In the 1980s and ’90s, the Democratic Party embraced big increases in police funding, longer prison sentences and greater use of the death penalty. Part of the rationale was a well-intentioned effort to fight crime. But part of it was also an electoral one — a desire to appease the conservative and anti-Black sentiments of some White swing voters.
Now, many Democrats, including President Biden, are again leaning into boosting police funding, and some of them are trying to reverse recent efforts to make the criminal justice system less punitive. It’s not a full return to the 1990s, but it has worrisome echoes of that era. And in some ways it’s worse, because the underlying rationales are even weaker.
In the 1990s, Democrats didn’t have the evidence that has since accumulated suggesting that many punitive criminal justice policies don’t reliably reduce crime, nor did they have a stream of videos displaying horrible incidents of police brutality. And back then, the political rationale was largely about keeping Republicans out of office. Now, some centrist Democrats are using alarmist rhetoric hyping America’s crime rates and misleading statements about progressive policies to undercut the party’s emergent left wing.
This strategy is at times working, as illustrated by Tuesday’s successful recall of progressive San Francisco prosecutor Chesa Boudin.
It’s important to emphasize that crime is a problem and that Democrats (and all politicians) should address it. The national homicide rate increased dramatically in 2020 and rose again in 2021. (It’s not clear whether that has continued into 2022.) These rates are the highest since the 1990s, although they remain far from that peak. Experts who study crime aren’t sure why the homicide rate surged in the past two years and whether the trend will continue. But they largely agree on at least one solution: reducing the number of guns circulating in the United States.
It’s clear, though, that two things did not cause this increase: “reform prosecutors” like Boudin and the “defund the police” movement. Few cities have actually reduced their police budgets, and homicide rate increases happened in many cities that increased spending. There is no correlation between more progressive prosecutors and homicide rates.
But why let the facts get in the way of a good story that can help you vanquish your rivals? The Democrats emerged from the Trump years with a party divided between more centrist forces and more progressives ones, with the latter on the rise. Then, the homicide rate increased. Whatever the actual causes, everyone knew that the left was allied with more progressive prosecutors and the defund movement. So acting as if the United States is facing an 1980s-style crime wave and pinning it on the left has become a way for the Democratic center-left to discredit progressives.
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And that’s what happened over the past year. Centrist Democrat Eric Adams won the mayoral race in New York by emphasizing crime and casting his opponents as weak on the issue. In office, he has attacked Black Lives Matter activists. Boudin was blamed by his critics for basically any crime that happened in San Francisco during his time as district attorney. Republican-turned-Democrat Rick Caruso finished in the top two in the Los Angeles mayoral election to qualify for the general election on Tuesday by emphasizing crime.
These centrist politicians have two powerful allies in using crime electorally: well-established groups in city politics and the media. Politics in large American cities are traditionally dominated by police unions, the real estate industry, developers and wealthy individuals. Because progressive candidates are a threat to those groups — the left wants to increase scrutiny of the police and to take on the wealthy — they often spend heavily in these races to boost centrists.
Meanwhile, the media, and particularly local television news, tends to cover crime a lot, in part because of the perception that this draws viewers. And both national and local newspapers tend to be owned and run by more moderate figures, be wary of left-wing causes and find the left to be a useful foil to demonstrate to conservatives that they aren’t too liberal. As a result, news coverage in these races becomes very favorable to politicians like Adams and unfavorable to ones like Boudin.
All of that is why, in many heavily Democratic cities, much of the new war on crime is really a war on the left.
In a different era, overhyping crime and blaming progressives to win intraparty feuds could be considered harmless political infighting. But the effect of all this tough-on-crime posturing is weakening the much-needed movement to reform the police that emerged two years ago after the murder of George Floyd. The policies of the 1990s helped lead to mass incarceration of Black people in particular, while not playing much of a role in reducing crime. Creating a climate where police have lots of money and power and little accountability helped lead to the killings of Breonna Taylor and Floyd. It is time to try alternative approaches to policing, prosecution and crime reduction — not repeat flawed approaches of the past.
All is not lost, however. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and other reform-minded prosecutors and elected officials have won elections and reelections. And much of the 1990s Democratic agenda on crime has been discredited as both racist and ineffective. So we aren’t likely going back to the days of Democrats like Biden actively encouraging greater use of the death penalty and longer sentences for drug crimes.
But I wish I felt better about where all this is heading. The Democratic left is not yet vanquished. Nor are the Republicans. So if those two groups remain a threat to more centrist Democrats controlling the government, we might see even more electorally motivated rhetoric and policies that are aimed at creating worry about crime as much as addressing it. Taking that approach might or might not win votes, but it will almost certainly move us away further away from the criminal justice system that we need.