Originally published in Official Artur Davis
-My argument in defense of the drug war provoked a stream of reactions worth addressing. The most common theme was that the aggressive prosecution of drugs has “not worked”—it’s a theory that is bandied around the drug debate a lot, by liberals like Michelle Alexander and conservatives like Ron Paul, but I still struggle to understand the terms of this supposed failure. The fact that the drug trade persists is no more reason to disarm the drug war than the persistence of discrimination means that Title VII should be abandoned or the prevalence of corruption means bribery laws should be discarded. While counter-factuals are worth only so much, it seems almost certain that a weaker effort in the eighties and nineties would have only strengthened a drug culture that was eating inner city neighborhoods alive. By that same logic, pulling back in the drug war could well reinvigorate that same culture—a cost that critics of the war rarely acknowledge or address.
As I indicated in my column, there are unmistakable inequities in the prosecution of drugs and there are a variety of reforms that could mitigate them. Several of you contended, though, that only some kind of decriminalization strategy would really address the concern about over-incarceration and un-employability based on criminal records. I am struck how often advocates of decriminalization overlook the fact that the overwhelming majority of federal and state drug convictions revolve around cocaine or methamphetamine, rather than a “softer” drug like marijuana. Unless cocaine or meth were legalized, and I have seen no serious argument that they should be (to the contrary, advocates of marijuana legalization spend considerable time distinguishing between these drugs and refuting the “gateway” argument that involvement with marijuana escalates to harder drugs), the limited decriminalization of marijuana would have a negligible effect on incarceration.
Lastly, the best statistical evidence from the Federal Bureau of Prisons is that without making any major revisions in the scope or definition of drug crimes, the rate of prosecution for drug offenses has slowed from its peak in the nineties, and the number of federal inmates doing time for drug offenses is now down to slightly more than half the total. There are all manner of reasons why, but it’s worth contemplating that prosecutors have already shifted their resources. In other words, the drug wars are likely getting more targeted, more focused on hard core traffickers than they were 20-25 years ago. That’s probably a good thing and a sign that opponents of the drug war are making several arguments that are outdated.
-A number of you responded to my comments on NPR this week about the Voting Rights Act and my arguments against overly vigorous gerrymandering. At least one reader made a point that deserves a rebuttal–the idea that such gerrymandering may be unnecessary to elect an African American, but that it helps guarantee that an African American who is primarily responsive to the interests of his race will win, as opposed to a more “conservative” black. Without wading into the specifics of whether the policy aims of a liberal black are always “more responsive” to the community than a conservative one (another essay, another time) it seems that this argument really is what animates black defenders of the status quo in redistricting.
Under this view, a more racially balanced district, say one that was 55 or 60 percent black, would contain a sizable enough share of whites to influence even a Democratic primary, and its representative would have to make some conspicuous nod to that white swing bloc—a district more monolithically black would be prone to the kind of race-conscious advocacy that flavors most black districts today. To be sure, the latter kind of district is the one that black interest groups prefer, and one likely to produce a politician who caters to their interests in patronage as well as substantive policies. But to say that federal courts should tilt toward one kind of politics for black districts over another is surely an overreach, and a misunderstanding of the impartial role judges should play.
-There is of, course, a larger debate swirling around this issue, which Jamelle Bouie addresses in a follow-up piece to his thoughtful essay in American Prospect on glass ceilings for African American politicians. As Bouie notes, the absence of black governors and senators is less a focus for many blacks than the ideological dispositions of the blacks who vie for higher office. As a result, a more centrist black, or an outright conservative like South Carolina’s Congressman Tim Scott, could expect considerably less enthusiasm and perhaps only limited support from African Americans. I find this disconcerting not only because of my own campaign experience, but because it undervalues the benefit of black politicians serving in high offices where their competence and leadership abilities are on display. The value of that kind of presence is not only a richer and more inclusive talent base but a template that makes whites more likely to discard stereotypes and to keep electing African Americans.
-Finally, a few of you asked what I make of Roy Moore’s come-back to win the Republican nomination for Chief Justice in Alabama. The line from much of the Democratic establishment in the state is that Moore’s revival underscores how right-wing Alabama Republicans have become. It’s worth noting, though, that Judge Moore barely cracked 20 percent of the vote running in the gubernatorial primary two years ago. The much lower turnout presidential primary gave him an easier threshold to crack and bumped up the influence of his Christian, evangelical base. It’s no small detail that his opponents were an appointed Chief Justice barely known outside his home county and a long-time politician with a deeply controversial history and his own limited geographic base; also, neither of these relatively weak contenders spent anywhere near the sums associated with statewide primaries in a non-presidential year .
More telling is the fact that the Alabama Democratic Party never managed to find a credible candidate of its own to run, and is stuck with a sacrificial lamb against a beatable Republican. One more sign of a party that has given up more ground in the last two years than any state party in the country, with the possible exception of Arkansas’ equally wounded Democrats.