Amid the realities of the horrific crisis confronting us I’ve been uncomfortably reminded of my distant past and being incarcerated in a state penitentiary. This is a particular memory for sure – not many people can lay claim to this experience, nor should they want to. In any event, and not meant to elicit any sympathy for it, the experience has raised thoughts that are relevant to what we are currently facing.
Relative to the social distancing, quarantines, and isolation tied to the crisis, the “deprivation of liberty” is what came immediately to mind. Depriving people of their liberty is how we react to crime in our country. From detaining individuals subject to questioning, jailing them, imprisoning them in minimum, medium, and maximum housing facilities, and using the death penalty, this process is essential for our criminal justice system. And having been exposed to this process to a significant degree, I couldn’t help recalling the feelings and emotions tied to being put further away from everyday social interaction. I remember the cramped living quarters and the short visits done via glass-separated phone chats. There’s the anger and guilt that settles in, followed by the nagging feeling that something else, beyond my control, could happen that would only make matters worse. There’s fear of what the future might hold, especially in terms of gainful opportunities once released. These were all feelings that could not be escaped.
Many of us are going through similar periods of anxiety and desperation as the virus continues to take its course. In this light, we should be encouraged to keep this fact in mind: People are experiencing emotions which demand that we all be careful, kind, and generous with one another.
But there is more tied to my recollections. Within the criminal justice system, the “deprivation of liberty” brings forth considerations as to the value of freedom for different groups of people. It has been suggested that lower-income people with limited resources, poorer living conditions, and less opportunity to move out from under both, have in actuality, less connection to freedom than many of their more fortunate citizens. In this light, they have less to lose when freedom is denied, which makes the deprivation of liberty as a form of punishment less effective for them. This circumstance presents a significant consideration in why many more impoverished people again resort to crime after their release.
Using this recidivist metric, it becomes clear that a remedy to overall crime rates may be to equalize the playing field – affording all people better opportunities, better access to goods and services, and so on. In this sense, policies directed at making conditions on the outside more balanced should be implemented, which would speak to the effectiveness of our punishment models and have a more effective society.
This logic brings us to what is at stake in our upcoming presidential election with only a slight twist. The liberal platform is grounded in helping people through direct legislative action – whether in health care or criminal justice reform – mirroring the priority to take care of people first and foremost. Although this approach often results in more taxation, with more government involvement and more social programs, the process speaks to “socializing” public concerns, ultimately how a democracy should work.
Of course, there is an alternative to this strategy, one embodied in the conservative party platform. In their line of reasoning, the emphasis should not be on devising more effective social-welfare networks but on trusting people to find their own way out of whatever difficulties they may be facing. And the primary way to do this is by trusting the power of capitalism to work its magic primarily via corporate incentives and deregulation. This provides businesses the ability to create opportunities that will allow people to work their way out of difficult circumstances. And in doing so, this will not only strengthen our economy but alleviate reliance on government and taxation for their relief. In essence, it’s through the economy’s strength and an emphasis on individual responsibility that democracy will survive.
For much of the past century, this has been the “back and forth” between the two primary parties in the U.S. The pandemic crisis demonstrates the differences remain apparent today. In other words, and even though both are intricately intertwined, the current situation has pitted public health concerns against economic ones, as if one should have domain over the other.
Led by President Trump, the conservative administration is focused that as a capitalist country, we cannot let the advantages of being the most advanced, successful economic system in the world die-off – even if some of our citizens are lost in the process. They argue that capitalism has provided us a way of life that represents the standard for the world and the cultural instincts we’ve developed over time. Our need to be financially stable, consume and produce, our reliance on a competitive, “survival of the fittest” nature, etc. are as much a part of us as our physical selves. As the President has noted, “this is who we are.”
In this vein, it is even being suggested that the trauma tied to not working and not being productive will continue to exact more significant emotional pain and suffering than the virus itself. We cannot continue with the social and economic distancing being brought about by the virus, as this will be more unhealthy and costly in the long run. We cannot allow for the weakening of our American experiment – hurting the many for the few, so to speak – while also allowing our enemies like China to develop a firmer grip on the world as we know it.
Conversely, the liberals advocate for what they see as a more humane, ‘public good’ approach. For them, stabilizing our economic system is important, but it’s our citizens’ health that should be paramount in our efforts. In this regard, continuing to protect the public from the pandemic should be the priority. This is clearly what should be happening in a system focused on the principles of democracy.
So, the struggle continues, bringing the natures of democracy and capitalism to center stage. And the situation raises serious questions as to our actual democracy-capitalist identity. Is it our interest in democracy that should hold sway over our policy efforts or the realities of capitalism that are paramount? Or is it possible, especially amid the political and social divisiveness, that both can be adequately addressed? Moreover, does the public have an adequate understanding of our democracy-capitalist character necessary to make truly informed decisions on the matters at hand?
As the political turmoil continues, let me once again return to my past. Perhaps the most significant piece of my “doing time” is linked to what I learned as this happened. In other words, how could I come out a better, more socially conscious individual on the other side of the experience. This notion of “rehabilitation” has been an essential concern within the punishment phase of the criminal justice system, and obviously, it was most important to me as well. What I was able to do while incarcerated, despite the chaotic circumstances, allowed me to become a more productive and thoughtful citizen.
So, holding out my own experience as an example, we should be encouraged to use these difficult and tumultuous times to learn more about ourselves, our country, and our future. We should actually be seeking a “new normal” that goes beyond returning to any “business as usual” scenario. In other words, we must examine this period socially, spiritually, politically, and economically so we can learn more about our collective character. It can be time for us to weigh our public good and profit interests and consider how we might best reconcile our democratic and economic pursuits. Given the difficulties we are experiencing on both national and international fronts, this introspective approach would seem the most reasonable way to proceed. Yet this is obviously no simple task.
To have a legitimate and long-term impact on our civic efforts, it would make sense that our educational systems – particularly at the post-secondary level – create more dialogue about our collective identity, more discussion about our ideology, and our capitalist-democracy mix. This could happen through any number of civic-education classes or seminars, and no matter party affiliation, the process would speak to developing a more productive, informed, and cohesive public.
We should be looking toward the kind of leadership that will help us sort through the difficult and dangerous situations. We need to look to each other and learn from one another in terms of what we are all experiencing. If these both can happen, our future will hold more promise, and our “doing time” will have shown its worth.