This holiday season, I watched an unusual Christmas movie called Blossoms in the Dust (1941). While considered a holiday movie (at least according to the Warner Brothers Classic Holiday Collection Vol. 2) because it spans several Christmases and has carols in its soundtrack, I say it’s unusual because it’s actually the true story of adoption advocate Edna Gladney’s crusade to have the word “illegitimate” stricken from Texas birth certificates. People today will probably wonder why such a seemingly simple thing could provide compelling material for a feature-length movie and earn its star Green Garson an Academy Award nomination, but in 1936 it was a monumental undertaking.
At the time, illegitimate children were frequently abandoned, but even if they could be adopted by an upstanding, morally upright family they could still never escape the circumstances of their birth. It made no difference if they never knew their biological mother or even knew that they were adopted; if a legitimate foundling’s parentage could not be determined the state would err on the assumption of illegitimacy, and the public record would become known as adults when they tried to marry or register for selective service. Society was clearly divided into two separate classes, punishing the children for the sins of their parents. Edna’s conservative critics accused her of trying to destroy the family and encourage promiscuity. To them, it was more important to inflict a lifelong stigma on innocent children (who had no choice in their birth) as a deterrent to keep the rest of society in line.
Edna Gladney’s battle was as controversial as any of the social issues being fought today, but while conservatives have thankfully abandoned the fight over illegitimacy, the conservative politics of punishment have changed little. Whether the issue is welfare, healthcare, gays, crime, poverty, drugs, wages, immigration, etc. the Republican position always seems to be a pathological obsession with trying to unnecessarily punish people, even if just for circumstances beyond their control. Shifting focus from the illegitimate child, most of the conservative assault against welfare has been an attack on an imagined, stereotypical single mother, Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen.” Psychologist Jonathan Haidt compares this conservative morality to karma, “where basically, you’re supposed to get what you deserve. And what really bothers them is somebody not getting what they deserve. So the government getting involved and interfering with people getting what they deserve is really bad.” Even though the majority of America’s poor are under the age of 12, who can’t get jobs or move to a better neighborhood, the Republican party has demonstrated through repeated cuts that they’re willing to punish the children for the perceived sins of the mother (Clinton’s “deadbeat dad” seems to have dropped out of the equation completely).
I’ve previously made the case that conservative bans on same-sex marriage are little more than an attempt to use legislation punitively against behavior that’s not actually illegal. Justice Elena Kagan pointed out as much at the Supreme Court hearings when reading the 1996 House Report that unashamedly exposed the animus behind DOMA. But even when these bans are struck down, read the comments on any news article and you’ll find conservatives joyfully consoling themselves (while giving a Christian “fu@k you” to anyone who supports marriage equality) with the reassurance that their political enemies will burn in hell forever. These conservatives give the impression that they believe in hell simply for personal revenge, not out of any sense of divine justice. It doesn’t come across like they want gays to go to hell because they think gay sex is wrong or icky, but rather for the most petty of reasons: because they couldn’t punish the gays themselves.
A current hot topic disputed by conservatives is raising the minimum wage. While conservativism in general is notorious for its hostility to the poor, some of the conservative objections to this especially reveal a desire to punish the poor for their poverty. Exceeding beyond the myth that increasing wages would kill jobs, conservatives were gleefully hoping that low-wage workers would lose their jobs. Growing up, I can remember Ann Landers telling me flipping burgers wasn’t beneath my dignity. Yet today’s conservatives disparage fast food workers for not having accomplished more, even in a depressed economy in which wages haven’t kept up with inflation, all the high-paying unskilled jobs went overseas, and upward mobility disappeared as unemployed white collar workers compete for the management positions. While fast food jobs may have traditionally been intended for teenagers and students, the majority of them are now taken by adults just trying to survive in today’s economic climate. As more and more people go to college, there are fewer unskilled laborers today than there were just a few decades ago; even the definition of “unskilled” has changed dramatically, as they now often possess more skills than their predecessors (in fact, many people settling for fast food jobs have degrees), so not everybody’s circumstances can be blamed on poor life choices. The truth is we used to have an economy in which unskilled laborers could earn a living wage, but we don’t anymore and punishing the poor for the state of the economy isn’t going to fix it. If conservatives don’t believe that increasing the minimum wage is the right way to do it, then they need to present an actual solution.
At its worst, this is a just-world fallacy, assuming that the reason people must be poor is their own fault. Similarly, conservatives mercilessly neglected the uninsurable with pre-existing conditions before healthcare reform, which the GOP still seeks to completely repeal without any consideration. Republicans seem determined to punish the few who did make poor choices even if it means punishing those who didn’t along with them.
The politics of punishment are seemingly inescapable for conservatives. They can’t imagine policy any other way, or if they could then those policies would probably no longer be conservative. In his book The Republican Brain, Chris Mooney shows how “it is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative” (of course, it’s harder to get a conservative to behave like a liberal) simply by distracting or impairing a liberal’s attention. Conservative positions tend to require little thought, which is why the politics of punishment are so appealing to them. Mooney’s book shows a study in which participants were questioned about reducing crime, and the focused conservatives and distracted liberals both agreed on harsher sentencing as a solution. At first glance, harsher punishment does seem like the reasonable deterrent to crime, but a more nuanced (ie: liberal) approach recognizes other factors. For example, people might instinctively call for the death penalty for rape, but that does little when already less than 10% of all rapes are ever prosecuted; even worse, the rapist would have nothing to lose by killing their victim. Clearly changes in culture and education are overdue when schoolboys genuinely are unaware that taking sexual advantage of a passed out drunk girl is in fact rape (of course, according to the politics of punishment that’s her fault). Ruthlessly harsh minimum sentences for drug possession haven’t ended the war on drugs. The US has the world’s highest incarceration rate, yet our endless quest to punish hasn’t reaped the desired results.
I can imagine some conservatives are objecting to this as they read it. Conservative and liberal minds are made up on most issues, so even if I can’t persuade them to change their stance on the issues themselves, I would at least encourage them to stop and consider the way they respond to these issues and why. Ask yourself whether your first reaction to a problem is to try to punish somebody for it. If so, is that even practical or effective? Is there another way it could be solved more effectively? When pharisees present you with an adulteress and hand you rocks, perhaps you should pause for a moment to write in the sand. This doesn’t mean that there’s no time and place for punishment, but if somebody’s behavior is not harmful or illegal then is it worth harming other innocent people in the process of punishing them? Christians in particular should strive to err on the side of grace and mercy rather than on the revenge politics that have characterized the GOP for so long.