Finding Moral Clarity

In 1961 the Freedom Riders, many of whom were college students, risked their lives to help usher in the civil rights revolution and end the abomination of Jim Crow. A year later, the nascent Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) adopted the Port Huron Statement as the political manifesto for their “New Left.” The Statement remains relevant both because it articulated a progressive vision for America and because it recognized the powerful moral clarity that drove the civil rights struggle.

It could have been otherwise. A pervasive feeling of political and social alienation allowed the Port Huron generation to “deliberately ignore, or avoid, or fail to feel all other human problems.” But for members of SDS, the open hostility toward blacks was “too troubling to dismiss.” Witnessing the human degradation caused by bigotry “compelled most of [SDS] from silence to activism.”

Today, political alienation is again at a peak. Polls consistently show that trust in the federal government has reached an all-time low, and the perception that money controls politics has become pervasive. Despite a host of financial and moral crises, the left risks languishing in disillusionment. Today’s left lacks moral clarity in exactly the way that the Freedom Riders and SDS had it. This is dangerous.

Twenty-first century injustices do not always provoke marches, or riots, or vicious backlash. They linger at the margins of our society, perpetuated by apathy rather than outright hatred. The left must home in on these issues if it wishes to recapture the fervor of the Port Huron Statement and the cultural and political movements it sparked.

Our current punishment regime exemplifies the kind of injustice that continues mainly out of popular disregard, as opposed to overt bigotry. Jim Crow may have vanished from our streets and public spaces, but its legacy remains embedded in our systems of mass incarceration, solitary confinement, and execution and in the war on drugs. Our approach to crime and punishment may be our gravest moral crisis.

Only moral clarity will transform alienation and apathy into action.

Throughout the 1960s about 330,000 people were incarcerated at any given time (175 per 100,000 people). Today, our more than 2.3 million prisoners (750 per 100,000) make us the world’s most incarcerated nation.

The ravages of this system extend far beyond prison walls. Almost two million children have a parent who is currently behind bars. Whole communities experience the corrosive effects of the revolving prison door and the sentence of life without employment. One in three black men will do time; the rate rises to two in three for those without a high school diploma. More than 5 million people are currently barred from voting, some permanently, including 13 percent of all black men. Even without federal corrections outlays, states spend more than $50 billion a year to imprison their citizens, putting further pressure on public finances that are already under serious strain.

Our punitive policies place us in unique company. We rank in the top five of nations in executing our own citizens—alongside Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and China. The United States is the only country to condemn juveniles as young as thirteen to life-without-parole. We abandon tens of thousands of prisoners—many of them mentally ill—to the torture of solitary confinement for weeks, months, and sometimes decades.

Despite the clear moral bankruptcy of our imprisonment regime, both major political parties have largely endorsed the policies that got us here. While many advocates on the left have decried the rise of mass incarceration, this critique has failed to yield policy outcomes, and few advocates, let alone policymakers, have envisioned alternatives.

The left has failed to push the Democrats towards reform. The centrists in the party have abdicated even the limited goal of reigning in the most extreme excesses of this Leviathan to the courts and moderate Republicans. It took twenty years of litigation before the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Plata (2011), finally addressed the abysmal conditions in California’s overcrowded prisons, where inmates regularly died from suicide and treatable disease. By the time the case reached the Court, even the corrections officers’ union and a battery of former prison administrators wanted to reduce the prison population. Centrist democrats have only recently sought to restrict California’s draconian three-strikes law to violent felonies, a position that was actually championed by the Republican candidate for attorney general, the state’s prosecutor-in-chief.

It’s no secret that politicians are afraid of appearing “soft on crime,” but this state of affairs cannot continue. Thankfully, prompted by budgetary constraints and the rise in risk management tools, we are finally talking about dismantling some elements of the system of punishment. Notably, some conservatives, such as Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, are participants in the dialogue. But at the policy level, neither party has begun to address the moral dimension of the problem.

If either party is to confront the magnitude of this problem, it must articulate, in moral terms, why this punishment regime is intolerable in a country that supposedly respects freedom and human rights. In this effort, party leaders would do well to revive the Port Huron Statement. Though not well-known or widely read today, it remains important to this day for the truth it recognized 50 years ago: only moral clarity will transform alienation and apathy into action. As Tom Hayden, the Statement’s primary author, wrote:

Now, as a truly better social state becomes visible, a new poverty impends: a poverty of vision, and a poverty of political action to make that vision reality. Without new vision, the failure to achieve our potentialities will spell the inability of our society to endure in a world of obvious, crying needs and rapid change.

These words ring as true today as they did in 1962. We may live in a world where visible inequality seems more tolerable and violent subjugation is mostly hidden in prisons, detention centers, and urban ghettos. Yet, if the Statement teaches us anything, it is that we must not look away. The left ought not shrink from defining its moral vision, and that vision must condemn the American punishment regime as inhuman and unjust.