As the last presidential contenders throw their hats into the ring for 2008, it’s fruitful to recall another presidential race, twenty years ago, which was dominated by someone not on the ballot: “Willie” Horton. It wasn’t George H.W. Bush who first aimed this coded racial appeal against Michael Dukakis. It was Al Gore, running to Dukakis’s right in the Democratic primaries, who hammered the Massachusetts Governor over his prisoner furlough program. When Gore and Clinton were running four years later, Clinton tried to banish the ghost of Dukakis by flying back to Arkansas to preside over the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, who demonstrated his fitness for execution by asking his jailers to save some of the pecan pie from his last meal so he could eat it later.

By 1990 only a handful of Democrats who opposed the death penalty remained in statewide office. They had learned the Willie Horton lesson all too well: They would not be out-toughed on crime. With Democrats offering little resistance, right-wing politicians used crime as a wedge issue to dislodge the pillars of the Great Society.

While these profiles-in-no-courage were being etched in Washington, grassroots activists were moving steadily in the other direction. A combination of careful policy and advocacy work and state budget exigencies has brought us near a tipping point: Many elected officials have come to the conclusion that we may have gone as far as a society can toward locking up its people. Signs are everywhere that the prison-industrial complex is beginning to crack:

§ Measures like California’s Prop 36, which offer drug treatment instead of incarceration, have passed in several states.

§ Rhode Island, Iowa and now Florida have restored some measure of voting rights to former prisoners.

§ Jurisdictions from Connecticut to Kentucky have spearheaded a “justice reinvestment” movement to divert funds from prison and parole to prevention and social support.

§ Grassroots organizations like the Ella Baker Center, Critical Resistance, Grassroots Leadership and the Prison Moratorium Project are building vocal constituencies among the most affected communities–African-Americans, Latinos and youth–dedicated to stopping prison growth.

§ Formerly incarcerated people are leading their own organizations, like All of Us or None and the NuLeadership Policy Group, to challenge the barriers that confront people returning to their communities from prison.

§ National advocacy organizations like the Sentencing Project, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Justice Project and the Justice Policy Institute are reshaping public debate through sophisticated research and communications strategies.

Yet mass incarceration and all its collateral consequences remain a central and appalling feature of American society. Reversing a trend with such deep roots in our history, culture and political system, and on which so many economic interests have come to depend, requires a serious long-term effort. Unfortunately, in the story that everyone from advocates to donors weave about the rise of the right, race and crime rarely make an appearance. The hard-right foundations like Scaife, Bradley and Olin, the propagandistic and bombastic media like Fox and Rush Limbaugh, the ground troops of the Christian right–all these play starring roles, but not Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy of recruiting Southern whites to the GOP by playing the race card. Criminal justice reform has been nearly absent from the progressive agenda that has taken shape in recent years, supported by a rash of new think tanks created to counter the hard right. And it has yet to appear as a priority for the Democrats now running Capitol Hill–or running for President.

Nevertheless, we have an opportunity for change now. In last fall’s elections, for the first time in a long time, fear of crime barely made an appearance as a wedge issue. The challenge is to push criminal justice reform into the debate as 2008 heats up. No progressive future can be built on the backs of prisoners or by collective amnesia about the Faustian bargain both parties have made over the past four decades.