Emile Durkheim, pictured below, was a philosopher and sociologist with much to say. He lived and wrote during the last half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I first became aware of him through his masterful study, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.  He conceived of religion as the mother of thought, and posited that it is "primarily a system of ideas with which … individuals represent to themselves the society of which they are members, and the obscure but intimate relations which they have with it."  Religion, in other words, is about social solidarity.

Durkheim believed that there is a limit to the amount of deviant behavior that a society can "afford to recognize."  A community of malefactors, or a lawless "no man's land," will recognize the same amount of deviancy as a community such as the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The bar of normalcy rises when behavior is saintly and falls when it is reprehensible, but the amount of deviant behavior recognized is constant.

I thought of "Durkheim's constant" as I recently read the book, Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, by Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen.  The authors note that over 5 million people are currently "locked out" of America's electoral system because of their having committed felonies. In the name of "democracy" and "universal suffrage," the authors make a case for giving the ballot to both felons and ex-felons. All states, except Maine and Vermont, once had laws in place prohibiting both from voting. Beginning in the 1950s, such prohibitions were generally amended to disenfranchise only incarcerated inmates.  Ex-felons have been gradually allowed to become re-enfranchised in many states.  Manza and Uggen want to go a step further.  They suggest that, just as prisoners have a right to practice their religion and to send and to receive mail while incarcerated, their "right" to vote should also not be abridged.  A rapist, murderer, or child molester must, while serving his sentence, have a voice in our "democratic state." 

That voice might sway an election or two as well.  Most of the felon population lean toward the left and would vote Democratic, and Florida claims in excess of a million felons (more than any other state).  Manza and Uggen think that, had we been more democratic in 2000 than we were, Al Gore would have won the presidency hands down.  (Is that reason to cheer?)  How a group votes should not, according to our authors, affect "whether" it is given the right to do so.  Yet one wonders if Manza's and Uggen's argument would be quite so impassioned were felons and ex-felons Ann Coulter-style conservatives. It is definitely a point to ponder.

All that aside, did you know that there are more felons and ex-felons now living in the United States than there are people in Cuba or in Sweden?  If and when we give the vote to all those who have committed felonies, are we not proclaiming in effect that the consequences of their actions are not sufficiently serious to result in "civil death"?   Are we not "defining deviancy down," to use the words of the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, by discounting the social consequences of such behavior?  Are we not closing our eyes to what our society is becoming?  Are we not running headlong into Durkheim's constant?

"Oh, but most felons," our authors argue, "have not committed violent offenses.  They are imprisoned only for drug trafficking."  "Also, the word 'felony,'" our authors remind us, "refers to no standardized set of crimes."  The definition broadly varies from state to state, and sometimes includes rather trivial offenses.  My question is whether a drug dealer, past or present, ever deserves to have a political voice in any civilized society.  He is, or has been, responsible for untold misery and death. Moreover, if a community does not like what is or is not defined as a "felony," the community may appeal to the legislature.  Is that not why legislatures exist? 

The primary problem with America is not its economic woes.   Greed, mismanagement, and wasteulness are unquestionably serious, but they are mere symptoms of another malady.  The quintessential problem besetting this country is that we are sinking into a cultural abyss, where absolute values are derided as fascist.  As Gertrude Himmelfarb has explained it, "[I]n a thoroughly relativistic age such as ours, any assertion of value – any distinction between the publication of Ulysses and the public performance of sodomy – is thought to be arbitrary and authoritarian."  So why not enfranchise felons?  Why not appoint a homosexual to the Supreme Court?  Why not cover one's body with tattoos?  Who is to say what is moral or immoral, beautiful or ugly, true or false?  It's all in the eye of the beholder, right?

We are a country which continues to turn its back on every traditional value for which it has stood.  That is why America is in trouble, deep trouble. That's why the country's social fabric is unraveling.  Unless there is a U-Turn at some point in our immediate future, we will eventually crumble from the inside.

May 9, 2009