The issue of public safety may be about to play its most significant role in our politics since the mid-1990s, the beginning of a decadeslong decline in crime that steadily eroded its political salience.
Donald Trump tried to make law and order a defining issue in 2020, but the rioting he so forcefully denounced was, in most places, too transitory to become an overwhelming issue. He was also in the awkward position of trying to run against disorder as an incumbent rather than a challenger, and his chaotic governing style wasn’t a good match for a message of orderliness.
But now, more than a year into a serious crime wave, Democrats should beware—they are fooling themselves if they think they won’t be blamed for a rise in violence in Democratic-run cities that clearly, at some level, is a result of police forces feeling beleaguered and overwhelmed.
Overall, murder increased by more than 25 percent in the United States last year, the biggest jump in 60 years. Murders jumped nearly 50 percent in New York City. Crime increased 36 percent in Los Angeles. And the story is the same in city after city.
Surely, the dislocations of the pandemic have been a factor, but it’s also obvious that anti-police agitation has put the cops on their back feet. Exhibit A is Minneapolis.
In the fevered days and weeks after the killing of Floyd, the City Council pledged to do away with the police department, among the most outlandishly unachievable and self-destructive promises ever made by an elected body. Of course, it couldn’t follow through on it, anymore than it could have followed through on a promise to eliminate traffic lights or municipal snow removal.
Still, cops have left the force in droves, while crime has soared. Murders, rapes, robberies and assaults increased 25 percent last year, with the rise much steeper, more than 60 percent, in the neighborhoods surrounding the intersection where Floyd was killed.
The impeccably progressive mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Fry, who desperately wanted to ingratiate himself at a tribunal-like rally last summer, but, to his credit, wouldn’t commit to defunding the police, now occasionally sounds like he’s channeling Rudy Giuliani circa 1993.
“The violence needs to stop, its unacceptable,” he said at a community meeting a couple of weeks ago. “We should be holding these perpetrators accountable.” He added that “when you make big, overarching statements that we’re going to defund or abolish and dismantle the police department and get rid of all the officers, there’s an impact to that.”
Another dyed-in-the-wool progressive, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, faced with ongoing unrest that once was blamed on Trump, has called for the city’s residents to “take the city back” from rioters and for unmasking, arresting, and prosecuting them.
Los Angeles cut its police budget by 8 percent in the wake of the Floyd protests, and now is basically adding the funding right back. In South Los Angeles, the LAPD is increasing patrols and vehicle stops to search for guns and gang members.
Irving Kristol famously said a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. If progressive politicians who are now sounding friendlier to the police haven’t been mugged by reality, they at least have been alarmed by the sound of approaching gunfire.
The turnabout isn’t universal. White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked the other day whether there’s a crime problem, and sounding as evasive as when she discusses the border, would only say there is a “guns problem.” This was a reference to the completely unconvincing argument that increased gun sales have led to the spike in crime, when surges in gun sales since the mid-1990s never before led to higher crime.
The problem that Democrats have is that they have either made themselves—or allied themselves with people making—a comprehensive case against the police as systematically racist. This doesn’t naturally allow for nuance, and, in fact, logically entails calling for fewer cops and less police funding.
This is an agenda that will be hard to sell to most people in the best of circumstances, but it is toxic in an environment of rising crime.
Black Lives Matter has already been losing support in the polls, while trust in the police has been rising. Things would have to get orders of magnitude worse for crime to become as central an issue as it was in the 1970s. But safe streets is a non-negotiable expectation of all voters. It’s why “law and order,” whether wielded demagogically by George Wallace or much more responsibly by Ronald Reagan, has such power.
Democrats who aren’t alarmed that reporters can’t do standups at the George Floyd memorial without dodging bullets are tempting political fate.