GOP Bets Crime Will Generate Fear & Votes - Will It Work?
When citizens begin doing the police department’s work & neighborhoods are hiring private security because police don’t respond - It's a crisis for the GOP to exploit
The headline/subhead for the top story in today’s Washington Post is:
“GOP strategy elevates clashes over crime, race in midterm battlegrounds
“Republicans are increasingly centering their pitch to voters in the midterms on crime, prompting growing accusations of racism from some Democrats, but also worries that the attacks could resonate”
It will work. Here’s why.
Consider this thought experiment: You’re stopped at a light and a man walks up to your drivers’ side window and points a gun at you. Quick: What are the top three things on your mind?
Odds are they all have to do with avoiding danger and getting to safety. That’s because safety rests just above homeostasis (eating, sleeping, excreting waste, breathing, maintaining body temperature) on what psychologist Abraham Maslow called his “Hierarchy of Human Needs.”
When your safety is threatened — either in reality or vividly in your imagination because of a well-done political advertisement — pretty much everything else goes out the window. You’re not thinking about your friendships, your job, your term paper, your significant other: your mind is simply screaming “Get safe!” at you.
Which is why Republicans are focusing this year on safety-related issues. The safety of your child in the school’s restroom or locker-room. Your safety if you’re confronted by an “illegal” immigrant (or, as Donald Trump called them, “rapists and murderers”). Your ability to walk down the street without fear that a violent mentally ill homeless person will attack you.
While the GOP boogeymen of predators pretending to be trans and violent immigrants are largely fictitious (immigrants are far less likely to commit crime in America than citizens), when they talk about Americans’ worries about random, low-level crime they’re hitting a nerve that can help them win elections.
For example: Louise and I live about a mile from a supermarket and under any other circumstances would enjoy the stroll to pick up incidentals or a small bag of groceries. Except that now there are two homeless camps between us and the store. Even driving by them can be a challenge: people are often in the street harassing drivers at stoplights or throwing things at cars.
Louise was chased down the street recently by a homeless man who was screaming obscenities and threw a half-full bottle of water at her. One of our relatives has had two cars stolen; another was assaulted by a homeless person last week.
Our home doorbell camera caught a criminal trying to break into our home: our doors were locked, but a nearby neighbor’s weren’t and when she stepped out of the shower to discover them in her house, they’d already collected an armful of computers, cash, and prescription bottles. A month later she put her house up for sale. When we sent our doorbell video to the police, they ignored the report.
And Portland, where we live, doesn’t even rank in the top 15 most dangerous cities for crime in the US.
What does this mean for politics? Look around the world. While left-wing parties generally run on raising people’s standard of living or strengthening the social safety net, right-wing parties always include large doses of fear in their “law and order” campaigns. And real crime generates genuine fear.
Sweden just this month elected the nation’s first right-wing government in generations, after the country experienced it’s 500th bombing — yes, roving gangs of criminals blowing each other up — and the highest rate of gun homicides in Europe (still a fraction of the US).
Italy also just yesterday elected the nation’s first right-wing government since Mussolini, almost certainly putting Giorgia Meloni of the hard-right neofascist Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party into the Prime Minister’s job. Her campaign slogan was explicitly about crime and immigration: like most developed countries, the nation is confronting crime problems and blaming it on immigrants is easy.
Crime in the US is now approaching the peaks it hit in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton famously put 100,000 new cops on the streets nationwide, an action that de-fanged Republicans who claimed Democrats were “soft on crime.”
So far, nothing the Biden administration has done comes even close.
As a result, Republicans are highlighting rising crime rates around the country (often tied to local increases in homelessness), blaming it on Democratic mayors and the politically suicidal “de-fund the police” rhetoric from folks fed up with cops killing unarmed Black people.
If Democrats in general, and President Biden in particular, don’t take this opportunity to show real leadership on the crime issue, they could be in a world of hurt by 2024 when the echoes of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision have faded.
