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“Law and Order” Politics Is Back. Here’s How to Beat It.

Don’t pretend that violent crime isn’t on the rise. And don’t defund the police.
August 11, 2021
“Law and Order” Politics Is Back. Here’s How to Beat It.

Crime politics are back. After decades of “law and order” taking a back seat to other issues, a spike in murder rates has revived concerns and teed up Republican talking points.

Fortunately, there’s a needle to be threaded that can help leaders of good will sew together a fabric of sound policy that is also a winner with voters. It involves discarding “defund the police” labels, re-investment in policing and police reform measures, and reminding voters that the sharpest rise in crime took place before Joe Biden became president.

Murder has increased by more than 25 percent in the United States, the biggest jump in 60 years. Crime increased 36 percent in Los Angeles. In New Orleans, 74 percent of residents think their city isn’t safe and that conditions are getting worse.

Republicans are taking statistics like these and trotting out an old playbook, attacking “soft on crime” Democrats.

But there’s one big weakness to this line: The great bulk of the increase in violent crime happened during the Trump administration. Yes, the former president regularly boasted of his commitment to law and order. But while he was doing so, violent crime surged. The 2020 rise in murder was “the largest increase in violence we’ve seen since 1960 . . .” according to John Roman, a criminal justice expert at the University of Chicago. “We’ve never seen a year-over-year increase even approaching this magnitude.”

Such inconvenient facts have not stopped Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton from charging that, “Radicals have defamed, demoralized and disarmed” law enforcement. The Democratic party, Cotton continued, is “pro-riot, anti-cop and anti-prosecutor.”

Not to be outdone, former President Trump, ignoring his own record, told an Ohio rally on June 27, “After just five months, the Biden administration is already a complete and total catastrophe. Crime is surging. Murders are soaring. Police departments are being gutted. Illegal aliens are overrunning their borders.”

Just because Republican politicians are being dishonest doesn’t mean there isn’t a real issue here. Some progressives say the crime spike is not real. They’re incorrect. And voters absolutely do care about this issue.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll from early July showed that 59 percent of respondents said that crime is an “extremely” or “very” serious problem.

But while rising crime could be an electoral danger for Democrats, it doesn’t have to be. The same poll showed neither party with a clear advantage on the issue: 35 percent said they trusted the Democrats to do a better job on crime; 36 percent trusted Republicans more; and 20 percent trusted neither party on the issue.

So there is a path to gaining political support, but it starts by understanding that the politics of law and order are not the same as they were in 1968 when Richard Nixon and George Wallace stoked fear of crime and fanned white resentment by promising to be tough on it.

Fifty years ago, that worked because, as Joshua Zeitz notes in Politico, violent crime was part of the experience of swing voters’ who lived in cities or adjacent suburbs. Today, Zeitz observes, “Swing voters are affluent suburbanites, not working-class residents of transitional urban neighborhoods. The places where violent crime is on the rise—namely, cities—are deep blue and unlikely to change. The places where violent crime is not on the rise—namely, suburbs—are the new political battleground.”

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, a clear majority of Americans now understand that discrimination and denial of economic opportunity contribute heavily to crime. And many voters also see at least some connection between guns and crime.

The Post/ABC News poll found that a whopping 75 percent of respondents said that increased funding for economic opportunities in poor communities would reduce crime, while 65 percent supported using social workers to defuse volatile situations involving people with emotional problems. 55 percent rejected defunding the police while supporting more money for police departments. And 51 percent backed stronger enforcement of gun laws.

As the Christian Science Monitor notes, majorities of adults also believe that violence prevention, recovery, and mental health—not incarceration—are most effective in preventing violent crime. Political scientist Mark D. Ramirez has found that “punitive sentiment” has been on a downward trajectory ever since the mid-1990s.

All of this suggests that there’s a way for sensible politicians to both address the real problem of crime and also be on the right side of the politics of the issue.

First, they should frequently remind voters of what Trump Republicans want them to forget—that the spike in violent crime in our largest cities happened mostly on Trump’s watch. As the Major Cities Chiefs Association recently reported, homicide rates in large cities were up some 33 percent in 2020—that would be before Biden entered the White House and Democrats took control of the Senate.

Next, adopting the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would establish national standards for police operations, invest existing funds in community-based policing programs, and make it easier to prosecute the excessive use of force by police: Marrying funding increases to enhanced professionalism and greater accountability.

Finally, liberals and progressives should reject defunding the police and embrace Biden’s recently announced strategy to “Prevent and Respond to Gun Crime and Ensure Public Safety.” It calls for making smart investments in, and reforms of, policing as part of a package that targets structural discrimination, increases economic opportunities for working class people and stems the accelerating flow of illegal gun purchases.

Broadening the conversation about criminal violence to address its causes is good policy. If done smartly, it could be good politics, too.

Austin Sarat and Dennis Aftergut

Austin Sarat (@ljstprof) is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. The views expressed here do not represent Amherst College. Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor.