived at similar conclusions a generation ago.  “Any story, any form of rhetorical communication,” Fisher wrote, “not only says something about the world, it also implies an audience, persons who conceive of themselves in very specific ways.  If a story denies a person’s self-conception, it does not matter what it says about the world.  In the instance of protest, rival factions’ stories deny each other in respect to self-conceptions and the world.  The only way to bridge this gap, if it can be bridged through discourse, is by telling stories that do not negate the self-conceptions that people hold of themselves.”

The implications of this position for reformers are profound.  We can’t reform public policy without a bipartisan coalition and the prime impetus for change must come from the political right.  This means liberal reformers who are serious about effecting change must establish meaningful relationships with their ideological opposites.  We will get nowhere if we lead with arguments (however valid) that deny the self-conception of the very people we are trying to convince.

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