It’s even going to hurt this year, although America’s women are now struggling with a new threat to their own safety: Republican abortion bans.
This crime problem is real and not just GOP propaganda. Much of it is a product of the Covid pandemic and its disruptive economic consequences, but explaining “causes” is meaningless to people who simply want to feel safe in their communities.
The website nextdoor.com has become ubiquitous across America and two years ago most of the posts were about lost cats and offers of surplus zucchini from the garden. Today, people are crowdsourcing how to catch the criminals who’ve broken into their houses, stolen their cars, or assaulted them.
Folks on nextdoor.com here in Portland have gotten together to find multiple stolen items including bicycles and cars — several were found at nearby homeless encampments — as well as posting pictures of burglars, snatch-and-grab thieves, and people who’ve committed assaults.
Today’s top, front page story in our local paper, The Oregonian, echoes the top story in today’s Washington Post. It’s about a volunteer-run group of Portlanders based on a private Facebook group that prowls the city looking for stolen cars.
The city is on course to see over 12,000 cars stolen this year, a peak that was last seen in the early 1990s when crime spiked nationwide in the wake of Reagan’s gutting the social safety net and destroying unions as he shipped factories overseas.
Citizen “neighborhood watch” committees are self-organizing around the country, all while muttering that it’s time to “throw out the bums”: the politicians allowing this situation to emerge and fester. And right now those “bum” politicians in charge are largely Democrats.
When citizens begin doing the police department’s work — including neighborhoods around the country that are hiring private security because police don’t respond to anything but the most severe crimes — you know there’s a crisis.
And it’s happening from Seattle to Milwaukee, Chicago to Dallas.
This state of perpetual crisis is how life is lived in poor and developing countries: communities depend on private armed guards instead of relying on police. I’ve seen it in Bogota, Nairobi, Jakarta, Juba, Lima, Mumbai, Mexico City, Cairo, Bangkok, Manila, Colombo and a dozen other cities I’ve worked in on multiple continents. It’s a sign of cultural and political crisis.
I remember years ago being astounded by a billboard for a new upper-middle-class subdivision in Bogotá, Colombia when I was working there. The homes were in the background, with children playing in their yards: the foreground was a razor-wire fence with a private-security-uniformed man holding an AK-47 smiling at us as we drove by.
And now neighborhoods across America are hiring private security and putting in fences and gates.
And if they know nothing else, Republicans know how to exploit a crisis. This will become a major political issue, even though it’s probably a temporary Covid-caused blip and, even at its worst, crime statistics now are better than they were 20 years ago.
But mental health and addiction services are stretched thin across the nation, a problem exacerbated by the pandemic and set up by Reagan-era policies that gutted mental health services.
Back in the late 1970s, President Carter pushed through the Mental Health Systems Act that expanded federally- and state-funded residential treatment facilities for mentally ill people as well as giving the mentally ill more options, including local treatment clinics and the ability to self-administer medications.
President Reagan not only repealed it during his first year in office, leading to an explosion of mentally ill people among our homeless populations, but followed up by cutting federal funding for other mental illness programs by 30%.
The New York Times editorialized in 1981 that:
“[D]einstitutionalization has become a cruel embarrassment, a reform gone terribly wrong, threatening not only the former mental inmates but also the quality of life for all New Yorkers.”
In a 1984 follow-up article, the Times added:
“The policy that led to the release of most of the nation’s mentally ill patients from the hospital to the community is now widely regarded as a major failure.”
But Republicans stayed with the policy, and Democrats have never reversed it.
The mentality ill, like most other marginalized and thus vulnerable populations, were among the first to lose their support networks and homes when Covid crashed the economy.
To this day, the funding and those facilities have not been restored to pre-Reagan levels and mentally ill people make up as many as a third of the homeless people sleeping on the streets.
There are some good steps being taken but they’re not widely known.
