I was recently bemoaning the state of California’s society to a Danish neighbour. He asked me if California’s prison problem was as bad as Europeans often hear. Most Europeans I meet while abroad have heard what they generally assume are all kinds of outlandish and wildly exaggerated accounts about the decline of civil society in the United States. This means that I have the misfortune of being the person to assure them that in most cases things are as bad as if not worse than what they’ve heard. The U.S. is nothing if not skilled at self-caricature.
In this case, I told him the story of Abel Maldonado’s recent effort to embarrass Jerry Brown’s prison realignment program by taking dramatic posters in front of the media that just happened to be dealing with a case that had exactly nothing to do with the state’s current efforts to get its prison population under control. If nothing else, Maldonado was helpful in providing an illustration of his party’s animating pathology, which does not shrink from hurling lies in front of a roof-top full of reporters in the hope that some of the smears will stick.
The nastiness of Republican politicking aside, most thinking people will readily acknowledge that putting small-time drug users and other petty offenders into prison does nothing more than ensure that they will be transformed into more serious criminals, more likely to reoffend.
But what most horrified my Danish neighbour was that the reflex of the Republican Party to what is so obviously a big problem for the state—not only does our prison-industrial complex suggest a morally-broken society, but it constitutes a massive drain on our public coffers, and a wilful rejection of preventive measures—was to go on the attack, calling for an escalation of the same “tough” measures that caused the problem in the first place (measures perhaps best characterised as proven stupidity)
Flabbergasted, he said, “We’d never do that in Denmark”, and noted that this is the feature of U.S. politics which baffles many northern Europeans even more than our working- and middle-class’ embrace of the economic well-being of their exploiters at their own expense: the instinctively oppositional relationship between the two parties irrespective of the issue, the potential for common ground, or the level of government.
This in turn reminded me of the remarks made by a Kenyan columnist, dissatisfied with the casual manner in which Fund for Peace draws up its “Failed States Index”. Near the end of his column, he cited the view of a British academic that a better metric of measuring the “success” of a state might be evaluating those societies which “allow all sorts of ideas and policy choices to be put forward”.
Charles Onyango-Obbo wrapped up, “The debate, and sometimes fights, over which [policy choice] should carry the day are a sign of how healthy and democratic a society is. Therefore, a society that didn’t have any of these conflicts would be in a very bad place. The real test of state failure, we might conclude, should not be the presence or absence of conflict, but of the institutional ability to resolve the conflicts”.
When you ponder that formulation, you’re left with a rather sobering thought given the structural impediments in the United States today—a Senate which is undemocratic in its composition and rules; a first-past-the-post electoral system; the intrusion of moneyed interests into politics; the empowerment of corporations and the concomitant disempowerment of citizens; etc—which stand in the way of government, in its various iterations, enacting coherent policy.
Our system has become one which allows if not encourages the flourishing of irresolvable conflict, thanks to that system’s failure to adequately represent people, its inability to yield clear election results, and its lack of capacity to act in the public good and on the concerns of its citizens.