Crime and Political Ideology
by Jean Hardisty
"An eye for an eye" captures the
conservative model of punishment in contemporary western societies. That is,
when a wrong is done to an innocent person, the wrongdoer must be severely
punished in order to "even the books" and stand as an example to deter other
wrongdoers. Its advocates often call this punishment model the "law-and-order"
In contrast, the liberal
punishment model emphasizes the rights of the accused, humane (not "cruel and
unusual") punishment, and rehabilitation of those convicted of a crime.
Conservatives and rightists belittle this model as "soft on crime." In the United
States, the two opposing models compete in the realms of culture and public
policy. For most of U.S. history, the harsher punishment model has been so
dominant that it is part of our international image. We are the country where
we "hang 'em high." Only in an exceptional period does the principle and
practice of redemption gain the upper hand.
What explains the U.S. inclination
to favor the law-and-order punishment model? Certainly in times of social
tension and economic unpredictability, the punishment paradigm is especially
appealing. When people feel vulnerable and insecure, rationally or not, they
often look for someone, some thing, or some group to blame. Because racism
pervades U.S. society as a whole, people of color, especially African Americans,
who cluster at the lower end of the economic ladder, are close at hand to serve
for White people as "the other," as a source of criminal threat for the
dominant population. And it is often true even for people whom White people
have labeled as "the other," but who don't see themselves as attached to, or
identified with, those labeled criminals.
A convergence of several of the conditions
that create social tension - for instance, hard economic times, rapid social
change and/or a high crime rate - create a hospitable climate for an upsurge of
the law-and-order paradigm. If rightists hold political power and rightist
cultural values are dominant at the time these conditions prevail, they are
likely to work to strengthen public support for this paradigm, usually by
emphasizing an "us/them" dichotomy that demonizes criminals and expands the
definition of criminal behavior.
Only a powerful political force
can push against the historical U.S. preference for a harsh punishment model. A
strong progressive movement can mount a countervailing political analysis that
promotes an understanding of the root causes of crime, critiques the law enforcement and criminal justice systems, and
emphasizes rehabilitation and rights for criminal defendants and prisoners. Such
an analysis is associated with liberal political politicians, activists and
advocates. A progressive analysis that questions the very right of the State to
incarcerate its citizens rarely garners widespread public support.
However, even when liberal
arguments gain political strength and acceptance, the policies that follow
merely moderate the punishment model. A period of such moderation occurred in the
1960s and 1970s, when liberalism became strong enough to challenge the existing
criminal justice system. Liberal publications, speakers at demonstrations, and
political leaders talked about "equality" and "the dead-end life of the ghetto"
as a place of no opportunity, and promoted a model of rehabilitation for
criminals. This model focused on acknowledging that criminals were often the
product of poverty and economic segregation, and that society should respond to
behavior deemed criminal with education and opportunity as a form of crime
prevention, and training while the criminal paid his/her debt to society.
But in those same decades, a
conservative backlash began to gain popularity. By the end of the 1970s, the New
Right, a growing social and political movement whose central program was to
attack liberal ideas and practices, had labeled the liberal model the
"coddling" of criminals. The New Right directed its message - that the country
appeared to be spinning out of control - to White men, conservative Christians,
and White Southerners. "Middle Americans," feeling they were losing status and
financial security in a time of social change, were encouraged by rightists to
fear "chaos" in the streets and in private life. Subtle messages appealed to
racial stereotypes by implying that the reforms of the 1960s and 1970s had
strengthened the position of "undeserving" welfare recipients (usually stereotyped
as people of color) and criminals at the expense of "good" White people. Soon
moderate Democrats and even some liberals began to collaborate in the promotion
of the backlash slogan, "tough on crime."
It wasn't simply economic and
social tensions that underlay the New Right's success in promoting its message
on crime. "Law and order" resonated with a powerful ideological strain within
the U.S. populace - the conservative worldview. You might think of this
worldview as the ideological default to which many White Americans return when
they are anxious, confused, or resentful.
The Prominence of the Conservative Ideological
As with so many of its policies,
the Right's conservative view of human nature and a preeminent desire for an
orderly society drives the its law-and-order agenda. While the liberal,
humanistic vision of human nature is that people are basically good, but are made
bad by oppressive poverty, abuse, addiction, racism, and/or lack of
opportunity, the Right's view is that people are bad by nature. Rightists see urges
to sinful, aggressive, and selfish behavior as human nature. Therefore, conservative
rightists often accuse liberals and leftists of being "idealists," who fail to
understand that people are fundamentally flawed and prone to anti-social acts.
