Skip to main content

On prison reform, Democrats and Republicans bond

By Eric Liu
March 19, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
A coalition of unlikely allies has coalesced in recent months to advance criminal justice reform, says Eric Liu.
A coalition of unlikely allies has coalesced in recent months to advance criminal justice reform, says Eric Liu.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Liu: Both parties have come together to advance criminal justice reform
  • Liu: Their deal-making suggests a way forward for politics: crosspartisanship
  • He says partnering with rivals sometimes is pragmatic and works in our interests
  • Liu: Other areas both parties can agree on: curbing surveillance, crony capitalism

Editor's note: Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and the author of several books, including "The Gardens of Democracy" and "The Accidental Asian." He served as a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter @ericpliu

(CNN) -- You may not have noticed it, but in the midst of all the usual finger-pointing and polarization, a bit of actual problem-solving is underway in American politics.

A coalition of unlikely allies has coalesced in recent months to advance criminal justice reform. These strange bedfellows -- from liberal Democrats such as Sen. Dick Durbin to tea party darlings such as Sen. Mike Lee, from the NAACP to Americans for Tax Reform -- are all proposing reductions in mandatory minimum sentences.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's calls for such reductions have been cheered by some of the same Republicans who otherwise want to impeach him. In Texas, a conservative group called Right on Crime has led the way on prison and sentencing reform -- earning plaudits from, among others, California progressives.

Eric Liu
Eric Liu

Why this rash of consensus?

Well, for the right, it's mainly about getting control of big government -- prisons now consume a quarter of the Justice Department's budget, and state prison spending has been on a multidecade boom with little corresponding "return on investment."

For the left, it's mainly about social justice -- the disparity in criminal sentencing for crack versus powder cocaine has a long-documented racial dimension, and blindly filling the "school-to-prison pipeline" has seemed misguided and cruel.

Democrats and Republicans agree the metastasis of the prison-industrial complex is unhealthy. But for each side there are also benefits to acknowledging the other side's rationale. In a GOP sometimes perceived as intolerant, Rand Paul's embrace of sentencing reform lets him to show his concern for minorities. Civil rights Democrats, meanwhile, get to embrace fiscal responsibility.

The criminal justice deal-making suggests a possible way forward for our politics: crosspartisanship. Crosspartisanship may look like bipartisanship, but it's different.

Bipartisan compromise typically splits the difference between the views of two parties, giving each side less than its ideal outcome. A crosspartisan approach, by contrast, finds issues where people from both parties converge on a common principle, even if for different reasons, and achieve an outcome that's ideal to both.

Holder: 'Vicious cycle' traps too many

Where else might such crosspartisanship take hold? Curbing government surveillance is a possibility. Reducing crony capitalism is another. Even reform of the federal tax code, an arena as full of political landmines as crime and punishment used to be, might be feasible.

On surveillance, Edward Snowden's revelations have scrambled party affiliations, bringing civil libertarians from left and right together to push back against the National Security Agency. Liberals hate the size of the national security state because they are wary of war; conservatives hate it because they are wary of government.

On crony capitalism, Republicans since 2008 have blamed the housing and financial collapse on the profligate policies of quasigovernmental agencies such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, while Democrats have blamed unregulated and predatory Wall Street firms. It's possible, of course, that they're both substantially right.

The moment is ripe for a liberal to say that government created the conditions for corruption in housing finance, and for a conservative to say that the absence of government accelerated such corruption. Perhaps both sides can agree that when public policy allows businesses to privatize gain while socializing loss, that's neither true capitalism nor good government.

On taxes, GOP House member Dave Camp of Michigan recently put forward a framework for tax reform that, while admittedly going nowhere legislatively, did take aim at tax expenditures -- loopholes -- that disproportionately benefit the privileged. He's not alone among conservatives, and they may be able to join with liberals who see such tax expenditures as welfare for the rich.

I'm not suggesting by any means that we're about to enter some golden age of collaboration in our politics. On plenty of issues -- making it easier for unions to organize workers or cutting taxes on the rich -- there are still irreconcilable policy differences that reflect deeper differences in worldview.

Some people, like me, think unions are generally a force for good; others see them as inherently inefficient, even evil. Some people divide the country into "makers" and "takers"; others find that division and its implications repugnant.

So the fighting will in most cases continue. But in the same way that the United States in foreign policy can sometimes partner with adversaries or rivals -- simply because it is in our interest in that moment to do so -- perhaps in domestic politics we can foster more such pragmatism. And make it contagious.

If that's going to happen, though, it'll be up to us as citizens to say that we want it. We'll have to reward elected leaders for this style of crosspartisan problem-solving. We'll have to resist punishing them for even talking to "the enemy." And then more leaders will have to learn to think -- and lead -- outside the lines of party.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eric Liu.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2248 GMT (0648 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2049 GMT (0449 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT