As Obama heads off to Burma, I think back to when I knew something about that country. I spent two winters there doing volunteer work in the early 90s and then several years in the mid-90s in Oregon focusing on Burma human rights work, comparing the situation to South Africa. I'm cautiously optimistic at this point, although the ethnic conflict is far from over and even democracy will be no guarantee of good treatment for ethnic minorities.
Relative to most other western nations, the US did pretty well in Burma, backing up Suu Kyi and others in the elected/overthrown leadership. When we activists went Congress to ratchet up sanctions, the senators we counted on were Patrick Leahy, Mitch McConnell, and Jesse Helms (Ted Kennedy was also good, I think). Our little Oregon group got every member of the Oregon congressional delegation to support sanctions, with liberal Republican Mark Hatfield being the hardest one to convince. Burma never became polarized in American politics, as far as I can tell.
In another field that has long been polarized, things are changing. Washington Monthly has a good piece titled The Conservative War on Prison, with conservatives starting to hop onto the alternatives-to-prison bandwagon. The article is good on the what and when aspects of conservative change, but less so on the why and why at this particular time aspects. There was this, though:
At the start of the 2007 legislative session, legislative analysts predicted that Texas was on track to be short 17,700 prison beds by 2012 because of its growing inmate population. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s response was to ask legislators to build three new prisons, but Madden and Whitmire had other ideas. Not only did they bring back a revamped version of their probation proposal—they also took aim at the revolving-door problem by cranking up funding for programs such as in-prison addiction treatment and halfway houses. This time, Perry relented (persuaded at least in part, the duo contends, by a high-stakes meeting they held with him shortly before the opening of the legislative session). Since then, the prison population has not increased, and last year, the TDCJ closed a prison for the first time in decades.
Budget shortfalls do not explain this shift. In 2007 Texas was basking in a huge projected surplus, and the Great Recession was still a year away. Instead, Madden and Whitmire had different winds at their backs. For one thing, the policy context favored reform. One legacy of the state’s prison litigation trauma is that Texas has strict restrictions on overcrowding (unlike, say, California). Under Texas law, when the system approaches capacity, corrections staff must seek certification from the attorney general and the governor to incarcerate more prisoners. The approval process forces state leaders to confront the choice between more prisons and more diversion programming. The political environment had also changed since the GOP completed its takeover of state politics in 2003. As a longtime observer of the state’s criminal justice notes, “Now … all the tough guys are Republicans. They don’t want to be outdoing each other on this stuff.”
I'm not entirely happy with this explanation. I have my own, which is that ideological movements get bored. After saying the same thing for a long time, there's a desire to say something else. I think conservative ideology takes longer to get restless than others, but it still happens. It's also not always successful:
Of course, there are limits to how far ideological reinvention can go. As political scientist David Karol has argued, it is unlikely to work when it requires crossing a major, organized member of a party coalition. That’s something environmentalists learned when they tried to encourage evangelicals to break ranks on global warming through the idea of “creation care.” They got their heads handed to them by the main conservative evangelical leaders, who saw the split this would create with energy-producing businesses upon whom Republican depend for support.That's a rather simplified description of what happened among evangelicals, including who started it, how far it got, and whether the movement's truly ended. It also downplays the difficulty in crossing the ideological and economic barriers of the tough-on-crime mindset and the prison-industrial complex.
I'm not sure what lessons to draw from all this for climate policy purposes. Sometimes all you can do is wait for people to change - or push change through without their help. I've also thought for a while that Al Gore has been careful to avoid some of the limelight. Conservatives are showing some real ferment over immigration, modest change on gay marriage, and tiny little cracks in climate denial. Maybe we'll get lucky.