For many rightists - especially
those in the Christian Right - the only fruitful path of redemption lies in
conversion to conservative Christianity. This path, promoted most notably by
Charles "Chuck" Colson, whose conversion occurred while he served time in
prison for crimes committed as part of the Watergate scandal in the 1980s, has
become a small redemption industry.
The conservative view of
humankind as sinful and in need of self-discipline, harsh punishment, and
religious redemption to keep people on the correct path stems from a
philosophical belief that society in its "natural" state is chaotic. Therefore
society's first obligation is to establish a formidable authority. 
Authority naturally resides in the State, the Church, and the family/community.
In the words of Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher who is the
father of the conservative worldview, "Before the names of just and unjust can
have place, there must be some coercive power."
Rightists, despite their
occasional adherence to values of love and charity, believe that humankind is
divided into good (worthy) people and bad (unworthy) people. Bad or unworthy
people are irresponsible and/or anti-social because of weakness,
self-indulgence, and lack of the will to overcome their baser instincts. The
definition of "good" and "bad" has many dimensions, including moral, cultural,
economic, and political. The designation "unworthy" can be stark and
unforgiving. Lack of discipline should earn a "bad reputation" and a watchful
eye from law enforcement officials.
The character trait of a strong
and law-abiding person, on the other hand, is "social responsibility." For
such a person, the first hurdle is to resist temptation and, by doing so, live
a good life. The story of Hester Prynne, the Puritan women in Nathaniel
Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, captures
the conservative worldview. Prynne, who became the town minister's lover, was
forced to wear a large, cloth scarlet A for "adulterer" on her chest for the
rest of her life, making a clear statement that she was an undisciplined
The public policy implications of
this worldview are enormous. For instance, if, as in the liberal model, all
people are potentially good, preventive measures to keep them from coming under
influences that will turn them "bad" are not simply justified, but a practical
response to a rising crime rate. But if, as in the rightist worldview, all
people are born with a strong urge to be "bad" and some are unable to control
those urges through discipline and social responsibility, punishment and
isolation are the appropriate responses to their behavior.
The theme of law and order, as it
stems from the conservative worldview, sets up a stark us/them dichotomy that makes
it possible for "deserving" people to place "them" outside the boundaries of an
orderly and godly society. From this perspective, once outside the boundaries
of legitimate society, "the other" is no longer the responsibility of those who
are good and worthy.
In order to advance the message
that attention to "them" is misplaced by liberals, the Right launched its
campaign to promote "victim's rights" in the 1980s. Building on the
conservative worldview, a "victims' rights" campaign allowed rightists to
introduce conservative tough-on-crime policies without appearing to be racist
or opposed to individual rights and liberties.
How Does Law and Order Play
Out in Racial Terms?
In the United States, existing
institutional, systemic, and individual racism magnify and reinforce this us/them
dichotomy. Because the criminal justice system
of every country serves as a means of control over some members of that society
(and others who get caught up in it), it always reflects the need of the State
for control, the political desire of leaders to stay in power, and the norms
and mores of behavior favored by those leaders and usually supported by at
least a portion of the society's members. In a country with the racial history
of the United States, we cannot be surprised that Whites have always controlled
the criminal justice system and used it to control people of color, especially
African Americans and increasingly all dark-skinned people, including those
from the Middle East and South Asia.
In the ideological and political
campaign to promote "law and order," conservative strategists have been careful
to avoid any mention of its agenda's racial implications. After arguing for
criminalizing certain behaviors, especially drug consumption and distribution,
they never mentioned how this would disproportionately affect communities of
color (where the State's arrests for such behavior are higher than in White and
suburban communities). Some of the academics who promote law-and-order
arguments have even maintained an identity as liberals, and claim to be writing
in the interests of "the community." Through this sleight of hand, rightist
policy-makers have constructed law-and-order policies as a series of supposedly
race-neutral policies, although the outcome of these policies has been to
criminalize, to a vastly disproportionate extent, the behaviors of certain
targeted groups, especially racial minorities. Whether or not these
law-and-order policies were intentionally racist may be open to debate, but
many people, especially people of color, connect the dots and see their outcome
as both intentional and systemic.
You might imagine that an
increased emphasis on law and order would result in increased attention to all
forms of law-breaking. But addressing police brutality and other forms of State
violence clearly is not the focus of law-and-order policies. Nor is it the
focus of the ideological camp that promotes these policies. Such neglect of a
whole class of "victims" - those victimized by police or military power - supports
the assertion that illegitimate race-based practices are the single most
salient feature of the contemporary criminal justice system. Rightists often
blatantly deny statistical evidence of unequal rates of incarceration, arrest,
and punishment by race or class for identical crimes, as well as evidence of
police and criminal justice officials' presumption of guilt according to the
race of the accused. Rightist Professor John J. DiIulio,
Jr., a prominent law-and-order proponent who inaccurately predicted a growing
wave of "super-predator" children, stated that data on the administration of
capital punishment "disclose no trace of racism…." But it
is nearly impossible to study the discrepancies between incarceration rates for
people of color and those of Whites for similar behaviors and not conclude that
these policies, and those who defend them, are racially motivated.
