Despite the fact that we’re more than a year away from the 2016 presidential election, we’re already getting inundated with horse race coverage. For candidates and likely candidates, every single moved is parsed for political impact. Every policy statement is assessed for what it signals about a candidates’ intentions or desire to woo a particular demographic.
When Hillary Clinton made a statement about criminal justice reform, a couple of Washington Post columnists attacked her for committing political suicide (apparently confronting a glaring reality turns you into Michael Dukakis). Radley Balko responded by tearing apart their claims that this is not a politically viable position, but then gets to the heart of the matter:
That brings me to my main beef with these two columns: They’re just crassly political. They reduce very real questions about injustice, race, and systematic oppression to blunt political analysis. This is typical of punditry in general, and it’s particularly true as election season heats up. But it’s particularly callous with these issues because of what’s at stake. Cohen and Green’s chief criticism of Clinton is that her (superficial) nod to criminal justice reform is bad politics. That’s it. It will make her look like Dukakis. They’re not interested in exploring, say, the now well-documented history of police misconduct and excessive force in Baltimore, the city’s history of rewarding abusive cops, or the 2000s-era campaign of mass arrests for misdemeanor offenses, which saddled a wide swath of the city’s black population with a debilitating arrest record. Never mind all of that. Hillary Clinton talked about reform as riots were happening. Therefore, she’s Dukakis.
Balko goes on to share the disturbing story of Antonio Morgan, a young business owner who faces constant harassment from the police, and discusses the devastating impacts of mass incarceration and racist policing around the country. Far too many journalists are interested in what these statements mean for candidates than what they mean for the people affected by the policy, and that’s only going to get worse as the election gets closer.
That’s not to say that there’s no story in a politician’s declaring position on an issue. It can tell us something valuable about where the political winds are blowing. It provides us a framework for holding that person accountable if she or he is elected (something people were far too timid about after Barack Obama’s election). It’s a sad fact that we often get politicians to take positions because we can convince them it’s politically smart, rather than morally right.
But there’s still a tendency to spend far more time discussing what candidates say than the effect their actions could have. As Balko says, “Maybe they’ll stop asking, ‘What does this candidate’s criminal justice policy mean for the election?’ and start asking, ‘What does this candidate’s criminal justice policy mean for the people who will be affected by it?'”
Elections are important but ephemeral. November 2016 will come and go, and Hillary Clinton may become president. The real thing we need to worry about is what happens to people like Antonio Morgan if politicians do or do not follow through on their promises.