Myths, Messages and Tactics of the Political Right
Certain myths and false assumptions are so widely held in the United States today that they contribute to the firm control of the criminal justice system by the Political Right. These myths are the basic building blocks of an ideology based on punishment rather than reconciliation, and an examination of them should help criminal justice activists understand how the growth of the criminal justice system is influenced by these myths.
Much of the idealistic language about the promise of the United States and the American way of life is worded in ways that appeal to White middle-class America. These common themes, even when they are known to be inaccurate, still influence the way we see the world. The Right capitalizes on the widespread cultural acceptance of these myths by designing frames that resonate with White middle-class culture, the bulk of voters who keep the Right in power.
When myths like these are used to justify a punitive criminal justice system, many people find it hard to disagree, because there is often a kernel of truth, no matter how small, that progressive activists may agree with. Challenging these myths is also difficult because at some level the myths have been culturally accepted as a way to describe reality- even if people are not consciously aware of them because they are so embedded. A progressive response needs to examine, broaden, and reframe concepts such as safety and crime rather than accepting the Right's definition.
COMMON MYTHS AND MESSAGES IN U.S. CULTURE
1. WE ARE RUGGED INDIVIDUALISTS
Rugged individualism asserts that the strong rise and the weak fall. This idea values individual liberty over any collective or community obligation, which is often dismissed as socialist or communist ideas. In fact, people who need government laws and regulations to protect them are seen as weak "girlymen." This is sometimes called a masculinist world view, placing a higher value on common ideas about men and maleness than on women; it contributes to a climate where sexism is acceptable. It also reinforces the belief that one person standing up against unfairness or corruption (like in the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) can make a difference.
Rugged Individualism is a secularized version of the Protestant work ethic which asserts that people who cannot exercise self-determination are weak and do not deserve the rewards available to those who work hard. Sometimes those weak ones are the ones who succumb to the temptation to take short cuts or break the law.
2. IF YOU'RE IN PRISON, YOU MUST HAVE DONE SOMETHING WRONG.
This myth also suggests that criminals deserve what they get. This approach views "bad" people as deserving of punishment. By extension this can mean that people in prison continue to be irresponsible, using up taxpayers' dollars for their "three hots and a cot" when they could have avoided the whole situation in the first place by behaving better and not making wrong choices. Those out of prison by contrast are law-abiding citizens who behave appropriately.
Ideas that have been around since the Puritans, which are based on Calvinist theology, have adapted and become part of the fabric of contemporary public consciousness. These include the belief that only good people, blessed by God, can go to heaven. People are born sinful and must exercise self discipline to reach heaven. If they refuse to behave properly, then punishment is not only appropriate, it is for their own good, to help them be redeemed in the eyes of God and society.
Personal responsibility is seen as a crucial value without which our society would fall apart, crime would run rampant, and we would all suffer.
3. JUSTICE IS BLIND AND THE LAW IS JUST
This myth that justice is served equally ignores the realities of how race and class inequities permeate our system. Poor people and people of color are disproportionately targeted and represented at various stages in the criminal justice system from police surveillance and arrests to trials and sentencing and ultimately to imprisonment. The system is self-generating because it continues to punish those it defines as offenders and simultaneously it benefits those who remain outside its control.
Many Americans (White, and some middle and upper class people of color) assume the system of law itself is neutral, just and righteous. Those who assume that the law is just, rarely question the process of criminalization and who it benefits. This myth, in part, persists because it is disregards the historic and current use of the system to maintain inequality.
4. THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM KEEPS COMMUNITIES "SAFE"
This myth is rooted in the false assumption that prisons work to create safety and reduce "crime." It assumes that only prisons and police can ensure safety. This myth succeeds because it ignores the disproportionate arrest, conviction, and imprisonment of the poor and people of color. The idea also perpetuates the divide between so called "bad" people and "good" people. In this view, only bad people have to worry about being caught up in the system. Bad people must face the long arm of the law, and good people who witness or are victims of crime do their duty by speaking their mind in court, where justice is served.
RIGHT WING TACTICS COMMON TO CRIMINAL JUSTICE
For instance, supporters of stringent penalties for drug offenses tried to invoke a public health crisis in the 1980s by claiming that pregnant crack users were contributing to an epidemic of inner-city crack babies who would be handicapped, hot-tempered, and an eventual burden to society. According to some conservative policy analysts and legislators, punishing these women harshly during their pregnancy or removing their children at birth would help stop the epidemic. Although the reality of crack babies did not materialize, heightened fears made it easier to justify harsher punishments. Another example capitalizes on the distrust and fear of youth. The Right has used fear of gangs and street crime to call for trying juveniles as adults and sending convicted youth to adult prisons. They reason that without strict changes in way the system treats gang members, the streets will never be safe.
The Right's success in using fear is partly due to its skillful manipulation of entrenched beliefs that are based on racism, sexism and classism.
