But many among the progressive community don’t want to admit this. They seem to believe that acknowledging a covid-era crime wave will jeopardize hard-won gains fighting for bail and sentencing reform, attempts to reform the nation’s police forces, and the fight to address racial injustice. MSNBC host Joy Reid, for example, recently accused the media of riling people up over the issue, tweeting: “I’ve seen more TV stories about crime than the actual anecdotes from friends in [New York City] or other big cities bear out.” Others point out the levels are rising from numbers significantly lower than during the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980s, so why worry?
The denial needs to stop. The failure to engage and take on the issue of growing violence and lawbreaking now — no matter how unpleasant, distasteful or uncomfortable — will only harm the progressive agenda and potentially cause swing voters to pull the lever for Republican candidates.
Traditionally, voters view Democrats and progressives as softer on crime than “law and order” Republicans. That’s why even right-leaning Democrats are sometimes vulnerable to getting pinned as supporters of the far-left slogan “defund the police.” Rising crime rates provide an opening to grandstanding Republicans, who claim it is the result of Democrats not adequately supporting cops. As House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said this week: “Crime is soaring in cities managed by Democrats.”
Ridiculous. But the politics of backlash is a real thing. As we’ve seen in both the distant and near past, fear can lead otherwise left-leaning people to vote in a more right-wing direction. The violent crime wave of the 1990s ultimately gave us the now-reviled federal anti-crime bill in 1994 and California’s “three strikes” law, which sent shoplifters to prison for decades. More recently, the “defund the police” slogan is widely suspected of costing Democrats votes in tight 2020 congressional elections while in June’s Democratic mayoral primary in New York City, Eric Adams, running on a “law and order” platform, decisively defeated more progressive challengers, such as Maya Wiley.
Telling voters to chill because crime was much worse in the 1990s isn’t going to cut it anywhere outside of Twitter’s activist bubble. Behavioral experts say our basis of comparison is the recent past, not far off events. Our societal standards for what’s an acceptable level of crime and violence is lower now than it was decades ago. And as someone who lived in New York City, D.C. and Los Angeles in those years, I will tell you that’s a very good thing.
Playing down rising crime rates also raises questions of whether the activist base is in touch with the reality of those it often claims to represent. In many of the cities with surging rates of violence, many of the shootings are concentrated in a few, predominantly minority neighborhoods. Black and Latino residents are more likely to be victims of police brutality than their White counterparts. Black people are more likely to say police funding should also cover social services, too. But they are also more worried about the violence.
Progressives, instead of denying rising crime, should stick the blame right where it belongs — on Republicans. Gun sales increased significantly last year. The one thing that links almost all gun violence? Easy access to firearms. But Republicans refuse to back even minor restrictions on guns ownership. Another thing that stops crime? Summer jobs programs for teens living in poverty. Fund more of them — and remind people which party often opposes doing that.
President Biden recognizes this. His recent executive order on crime cracks down on gun dealers making illegal sales and provides more funding for work training for teens. But progressives also need to highlight the need to address crime on a daily basis, not telling people they are imagining things.
The knee-jerk, defensive attitude toward the 2020-2021 crime wave doesn’t stop violence. Instead, it simply gives the right wing a chance to define and dominate the debate while leaving the left looking like feckless limousine liberals. If it doesn’t stop, Democrats are risking getting mugged by reality next year at the ballot box.