Ideological Contradictions in
Each sector of the Right does not
necessarily support the same policy solutions to the issues of crime and
punishment. Various anti-crime policies create splits and disagreements within
the Right. For example, rightist libertarians - who favor the most limited role
possible for government - object to a punishment model that requires a huge
investment of government funds, even when incarceration is privatized, and
prisons eliminate training and treatment. The cost of building new prisons to
house and police a swelling prison population increases government spending in
both the long- and short-term. Between 1985 and 1995, states and the federal
government opened one new prison a week to cope with the flood of inmates into
the prison system. Much of this increase resulted from the
increasing criminalization of non-violent offenders, through three-strikes
laws, mandatory sentences, and drug laws. Referring to the many economic
interests that now have a vested interest in maintaining high rates of
incarceration, some critics, notably Angela Davis, have called this the
emergence of a "prison-industrial complex." Police departments, private prison
corporations, unions of prison guards, rural communities eager for prison jobs,
and businesses that provide prisons with food, security, and maintenance serve
as pressure groups to assure the continuation of ever-increasing funding for
prisons and to support tough on crime policies and drug laws that continually
escalate rates of imprisonment.
Widespread imposition of the
death penalty also creates dissonance for some rightists. Between 1995 and
2003, prisoners in the U.S. were executed at an average rate of one per week.
Although execution is a more expensive form of punishment than life-long imprisonment
(due to the cost to the State of legal appeals), until recently its use has
been steadily increasing, driven, in large part, by the Secular Right. Some
conservatives are disconcerted by the revelation, as a result of DNA testing,
that innocent prisoners have been executed. Others more critical of the
criminal justice system, have not been surprised by these cases.
Finally, some rightists are
uneasy with the growth of federal domination over state criminal justice
systems. Despite the traditional conservative commitment to "states' rights,"
criminal prosecutions usually conducted at the state level have increasingly
been taken over by the federal government, as the law-and-order crime model has
grown in influence, For decades, crimes that involve crossing state lines have
been classified as federal crimes and are prosecuted in federal courts. Organized
crime cases and many drug and firearms crimes have swelled the number of
federal cases. But journalist Ted Gest describes a "creeping federalization of
criminal prosecutions" of crimes that occur at the local level. Liberals have
supported some of this growth in the role of federal courts . Because they
hope, for instance, hope that hate crimes, abortion clinic bombings, and stalkings
will often be prosecuted more vigorously at the federal level than at the state
level. But, as both political parties compete to appear tough on crime, much
of the federalization of the criminal justice system is directed at drug
offenders and non-violent criminals. It thereby diminishes the role of the
states in fighting even local crime.  So much for states' rights, a key
principle in the Right's ideology.
Why would rightists persist in
favoring these "big government" aspects of tough-on-crime policies? The
prevention and rehabilitation model, which has largely been defunded,
ultimately costs less in tax dollars because it addresses the causes of crime
and the rehabilitation of prisoners. The answer lies in the ideological compatibility
of apparently contradictory ideas when they are held within an overarching
worldview that explains the contradictions.. Two especially strongly held
conservative beliefs are not subject to debate - criminals must be punished,
and government should remain small. But "smallness" does not mean that the
government should be weak. Thomas Hobbes' admonition that States must
establish a strong power that can exert control undergirds the idea that a
massive program of incarceration is ideologically acceptable for conservatives
who don't believe in "big government.". In this case, many conservatives who
believe that criminals are bad and must be punished in order to protect good,
responsible people accept a strong role for government as appropriate and
consistent with a conservative ideology. All sectors of the Right oppose the
one policy solution that is most likely to solve the problem of crime in the
long term - the creation of jobs, housing, economic opportunity, and widespread
health care that includes treatment for addictions.
Why Is the
Law-and-Order Model so Widely Accepted?