The Biden administration has rolled out a program to get illegal guns off our streets in an effort to reduce the current wave of gun-based crime and murders. And they’re talking about cracking down on white-collar crime, hoping to eliminate the justification for everyday thieves that “rich people get away with stealing every day, so why’s it a big deal when I steal from them?”
But effective and highly visible action is needed now to keep Americans safe in their homes and on our streets. And it has to be real and meaningful action, not just symbolic steps or over-reactive and gratuitously punitive stunts like the crime bills of the 1990s.
The first president in American history to use crime as a national wedge issue and win an election on it was Republican Herbert Hoover in 1928. In his inaugural address he said:
“The strong man must at all times be alert to the attack of insidious disease. The most malign of all these dangers today is disregard and disobedience of law. Crime is increasing. Confidence in rigid and speedy justice is decreasing.”
At least, unlike Reagan, Bush, Bush, and Trump, he didn’t pin the nation’s crime rate on Black people, immigrants, or “inner cities.” Hoover’s “solution” was nonetheless Reaganesque: blame average working-class Americans for the crime of his era and tell them it’s their responsibility to fix the problem:
“But a large responsibility rests directly upon our citizens. … I have been selected by you to execute and enforce the laws of the country. I propose to do so to the extent of my own abilities, but the measure of success that the Government shall attain will depend upon the moral support which you, as citizens, extend. The duty of citizens to support the laws of the land is coequal with the duty of their Government to enforce the laws which exist.”
While Republicans are great at complaining about crime and immigration, their weakness is that they offer no meaningful solutions and, outside of more weaponry for cops (Reagan’s program to give military hardware to police departments, cut by Obama and revived by Trump), don’t seem to know where to begin.
For example, when the Biden administration put forward their American Rescue Package last year, containing $350 billion in new funding for police across the nation, every single Republican in both the House and the Senate voted against it.
Democrats must step up with big, significant, and effective anti-crime, anti-homelessness, and pro-mental-health programs now, or the GOP will eat their lunch in the next presidential election. And those programs have to produce positive results well before 2024.
Americans deserve to be safe in their communities, and it shouldn’t take Republican electoral victories for the Democratic Party to figure it out.
I too live in Portland, and I am totally with you on this one. I generally feel safe in my neighborhood and walk or jog every day. However, a few weeks ago, the street racers took over a major intersection a few blocks from my house. The noise was so loud, it sounded as though they were going to come through my window. It went on for well over an hour. Lots of loud fireworks and screeching tires. In and of itself, this incident was not life threatening. I understand that the police would need a very large crowd control contingent to shut it down and they didn't have the resources at the moment (there were shootings in other parts of town). As a former 9-1-1 dispatcher who had to prioritize police calls, I get it. However, I was scared and frustrated that no one responded. A neighbor was injured when he was punched in the face after trying to video the activity with his phone.
I got off NextDoor because of all the homeless bashing that went on. But I also don't think it's helpful to allow people with untreated mental illness and addiction problems to live on the street, so I support efforts to provide housing and shelter and treatment.
Hoover may have been writing more about the widespread flouting of Prohibition laws and the related gang violence. So in parallel with that time one step in the right direction would be to end Nixon's grotesque "war on drugs" and decriminalize (if not legalize) soft ones like pot. I agree about the rising rates though; here in the Twin Cities there certainly are a lot of reports about catalytic converter thefts and home invasions. How much crime has increased versus how much is simply being better reported may be another question, but it certainly is not good.
Using fear to gain power is of course an old, old tactic that many dictatorships have used. And it works well in mass media--Fox (what I call the "Goebbels Network") seems built on it. It's especially effective when tied in with racism, like Bush's infamous Willie Horton ad. Trump has an instinctual feel for such hate, going back at least to his ads calling for execution of the Central Park Five. Crime rates may well oscillate down again, but there's no easy way out of this except time, education, and getting to know other groups. Combined with intelligent policing and social changes (not least some real gun controls) that may work. I don't know if we have time.