The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Who’s to blame for the rural crime wave?

(Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

When we think about crime, most of us envision pictures of urban scenes: a shooting in a bar, a carjacking on a street corner, organized thefts from downtown stores. So when crime becomes an “issue” — not just a thing that happens but a topic of political argument and debate over policy solutions — that context determines what we decide ought to be done about it.

Which is why some new reporting in the Wall Street Journal is such an important challenge to the way we’ve been thinking about crime, now that it has again become a political issue. As the Journal reports, the increase in crime, particularly homicides, that came with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 has not just been an urban phenomenon. Rural areas too have experienced more murders in recent years, leaving many communities reeling.

Here’s the big picture:

Violent crime isn’t just rising in the nation’s cities. Murder rates across the rural U.S. have soared during the pandemic, data show, bringing the kind of extreme violence long associated with major metropolises to America’s smallest communities.
Homicide rates in rural America rose 25% in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was the largest rural increase since the agency began tracking such data in 1999.

The individual stories are awful: shootings, stabbings; old victims, young victims; places where a murder happens only once every few years suddenly reporting a half-dozen homicides in a single year.

So how do we explain this? None of the things conservatives blame for crime — progressive prosecutors, lenient Democratic politicians, police feeling disrespected by racial justice protests, a lack of religious piety — are present in these places.

If — as we’ve all been told again and again — voters are fed up with “soft on crime” Democrats and are ready to “send them a message” in November’s midterm elections, to whom should a message be sent about the rural crime wave? And what should that message be?

The causes of the rural crime wave are as complex as those of urban crime, but at heart they’re about the pandemic. It isolated people from the friends, family and institutions that traditionally provide support. For many it caused sickness and grief. It elevated everyone’s stress level, brought new mental illness, left people feeling angry and powerless. Many took those experiences and tensions out on each other.

You’ve probably seen the effects in small ways in your own life no matter where you live. People seem angrier and meaner, getting into arguments in public and driving more aggressively. You don’t even have to bring in the polarization of our politics; for instance, pedestrian fatalities increased 21 percent from 2019 to 2020, then rose 11.5 percent in 2021, according to preliminary data, reaching the highest level in four decades.

I’m reasonably certain people didn’t start mowing pedestrians down with their cars because Democrats are “soft” on reckless driving. And I’d sincerely like to hear what Republicans think of the rural crime wave, both why it has happened and what might be done about it.

My guess is that they wouldn’t say it’s a failure of political leadership. After all, in many if not most of the affected rural areas, every public official — from the sheriff to the mayor to the county council all the way up to the House member, the senators and the governor — is a conservative Republican.

But when crime goes up in urban areas, Republicans point the finger at local and national Democrats, saying it must have been their policy choices that produced the crime. Turn on Fox News and you’ll learn that cities run by Democrats are hellholes of lawbreaking and mayhem, where atomized individuals scurry around in constant fear for their lives.

But that’s not true; in fact, by some measures New York City is one of the safest places in America. And the states with the highest homicide rates are Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri and Arkansas. Although the governor of Louisiana is a conservative Democrat, the rest are run by Republicans; every one has a Republican legislature. Have they failed to bring down crime because they aren’t “tough” enough?

Speaking of failure, back in 2016, Donald Trump told rural Americans that if they elected him, he would solve all their problems, bring back all the jobs that had been lost and turn their communities into paradise. Yet they still struggle with lack of economic opportunity, high rates of drug addiction and violence.

Addressing those rural problems would require an examination of “root causes” — a focus that conservatives have always regarded with contempt when we were talking about urban crime. But no one is saying that rural White people just need to be punished more harshly so they finally learn to straighten up.

The truth about crime is one that doesn’t lend itself easily to political arguments: It’s complicated. We’d all do well to remember that.