We may be headed for another “tough on crime” era, in which politicians both cynical and cowardly pander to voters’ worst impulses, and the result is disastrous policies that make our country demonstrably worse. It’s everything bad about our politics, cooked down to a rancid sludge of hate and fear.
If you’re old enough to remember the 1980s and 1990s, you know why the possibility of a return to that kind of politics is so disturbing. Then as now, the problem was real and profound, but the politics that surrounded it were poisonous, and we’re still living with the consequences.
Driving this development is the fact that crime has risen across the country in the last year, after a long period of steady decline. Polls show crime increasing as a concern, and Republicans fervently hope the issue can be used to generate the fear that sends voters rushing toward candidates promising the harshest possible response.
That’s what happened in the New Mexico race, which is to fill the seat of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in a district Joe Biden won last year by 23 points. With the Democratic candidate almost sure to win, Republican Mark Moores focused his campaign primarily on crime, all but claiming his opponent Melanie Stansbury wants to see your family raped and murdered.
For instance, watch this horrific TV ad from Moores alleging that Stansbury wants to empty federal prisons and “dismantle” the police, over shadowy video of a man throwing a sack over the head of a woman in a dark alley while the sounds of children’s screams echo in the background.
“Murderers, rapists, and child molesters walking free,” the ad says. “Stop the madness. Stop Melanie Stansbury. Before it’s too late.”
We’re likely to see many more ads like that one, ads that could have been transported from the 1994 election. That year, which would give Republicans huge victories at the national and state level, the “tough on crime” trend reached a fever pitch.
At the time I was working in a political consulting firm, and the plans we drew up for all of our clients had them focusing almost exclusively on crime. On one conference call, a candidate questioned the plan, arguing that she had other issues she wanted to discuss. My boss told her that in his judgment, “Every second you spend talking about anything other than crime does nothing but contribute to your defeat.”
Every campaign across the country agreed, so it was a self-fulfilling prophecy: Candidates only talked about crime, so if you didn’t talk about crime you were in trouble. Those debates were not productive, to say the least. Democrats and Republicans competed to be the “toughest” — committing to create new classes of crimes, advocating the longest sentences, proposing infinite spending on prisons. Republicans did it gleefully and Democrats did it out of fear, but both participated.
If a candidate said that perhaps we should be smart rather than tough, or that locking up as many people as possible might not be the best solution to the problem, they would quickly become the target of lurid ads like the one Moores aired in New Mexico. Those ads exacerbated the atmosphere of fear and panic, and helped spur a wave of draconian crime policies.
Though some of them have been undone — for instance, in New York the NYPD no longer subjects the city’s entire population of Black and Latino men to an unceasing campaign of harassment and abuse — many of those policies remain.
Even though our prison population has declined slightly in the last few years, the U.S. still locks people up at spectacularly higher rates than any other country. According to the most recent data, in Japan there are 38 people incarcerated for every 100,000 residents; the number for Germany is 69, and for Canada it’s 104. In the United States, that number is 639. There are over 2 million Americans behind bars.
Now who thinks that crime being a hot campaign issue in 2022 is going to lead to thoughtful policy change that produces results we can all be proud of?
Adding to the problem is that we aren’t sure exactly what has produced the recent spike in crime. Conservatives argue that police had their feelings hurt by last summer’s protests, and in response they withdrew, doing fewer patrols of high-crime areas and being less aggressive about solving crimes that had already occurred.
That certainly may be part of the explanation, but only a part. Other possible factors are the way the pandemic hampered the operation of the criminal justice system, economic distress caused by the recession, and a wave of gun buying that put more guns in circulation. Ebbs and flows in crime rates are enormously difficult to explain definitively; criminologists are still arguing about the best way to account for the historic declines we saw over the last couple of decades.
But what we can say for sure is that in an atmosphere of rising crime, the politics around the issue degrade into the worst ugliness our system can produce. That’s something we all ought to be afraid of.