Academic journal article Social Justice

Drugspeak and the Clinton Administration: A Lost Opportunity for Drug Policy Reform

Academic journal article Social Justice

Drugspeak and the Clinton Administration: A Lost Opportunity for Drug Policy Reform

Article excerpt

Murray Edelman's influential work on symbolic politics recognizes the importance of language as "the key creator of the social worlds people experience, not a tool for describing objective reality" (1988: 103). Language games that construct and categorize social problems are called into service for the support of marginal solutions already chosen by elites, reinforcing ideologies and policy trends, and shoring up authority.

Nowhere is this insight better illustrated than in the politics of crime and drugs of the past 20 years. Television, with its instant access to almost every American home and its capacity for dramatizing good and evil in sound bites, is the ideal medium for conveying the menace of an unstable world and personifying it in the juvenile murderer or the drug kingpin. Anchorpersons and the political and economic elites they interview capitalize on the omnipresence of mass media to send messages of both threat and reassurance that, for many viewers, simultaneously glamorize drugs (licit or illicit) and associate them with decadence, disease, and violence.

Moral entrepreneurs (coached by Madison Avenue, of course) also further their positions on issues by choosing the right language, as in Nancy Reagan's inspired commandment, "Just Say No," and George Bush's invocation of national security concerns as a justification for post-Cold War military adventures (New York Times, September 6, 1989). The very banality of such statements both arouses anxiety and assuages it, at least momentarily, as people are reminded of the myths of individualism and military hegemony that sustain mainstream American culture (Edelman, 1977: 3).

Once established, the discourse of crime and drugs need not be maintained with the same fervor or through the same semantic or by the same agency that brought it into being. Its hold on the collective consciousness remains even though the entrepreneurs who promoted it are gone and the particular policy under consideration has shifted slightly. A political leader may even repudiate some of the vocabulary of the discourse without disrupting the power it continues to have over political policy-making. The quiescence of the public and the lack of a new discourse as powerful as the old one keeps drugspeak in circulation.

Since the Clinton administration arrived in Washington, what William Safire (1989) once called "the discourse of drug dudgeon" appears to have softened somewhat at the national level. Although as a presidential candidate Clinton maintained that the "get-tough" policies espoused by Bush had failed and that he would get tougher still by putting "more police on the streets and more criminals behind bars," he also called for "drug treatment on demand" for addicts (Clinton and Gore, 1992: 71-72). He even told an interviewer that, although he rejected drug legalization, "it's a very tough call" (O'Rourke, 1992). Once in office, though his first budget retained Bush's emphasis on law enforcement as the primary tool to be applied to the task of reducing drug abuse, he did not seem drawn to the demonizing of users and dealers that characterized his predecessor's rhetoric; his administration, said his drug czar, "rejects the use of war analogies to discuss our nation's drug abuse policy. You cannot succeed in this effort by declaring war on our own citizens" (Washington Post, September 27, 1993). (Bush had proclaimed "zero tolerance for casual drug use" and called for using the military to quash the "threat to our national health and spirit" represented by "narcogangsters" [Gordon, 1994: 199, 192!.) Clinton has, in fact, been criticized by members of Congress for neglecting the drug issue (New York Times, September 21, 1993).

Diminished rhetoric has by no means meant that the Clinton team has either redefined "the drug problem" or embraced reform in attempting to solve it. By announcing a focus on "the hard-core drug user," the president and Director of the Office of National Drug Policy Lee P. …

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