For instance, statistics published by the federal Centers for Disease Control demonstrate that White teens are much more likely to use cocaine, crack, methamphetamine and heroin than their African American counterparts. But the Right has repeatedly encouraged the media, and print and broadcast outlets have taken it on themselves, to emphasize the level of street crime in African American neighborhoods so that most White Americans mistakenly believe that drugs are more often used by people of color, not in suburban enclaves where much of drug use actually takes place. This helps misinform the public which in turn supports policies that target poor urban areas.
In addition, because the corporate and mainstream media receives much of its data and information from official, mostly government, sources, the resulting coverage describes crime in ways that reflect officials' frames.
Co-optation of Progressive Language
Criminal justice advocates on the Right often skillfully use language that appeals to moderates and liberals to describe conservative policies. This tactic creates a two-fold result: they can broaden the constituency that supports the campaigns and at the same time hold onto a conservative base.
FRAMING THE ISSUES AND TELLING STORIES
If a friend of yours was arrested, and after they were released they told you they had been "framed," you would know what they meant: The police had arranged the evidence (or even planted it) so that your friend looked like they were obviously guilty. In other words, the police had created a frame of reference that portrayed a specific view of reality-focusing in on some items-and cropping out other items. In the same way, politicians often hire publicity experts to help them "frame" their discussion of issues in a way that will appeal to voters. They do this by looking at an issue from a particular perspective, and then choosing language and slogans that help make their arguments seem sensible and reasonable to a large number of voters.
Political movements regularly use the process of "framing" to present their ideas in ways that make sense for their members. While all movements engage in framing, the leaders and strategists on the Right are particularly successful in constructing ways of presenting problems to the public ("framing" the issue) that are intended to capture public opinion and direct it towards supporting their point of view. These frames are sometimes expressed as complex ideas, sometimes as simple slogans. In all cases, they make so much sense to listeners that they find themselves nodding their heads in agreement.
There are multiple frames within the Right's worldview of criminal justice issues. Some of them are present in the common myths described above such as, "We All Have Our Day in Court" or "If You Do the Crime, You Serve the Time."
Another example of a Right-wing frame is "WE CANNOT AFFORD TO BE SOFT ON CRIME." According to this frame, the United States must do whatever is necessary to combat crime, even if it means taking costly steps like increased spending on police and prisons at the expense of other government services like education health care. To be "soft on crime" means adopting liberal standards for addressing crime such as more lenient sentencing and parole requirements or focusing on crime prevention at the expense of deterrence through punitive penalties. This frame has become so well accepted in American society that no candidate has been able to run successfully for political office in recent years if accused of being soft on crime.
"GUNS DON'T KILL PEOPLE; PEOPLE KILL PEOPLE" is another frame constructed by the Right. This frame appeals primarily to those opposed to gun control, and it applies the widely held value of personal responsibility to the debate over the right to bear arms. It is a variant of the slogan, "If Guns are Outlawed, only Outlaws will have Guns." These frames offer a description of the world as a dangerous place, not because of the widespread presence of firearms but because of those people who cannot handle the responsibility of gun ownership and who abuse their right to self-defense.
"ACTIVIST JUDGES MUST GO" is a frame that labels liberal judges a threat to the democratic process because they insert their personal political views into their work on the bench. The implication is that liberal ideologies applied to criminal and civil justice threaten the tenuous grasp society holds on public safety. This frame removes conservative judges, who are not portrayed as inserting their personal views into their work, from the picture so successfully that there is no need even to mention the distinction between liberal and conservative. It justifies targeting liberals on the bench and seeking to remove them.
Another way ideas are promoted is to tell stories about a situation that supports a particular point of view. These stories are narratives that have a plot, a hero, a villain, and a moral or political lesson. You may have heard the story about the "Super Predator" gang of Black youth rampaging through New York's Central Park; or the story of an epidemic of "Crack Babies" born with serious medical or psychological problems because their irresponsible mothers were drug users. That these stories are actually false does not mean they were not persuasive to millions of Americans.
REFRAMING THE ISSUES
The Right's criminal justice frames are powerful and successful. They are the conscious constructions of particular viewpoints set in language that can be difficult to refute. For instance, the Soft on Crime frame sets up a dualistic, or an "either-or," way of thinking about the public response to crime: either you are tough on crime or you fail to provide for public safety. No one really wants to support acts that demean or hurt people or erode our society. But disagreeing with tough on crime policies is not enough to transform the criminal justice system. These approaches do call for a response that "re-frames" the issues in terms that successfully challenge Right-wing positions and the idea that prisons are effective solutions to complex social problems.
Activists will often find themselves reacting to an existing frame that they fundamentally oppose. Anyone dealing with challenging frames has the opportunity to redirect the process of framing to attract their own constituencies around their selected issues. Not a simple task, this process calls for a clear understanding how an idea translates into a campaign and resistance to responding defensively to the terms of the frame. Yet the time it takes to reframe the context so it becomes your own issue is well worth the effort.