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 V.17 No.36 | September 4 - 10, 2008 

Ortiz y Pino

The Pendulum Ride

We Democrats don’t call ourselves “liberals” anymore. Thirty years of steady right-wing propagandizing against the term has essentially ruined it, turned it into a pejorativethe political equivalent of “sissy” or someone “cultivated.”

“Liberal” became a label to be avoided by politicians at all costs. In a country like ours, the only hope for gaining political influence is to somehow accumulate the support of the ordinary citizen. In recent decades, that has meant a rapid flight from many longtime, deeply cherished humanitarian policies initiated by Democratic presidents and congresses of the past.

In their place, we accepted the fear-based, playground morality of the bully: “Do it our way or we’ll belt ya.” That hasn’t worked out very well on the international front, where American prestige has bellied-out under the accumulation of decades of go-it-alone arrogance; and it hasn’t worked out at all on the domestic front, either, where such examples of “common sense” conservatism as the overhaul of the welfare system and the “three strikes and you’re out” approach to crime have both turned up bankrupt.

Now, at last, the pendulum has begun moving back.

I’m not just talking about the nomination of Barack Obama and the very real possibility that we might have a genuine progressive (that’s the new labelyou can be sure the anticipated graffiti attack on it from the right has begun already, with message memos from Karl Rove to FOX, Rush, Cal, Jonah and the rest of the propagandists) in the White House. No, this pendulum swing has much more momentum to it than any one individual election might generate.

Eventually the crowd’s snickers are going to force even you to admit that your dance partner’s nothing but a sad little Pekinese in velvet.

Thus, even if the unthinkable occurs and John McCain, the poster child for failed economic, social and military policies, is elected this fall, that won’t reverse the inevitability of the nation’s swing back toward the left, or at least away from the brink of the extreme right-wing policies George W. Bush has so decisively demonstrated don’t work.

Just because I have discerned the start of a gradual movement away from the swaggering “knock some sense into them” policies that both parties have tried to portray as “theirs” doesn’t mean it will happen quickly or without resistance. Still, I describe the swing now underway as “inevitable” because, very simply, this country is, above all, pragmatic. It is interested in the final analysis, not in philosophical constructs but in practice: What will work best?

And what is staggeringly unavoidable just now is that the approach we’ve taken for the past 30 years is not working, and despite all the PR expended to the contrary, the public has at last caught on to that fact.

It’s further proof that you might be able to dress a puppy in a party frock and declare it “belle of the ball” as long as you control the microphone, but eventually the crowd’s snickers are going to force even you to admit that your dance partner’s nothing but a sad little Pekinese in velvet. Madison Avenue can only do so much.

This struck me last week when I heard a longtime, well-respected and thoroughly conservative Republican legislator suggest at a public meeting that we ought to consider establishing rehabilitation as a goal in our prisons.

He recalled that once upon a time we called them “reformatories” and had somehow gotten away from that. He argued that we ought to go back, since locking men and women up for long sentences without offering education, vocational training, substance abuse treatment and alcoholism counseling was clearly failing to do much besides spending mountains of increasingly scarce state cash.

He’s correct, of course. It’s something many have been saying for a long time. But when, totally without prodding, he added his cautious voice to the chorus, it was clear that there is a swing starting to this pendulum and it’s only going to build momentum until change occurs.

He hasn’t changed philosophies of government. But as a good conservative, he is capable of being appalled at seeing tax dollars flushed away. There is no clearer example of waste in state government than that going on in a corrections system that has seen a definite decline in inmate population ... but that nevertheless continues to pursue an expensive, useless policy of building more cells.

The new, privately operated but state-financed prison in Clayton will open this year and will be just one more corporate boondoggle, one more drain on the public treasury, one more monument to failed policies that guarantee prisoners will not be able to make it successfully outside the walls.

Gov. Bill Richardson has in his possession the report from another one of his “blue ribbon panels,” this one on how best to improve our prison system. It calls for revitalizing the effort to rehabilitate. It suggests “punishment” doesn’t work. It recommends ways to maintain family and community ties to prisoners, not isolation. It should become the blueprint for changing New Mexico’s prison policy.

I think the public is way ahead of the policy makers on this one. As has long been noted, the effective leader is the one who first discerns where the crowd is heading and then races to the front of the line. Richardson is an effective leader, so I fully expect him to ride this pendulum for prison reform all the way to the end of its arc.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.

 

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