People who are
ideologically progressive or who are disproportionately subjected to the
excesses of "tough on crime" policies and practices, find it hard to understand
the widespread vicious, mean-spirited attitude toward people labeled as
criminals. For instance, what would make a crowd gather outside a death
penalty execution to cheer it on? What beliefs could make the public
indifferent to the horrific conditions and physical abuse so common in
contemporary U.S. prisons? Why has "tough on crime" become a bottom line
necessity for any successful politician, even when people know that a
substantial number of innocent people have been imprisoned, or even executed,
through overzealous or malicious prosecution, lack of adequate legal defense,
As I mentioned
above, several factors that might inspire such attitudes are: fear and anxiety
for physical safety and security; economic anxiety that leads people to seek a
scapegoat who becomes the "other;" and a sense of growing chaos and declining
order. These conditions clearly lead to a more punitive-minded general public,
especially when political leaders and the media reinforce their inclinations.
important part of the answer lies in the widespread acceptance of the conservative
ideological worldview, especially its view of human nature, by many average
Americans, I suggest that many in the United States see themselves in much the same way that philosopher Thomas Hobbes
saw humans - prone to sinfulness in the form of sloth, moral depravity, envy,
covetousness, lust, and aggression. And they see their lives as a process of
self-discipline to overcome these urges.
The struggle to
live a life of virtue and dutifulness rather than sinfulness is an abiding
source of pride in mainstream U.S. culture. To be a "good man" or a "good
woman" is no small accomplishment. Average people know how much effort it takes
to accomplish this identity. Accompanying the pride felt by those who work to
maintain their virtue is a deep resentment of those they feel do not work and
sacrifice to overcome their sinful urges. This resentment can turn especially
bitter when "good people" perceive that "bad people" are reaping benefits that
should rightfully be theirs. The resulting hatred is a major factor driving the
country's support for tough-on-crime policies and the law-and-order model. The
common sentiment - "The bad people ruin it for all the rest of us" - captures
much of the rightist worldview. To coddle the "bad" people is to devalue the
hard work of the "good."
To keep this
system in place, two things are necessary: 1) there must be widely shared
agreement on what is "good," and 2) there must be a strict separation between the
"good" and the "bad." But in modern society, the definition of what is "good" becomes
more confused every day, causing status and identity anxiety. Often called
"moral relativism," changing definitions of "good" and "bad" can make
traditional rightists resentful and angry. When social mores change - for instance,
when obtaining an abortion or living together as an unmarried heterosexual
couple becomes socially normalized behavior - the former definition of "good"
and "bad" becomes contested territory. Most progressives hail such expansions
of individual rights as progress for human rights. For conservatives, they
represent a blurring of the lines, and a further erosion of the status of "good"
people who resist "decadent" urges and model "virtuous" human behavior.
capitalism becomes more dominant and unregulated in U.S. society, subjecting
workers to increasing job instability and pay fluctuations, many workers
respond with economic apprehension and status anxiety. Further, private
enterprise responds almost exclusively to its predominant goal - maximizing
profit. To sell products, family values can be mobilized, but if
individualistic, "anti-family" attitudes can more successfully sell goods, the
market will promote those values. This "amoral" profit-driven ethic often conflicts
with established notions of good and bad or right and wrong, adding to the
sense of dislocation on the part of many people, who then seek a target for
their resentment over all that has changed "for the worse." Criminals are a
convenient and serviceable scapegoat.
The Right's law-and-order
campaign has led to an increase in the severity and duration of incarceration
since the early days of the Ronald Reagan Administration. Political moderates,
and even liberals, collaborated in policies that have embodied reactionary
intentions and racist outcomes. The mainstream media, by elevating sensational
stories of criminals and victims to attract audiences and advertisers, have
promoted a view of crime as rampant and frightening. By associated inner-city
residents of color with guns and drugs, rightist politicians have promoted an
ideological message that criminals are individuals who have choices and choose
crime and victimization of those weaker than they.
Driven by a
conservative ideological worldview, rightists and average people in the United
States now support a huge prison industry that incarcerates people at rates second
only to Russia in the world. Progressives must challenge this
runaway law-and-order campaign by redirecting attention to the root causes of
crime, such as poverty, abuse, addiction, and lack of opportunity, and by
challenging the demonization and scapegoating of "criminals." This work is
part of a larger campaign to revive the public will to address the economic
insecurity that plagues so many in the United States , while the few live in
 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan. New York: Penguin Classics, 1981. Hobbes
envisioned the world as "a war of all against all."
 See Russell-Brown, Katheryn, Underground
Codes: Race, Crime, and Related Fires. (New
York: New York University Press, 2004).
 See Mauer, Marc. Race to
Incarcerate ( New York: The New Press,
1999), pp. 118-141.
 DiIulio, John J. Jr. "My Black Crime
Problem and Ours," City Journal (Spring,
 Beckett, Katherine and Theodore Sasson,
The Politics of Injustice: Crime and Punishment in America. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004), pp.
 Gest, Ted, Crime and Politics: Big
Government's Erratic Campaign for Law and Order. New York: Oxford University Press,2001), pp. 64-65.