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Disconnect: Moral Liberalization and Mass Incarceration

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Note: The following is David Courtwright’s thoughtful response to my earlier post, in which I raised some questions about his recent work.

Joe Spillane has identified a central paradox of recent American history. Why were the prisons filling up, particularly with drug offenders, when legislatures and courts were liberalizing policies on divorce, Sunday liquor sales, gambling, pornography, abortion, sodomy, and other Victorian taboos? How, as he nicely puts it, could “we have a moral revolution AND a carceral revolution going on at the same time?”

Conservatives have argued that moral liberalization and mass incarceration went hand in hand, insofar as promiscuity, out-of-wedlock births, and single-parent families produced more sociopathic behavior, particularly among young, unmarried men. Though much sociological evidence supports this generalization, it cannot explain the prison boom by itself. First, if society “defines deviancy down” to accommodate the increase in misconduct, the number of additional inmates will not necessarily match the number of new sociopaths. Adding prison capacity is a conscious (and usually expensive) political act. Second, contraception and abortion were also part of the moral revolution. They diminished future criminality by diminishing the number of unwanted and neglected children, a case economists John Donohue III and Steven Levitt made in a famous 2001 article. Interestingly, the abortion-crime tradeoff created a sensitive dilemma for conservative Republican politicians, many of whom were publicly pro-life but privately reluctant to see the end of legal abortion. “These guys are all fakers,” Michael Dukakis told me in an interview. “They tell their Evangelical friends they’re pro-life, and they do nothing about it.”

Republicans did, however, do something about the anxieties occasioned by the moral revolution, which all historians agree had become politically consequential by the late 1960s and early 1970s. Youthful rebellion, second-wave feminism, and liberalized abortion disturbed morally conservative Americans, as did the spectacles of urban disorder and antiwar protest. Richard Nixon played to their discontent, exploiting “the Social Issue” to gain a narrow victory in 1968 and a landslide reelection in 1972. No Right Turn credits him for perfecting the culture-war politics that would prove central to the revival of Republican political fortunes.

But Nixon and his successors had a problem. Though they could run as moral reactionaries, they could not govern as moral reactionaries tout court. If they had tried to implement the entire program of moral and religious reaction—the recriminalization of abortion, full state support for religious education, repression of homosexuals, policies to discourage women working outside the home, the designation of American as a Christian nation, and so on—they would have lost majority support. The trick was to appease the fire-eaters without alienating other supporters. The way to do so was to concentrate on a handful of safe reactionary issues that would placate—a better word, I think, than “dupe”—the activist base while at the same time appealing to centrist voters.

Issues associated with race, class, and threats to the young proved to be safer and more potent than issues associated with adult sexuality and gender roles. True, religious conservatives resisted changes in sex and gender norms and despised abortion, pornography, homosexuality, and feminism. But street crime, welfare dependency, and drug abuse struck angry voters as more pressing problems.  Drug policy and criminal justice policy generally moved right because the strongest political incentives lay in that direction, and not just for Republicans. Democrats knew they had to compete with Republicans on these issues, or risk being called weak and permissive. That same fear explains why Democrats, once they regained power, were reluctant to reverse the punitive thrust of drug policy and move toward harm-reduction policies.

But it was Republicans who most artfully exploited crime and drugs. These were ideal “two-fer” issues, in that they appealed to the blue-collar Reagan Democrats and wary religious conservatives. One of their leaders, the late Paul Weyrich, told me that he quickly became disenchanted with Ronald Reagan’s desultory treatment of school prayer, abortion, and other moral issues. He admitted, though, that most religious conservatives stuck with Reagan anyway because they admired his judicial appointments and his tough stands on communism, drugs, and crime. Like Nixon before him, Reagan managed to give the base enough, but not too much.

Spillane asks if tougher drug and sentencing policies were such big exceptions to rule of conservative policy failure during 1968-2008 that they undermine the thesis of No Right Turn. They do not, insofar as conservatives failed to achieve the central objectives of their historic counterrevolution against left-liberalism. They never overturned the New Deal and its Great Society embellishments, or people’s growing reliance on government, or the liberalization of sexual mores and gender roles. They eliminated some taxes and regulations, but not deficit spending, which accelerated under Reagan. Indeed, from Gerald Ford on, federal debt relative to GDP grew faster under Republican presidents than under Democratic ones. The loathing George W. Bush inspired among fiscal conservatives, and the newfound willingness of activists to attack Republican as well as Democratic spenders, are further evidence of right-wing disenchantment. Tea-Party enthusiasts wave “don’t tread on me” flags, but their real motto is “let’s finally turn right.”

Spillane asks if David Musto’s cycles of toleration and repression are compatible with my story. They are, insofar as they help explain the timing of the drug war. Formal and informal strictures on nonmedical drug use did erode during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Tolerance likely fostered youthful experimentation, which in turn created a powerful emotional reaction, epitomized in the rise of the concerned parents’ groups in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Then Nancy Reagan, looking for a cause that would help burnish her image, spun “Just Say No” into political gold. With approval ratings ten points above her husband’s, she demonstrated the appeal of drug-war politics before the drug war itself was formally launched in 1986. Sometimes politics reduces to catching the right wave. The wave of sentiment for drug repression coincided with ascendant Republican politicians’ search for safe, base-pleasing moral issues.

The same thing happened with sentencing policy generally. The relatively tolerant policy of “penal welfarism”—rehabilitating convicts serving indeterminate sentences—had run its course by the mid-1970s, when even Ted Kennedy was calling for sentencing reform. The overwhelming public demand for incapacitation (including execution) and longer, determinate sentences created another no-brainer issue for ambitious Republicans and me-too Democrats. As a backlash bonus, toughening crime and drug laws—and requiring welfare recipients to work—tapped powerful racial resentments while avoiding, on the statutory surface of things, overt demagoguery.

Musto’s principal contribution was to show how American drug laws combined rational and irrational elements, the relative proportions of which fluctuated over time. I was less drawn to his idea of cycles, if only because so many alternative ideographic explanations came to mind. Take the explosion of illicit drug use among middle-class youth in the 1960s and 1970s. It did occur during a tolerance cycle and, yes, it may have had something to do with the proclivity of rising generations to forget or ignore their elders’ hard-won knowledge about the dangers of drugs. But there were several other factors unique to the era. These included the rise of the counterculture, the collapse of the inner cities, the commercialized ethos of self-gratification, laxer styles of parenting, media-savvy drug gurus, “gateway” effects from the growing consumption of alcohol and tobacco, the military buildup in drug-rich Vietnam, the introduction of powerful new drugs like LSD, new sources of illicit supply from Asia and Latin America, and, not least, the entry of tens of millions of baby boomers into their prime drug-experimenting years. Increases in youthful drug use occurred everywhere in the world in the in the 1960s and 1970s, which suggests that the problem was, at bottom, a concomitant of the global postwar baby boom. If I left Musto’s cycles (and much else) out of my account, it was simply in the interests of parsimony.


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