Chris Suellentrop, aka "The Opinionator", has an interesting piece in tomorrow's Times magazine about the GOP's evolution on prisoner issues--from law-and-order hardasses to compassionate Christians. The piece is interesting in and of itself. But it's even more interesting, I think, as another data-point in the GOP's broader evolution on race: that is, from a party that wields race as a political wedge to a party that's more progressive on race, but which wields religion and social issues as a political wedge. Obviously, the critical link here is the rising prominence of conservative evangelicals and Catholics within the GOP, and the change of heart evangelicals appear to have had in the 1990s. (If you're interested in this kind of thing, I wrote a bit about the GOP's evolution on race here, and the changing racial attitudes among evangelicals here. I hear Chris may be weighing in on this topic more explicitly, too.)
Anyway, that's the way Chris frames his piece, and it sounds right to me:
In the 1990s, Democratic and Republican Congresses scrapped the Pell Grant program for prisoners, barred drug offenders from receiving federal student loans and cut highway money for states that did not revoke or suspend the driver's licenses of drug felons. Now leading politicians of both parties are proposing that states remove laws and regulations that wall off the ex-criminal class from the community. Rather than eliminating education and substance-abuse treatment programs, Congress may well finance them. ...
What has changed? It's true that crime rates have declined in recent years (notwithstanding a slight uptick last year), but for the last quarter of the 20th century, crime policy was impervious to fluctuations in street crime. If crime went up, politicians got tough on crime. If crime went down, politicians still got tough on crime. At the state level, at least, that is no longer the case--and a large shift in public opinion has much to do with it. In 1994, crime and health care were the two top issues that Americans thought the government should tackle. Nine years later, less than 1 percent of Americans named crime as a top political issue.
If safer streets had something to do with the change in public attitudes, so did another development: the changing place of crime in the national debate over moral values. Over the past decade, as the political scientists William Galston and Elaine Kamarck have suggested, the culture war of the 1970s and 1980s that revolved around race has been replaced by one that revolves around religion. A side effect has been a radically different crime debate.
The interesting meta-question is whether this trend creates opportunities for a silent-majority-type populist. Yes, race in general, and crime in particular, has receded as a political issue. And, yes, there have been structural changes in addition to the GOP's change of heart that account for this. (Welfare reform would seem to be pretty important in diminishing race as a political issue.) But, at least in certain parts of the country, I suspect there are still a lot of white voters who regard blacks with suspicion. If those suspicions aren't being addressed by the national GOP (at least outside certain Southern Senate races where the Democrats have fielded an attractive young black candidate), shouldn't it be possible for an entrepreneurial race-baiter to get traction in these areas? Maybe after a high-profile, racially-charged crime or something? I want to say no, but I'm not convinced. On the other hand, there don't appear to be many examples...