If you think of American conservatism in rigidly ideological terms, such enthusiastic responses might come as a surprise: Conservatism, we are often told, means limited government. The overbearing, omnicompetent state easily becomes a tool of tyranny. If unchecked, the road to serfdom — the premises that, as Friedrich Hayek argued in his 1944 book of that name, economic planning creates the underlying forces for totalitarianism — is a short one. Or so the argument goes. But if conservatives really believe this is the case, why do so many of them reflexively defend the police, the armed servants of the state?
The answer is that in the conservative worldview, while the state represents potential tyranny, police stand for the authority of the law. Conservatives see the federal government as a distant vessel for imposing liberal diktats, such as racial integration, school busing, same-sex marriage. By contrast, the police — with their local control — are perceived as the standard-bearers of legitimate law and authority. In part, this is because conservatives tend to value social order and have been skeptical of explanations of criminality that emphasize economic factors and downplay “deviant” cultural ones. Where in the conservative view, the federal state often appears to meddle with the social order, the police enforce the status quo. They protect property, maintain boundaries and monitor deviant behavior.
When he spoke to a group of police officers in 1965, the conservative writer and editor William F. Buckley Jr. described “a world in which order and values are disintegrating.” The “symbols of authority, of continuity, of tradition” are attacked by “the unruly.” Amid this disintegration, the police suffer, Christ-like, as symbols of order while they are “hated for doing” their duty and “reviled by those who misrepresent them.” Over the next half-century, that premise would metastasize into the idea that the police were the primary bulwark of civilization itself. By 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions could confidently tell the National Association of Police Organizations, “This is the Trump era. We support law enforcement,” in an address bearing a striking resemblance to Buckley’s remarks five decades earlier, one that hit now-familiar beats about the liberal-dominated media and the supposed threat of violence toward police, all while emphasizing the honor of their role.
These associations are not merely symbolic: Conservatives have long seen the police as specifically local defenders of largely white communities and property. About 85 percent of law enforcement is governed at the state, city or county level. According to the Department of Justice, in 2012, the country’s nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies employed approximately 750,000 sworn agents at the state, county or local level (while in 2016, there were about 132,000 federal agents). County sheriffs are directly elected in 46 states. In these localities, the police reflect the interests of the politically, economically and historically dominant groups.
Police forces are typically enmeshed in these white working- and middle-class communities. This has tended to mean that conservatives’ experience with law enforcement is one of being closely associated with the police and being protected by the police — not an experience of being policed. In his study of “blue-collar conservatism,” Timothy J. Lombardo connects law-and-order politics in Philadelphia — in many ways representative of northeastern cities in the 1970s and 1980s — to urban decay, deindustrialization and exploding crime. But he also highlights the relationship between the police and the white working class that filled the force’s ranks. The Philadelphia police force reflected the community ethos of the city’s white ethnic population. Lombardo argues that blue-collar whites in Philadelphia “maintained a defensive culture of reverence for the police based on class commonality and the mutually reinforcing boundaries of race and urban space.” As the urban crisis peaked, blue-collar whites supported “unfettered police action in the face of disorder, and harsher penalties for criminal behavior,” clashing politically with black civil rights advocates under police commissioner and, later, mayor Frank Rizzo.
In his influential “Thinking About Crime,” the neoconservative social scientist James Q. Wilson intellectualized the close relationship between communities and police that Lombardo analyzed in Philadelphia. After crime waves, Wilson argued that urban white communities would “reassert control over its turf.” The police “assisted in that reassertion of authority by acting, sometimes violently, on behalf of the community” by foisting out “toughs,” “vagrants” and prostitutes.
It is impossible to disentangle the police from the workings of racism and white supremacy in America, and conservatives have often been complicit in this tortured past. In the Jim Crow-era South, local law enforcement officers were among the most visible symbols of the white supremacist racial hierarchy, which they maintained both through legal enforcement of segregation and extrajudicial violence. As the white South (and urban white North) fled the increasingly black cities for white suburbs, it was, and remains, the police who protected private property and the boundaries of privatized space.
White conservatives from communities with positive police engagement tend to treat their experiences with the police as universal and, to some extent, project their positive views on to people of color. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that 77 percent of conservative Republicans felt “very warm” toward the police. By contrast, 30 percent of black respondents felt “very cold,” 8 percent felt “somewhat cold,” and 28 percent were “neutral.” Seventy-nine percent of Republicans thought the police were doing well or excellently “protecting people from crime” nationwide; 78 percent of Republicans thought the police treated “racial and ethnic groups equally.” Such deep divisions over the perception of police suggest stark differences in expectation and experience with the police along racial lines that filter into the political sphere.
Occasionally, conservatives frame local law enforcement as a community bulwark against the federal state, and here, too, race has frequently played a role. For example, in a 1957 article about the federal enforcement of school desegregation in Little Rock, National Review linked police powers to states’ rights: “Either the states have broad powers to maintain public order, or they do not; either the people have a right to domestic tranquility, or they do not.” If the federal courts overrode “the police power of the states” in favor of “the newly created rights of Negro pupils,” the magazine warned, there would be chaos, violence and school privatization. Here was an explicit connection of local police power with Southern white ideas about order and community against the more liberal federal state.
In the decades since, a discourse of urban warfare has further underpinned conservative deference to police. Conservatives frequently claim that police working in predominantly poor and black or brown neighborhoods are in something like a war zone. In 1992, for example, National Review quoted a police officer who, in language that would resonate with ideas expressed by Donald Trump almost 30 years later, recounted the high-powered weaponry possessed by “hoods” and reported that “the FBI is coming to the conclusion that parts of the city are becoming beyond the scope of regular law enforcement.” The force deployed by police departments across the country over the course of the past week is the direct result of the militarization of law enforcement driven by these very ideas of policing war zones and bringing riots to heel.
Finally, conservatives typically perceive themselves as tough-minded on issues such as crime and race, leading them to support “necessary” measures against crime. It’s an attitude exemplified by Trump, who, in a call about protests, reportedly told state governors, “If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.” The same sentiments are there in his own deployment of the oft-cited maxim “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a phrase that explicitly links protection of property to sanctioned police violence. Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald’s recent work on the police comes from this tradition of conservative tough-mindedness that also emphasizes the thinness of the blue line and the dangers of policing.
Despite general conservative deference to the police, there are plenty of libertarian and libertarian-leaning critics of excessive police powers, especially when they extend the power of the state or advance the militarization of the police. Even National Review, which has long pushed the pro-police line, expressed skepticism of the president’s call to brand the antifa a terrorist organization, suggesting it was just an excuse for warrantless surveillance.
Nevertheless, the gap between conservatives’ fear of the political state and their deference to its armed representatives is clear. To most conservatives, the federal state threatens a combination of potential tyranny toward citizens and permissiveness toward crime. Meanwhile, the police represent both local communities and law and order against declining standards and all-too-often racialized visions of crime.