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November 27, 2012

"Republicans a victim of safer streets"

The title of this post is the headlined of this notable recent commentary by Charles Lane in the Washington Post.  Here are some excerpts:

Americans were unhappy about many issues as 2012 began. In one area, though, contentment reigned.  By a margin of 50 to 45 percent, a Gallup Poll reported, the public felt “satisfied” with the nation’s policies on crime.

It was a well-founded sentiment. In 2010, Americans were less than a third as likely to be victimized by violent crime as they had been in 1994; the murder rate had declined by roughly half.  Today we are approaching the low murder rates of the 1950s.

For the Republican Party, this is a triumph — and a disaster, as the 2012 election results proved.  It is a GOP triumph, because the enormous decline in crime over the past two decades coincided with the widespread adoption of such conservative ideas as “broken windows” policing and mandatory minimum sentences.

Whether such policies actually caused the crime decline is a separate, and much-debated, social-science question.  The important thing is that many people believe that they did.  As a result, conservative crime doctrine remains dominant in politics, with the two parties differing mainly over how to control and punish unlawful conduct most cost-effectively.

Hence the 2012 disaster for the GOP.  Beginning with Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign for president in 1968, Republicans pretty much owned the issue.  Fear of street crime — and its association, accurate or not, with post-’60s moral license, liberal Democratic policies and the rise of an urban black population — converted many a white working-class Democrat into a Republican....

As the first Democratic president since Clinton, and the first African American one ever, Barack Obama has done essentially nothing to reverse Clinton’s crime and welfare policies. He signed a bill reducing the disparity in penalties for crack and powder cocaine possession under federal law, a modest reform that enjoyed wide Republican support in Congress....

We’ll never know whether 2012 would have played out the same way if crime had staged a comeback during the recession, as many expected.  Certainly in the past, crime was as important to the Republican brand as abortion and gay rights, if not more important.  Safer streets, though, have blunted what was once a sharp wedge issue, and, perhaps, freed the electorate to consider social and moral issues in a different light.

In the crime-ravaged ’70s and ’80s, Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” Callahan acted out Middle America’s fantasy of a no-holds-barred war on crime.  By the time an elderly Eastwood appeared at the 2012 GOP convention, though, violent crime was a fading specter. And when he led the crowd in a chorus of “Go ahead, make my day,” it was history repeating itself as farce.

He should have said, “We need a new issue.”

I suggest that Republicans consider for their new issue a call to end federal pot prohibition, replaced by state-level regulation and experimentation on marijuana reform.  Among other benefits for Republicans, if an end to pot prohibition really does lead to an increase in crime and related harms, it can better trade of the political rhetoric of crime yet again.

November 27, 2012 at 08:31 PM | Permalink


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"For the Republican Party, this is a triumph"
"and a disaster, [in] the 2012 election results"

Victims of their own success?

Curious that C. Lane and D. Berman criticize and call for change on the part of Republicans, rather than urging popular recognition and consolidation.

Two points:
1. In actuality, Americans in poll upon poll--and even up to the recent elections--favour conservative
"Right-wing" social and fiscal positions and identity over liberal/moderate ones, cf. gallup, USA Today;

2. Criminal activity is legitimately trending down over the last 20 years,
relative to the comprehensive upward trend over the last 50 years.

www.gallup.com/poll/.../americans-see-views-of- gop-candidates-closer-to-their-own.aspx

Posted by: Adamakis | Nov 28, 2012 9:56:18 AM

1961: 158 per 100,000 violent crimes or 289,390 within a population of 182,992,000;
2010: 404 per 100,000 violent crimes or 1,246,248 within a pop. of 308,745,538.
_._._Greater than a 2.5x Increase_._._

1961: 9.4 per 100,000 forcible rapes or 17,220
2010: 27.5 per 100,000 forcible rapes or 84,767


Posted by: Adamakis | Nov 28, 2012 9:58:44 AM

Couple of follow-up points for clarification, Adamakis:

1. Rape and domestic violence were dramatically under-reported until recent decades, so your numbers are not perfect metrics here. That said, crime clearly went up dramatically from the early 1960s to the early 1990s, and then started going back down over the last two decades. Conservative criminal justice policies are a big part of this story, but so too may be liberal abortion policies.

2. The outcomes of last two national Prez elections certainly seem to suggest that actual votes in major elections show more national affinity for liberal/moderate leaders over social conservatives on issues other than criminal justice. But perhaps you meant only to reference crime policy positions, for which I agree the country still leans right.

3. Just as many Ds after Dukaukis realized they should move to the right on the death penalty and violent/drug crimes to reflect public sentiments circa 1990 (at least for political reasons), I am mostly just urging that Rs realize they should move to the (libertarian) left on marijuana policy to reflect public sentiments circa 2012. I won't speak for Charles Lane, but I do not read his commentary as either criticisms of Republicans on crime policy or a call for change.

Posted by: Doug B. | Nov 28, 2012 10:55:13 PM

Cheers Professor.
Thanks for the response. For rape though, one of your points of contention,
"being dramatically under-reported until recent decades", I have not seen evidence.
Where might I search?

[P.S. More than one of the old cop-instructors in my Police Academy mentioned that now we "have to arrest someone" in a domestic violence situation which increased this crime processing, but as for the uptick in its occurrence, they attributed to the fact that boyfriends are more likely to beat women than husbands, and cohabitation has increased dramatically since the early '60s.]

Posted by: Adamakis | Nov 29, 2012 2:01:03 PM

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