The Obama-Holder Justice Department's full scale legal challenge to the man who has long called himself "America's Sheriff" (read Marc Lacey's reporting in the NYTimes here) is another indicator that the war on crime is continuing to wane, both in the commitment of federal and state budget to crime control activities, and in the ideological grip of "tough on crime" over the American political imagination. Joe Arpaio, five times elected Sheriff of Maricopa County Arizona (Phoenix) has been fixture on the Republican right in Arizona and nationally for years now, but he has also largely been above reproach from more moderate leaders of either party despite engaging behavior that ranges from clownish (dying the jail bologna green and the underwear pink) to obscene and degrading (jail webcams trained on showers, see Mona Lynch's article on Jail Cam in Punishment and Society here). The fact that the Justice Department is going after him now may be based on convenient timing (the investigation began under Bush and comes at a time when Latino votes are the key to Obama winning Arizona and perhaps the whole election) but it also indicates that the most cautious political team in the business calculates that tough on crime is no longer a shield of legitimacy.
As Sheriff Joe is hustled off the stage of history, let us not mistake this clownish thug for an aberrant example of our demented celebrity political culture (although is his as well). His basic program of cruelty, racism, and entertainment in the name of public safety is one that continues to be defended and practice in most states and by a Justice Department that has arrested and deported more foreign nationals than any administration in recent history (proportionate to its time in office). Nor have we seen the President make even the slightest move to challenge the orthodoxy of mass incarceration in America.
If Sheriff Joe is a comic book character it is reflection of our national decline. Consider Captain America (whose creator, Joe Simon, died this week at 98, read his obit here) whose inaugural issue in January 1940 depicted him punching Adolph Hitler (then romping over Europe)in the jaw. Our hero's used to beat up bullies; in the age of Sheriff Joe they became bullies.