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f you want to live in New York,” a character advises in Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, “you’ve got to insulate, insulate, insulate.” The admonition reflected the mood at that time toward the city’s unchecked violent crime. Over the subsequent three decades, however, crime has declined so dramatically that affluent young professionals in the gentrified neighborhoods of New York City, Washington D.C., and other big cities cannot easily believe that their counterparts 30 years ago were preoccupied with the problem of crime and obsessed with how to shield themselves from it.

With the restoration of safe streets now passing the 20-year mark, the policy debate in the United States is changing, too. Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, hails the end of “decades when parties and candidates competed to see who could be the most flamboyantly punitive.” He now looks forward to “reform,” especially to addressing what he and others deplore as our policy of “mass incarceration.” There was a time when such talk would have branded Waldman as “soft on crime,” a charge that Waldman—once President Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriter—and others like him would have feared. But that was then, and this is now. And yet, before America embarks on Waldman’s new course, we might wish to revisit the ground that has been both lost and gained to avoid “reforms” that might repeat the worst mistakes of the past.

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odern America’s great 30-year crime wave began in the early 1960s. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting statistics, the homicide rate, which stood at 4.6 per 100,000 Americans in 1963, climbed steadily until reaching 10.2 in 1980 and fell only slightly below that peak in 1991 to 9.8.

By 1974, with the Vietnam War coming to an end, voters ranked crime as their most serious concern. In 1995, 21 years later, it was still their number-one issue.

America’s most grave social problem proved to be a calamity for the Democratic Party. In his 1985 book, Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism, Jonathan Rieder described how the middle-class voters he interviewed in the late 1970s viewed the growth of crime as irrefutable evidence that liberalism had become “a synonym for masochism: the indulgence of one’s victimizers.” Residents of Canarsie were virtually unanimous in seeing “the contraction of safe and usable space as a mockery of a liberal society” and in equating liberalism with a “self-destructive idealism” that “ignored the demands of bodily survival.”

After Walter Mondale lost the race for the White House in 1984, Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank called on fellow Democrats to acknowledge a painful fact: “We have intimidated ourselves out of saying that people who hit other people over the head—no matter what their childhood was like—are rotten people who ought to be locked up. Poverty and racism may explain, even predict, violent crime, but they do not excuse it.”

Michael Dukakis
Michael Dukakis

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emocrats were not yet prepared to admit this mistake. Their 1988 presidential nominee, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, attempted to frame the general election as a debate “about competence,” not “ideology.” Voters seemed receptive to this argument, in the abstract: Dukakis led Republican Vice President George H.W. Bush 54 to 37 percent in a Gallup poll taken just after the Democratic convention. Republicans, however, quickly made it clear that Dukakis’s notion of nonideological competence encompassed the Massachusetts policy of giving as many as 10 unsupervised furloughs to prisoners serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. (Life without parole was the most severe penalty Massachusetts imposed on convicted criminals, Dukakis having vetoed a bill authorizing capital punishment.) As Republicans told and retold the story of Willie Horton, a murderer who brutalized a Maryland couple while on furlough, the Massachusetts secretary of human services helpfully added some context: “Don’t forget that Mr. Horton had nine previous successful furloughs.” By Election Day, the 17-point Dukakis lead became a 53 to 46 percent Bush victory.

Once elected, Bill Clinton signed bills into law that expanded the federal death penalty and gave states incentives to extend prison sentences.


The official slogan of Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign was “Putting People First,” but the unofficial message was “I am not Michael Dukakis.” Democrats “should no longer feel guilty about protecting the innocent,” Clinton told primary voters, suggesting that: 1) this perverse sentiment had indeed held sway in his party; 2) it had helped cause avoidable electoral defeats; and 3) to some extent, it actually justified those defeats. During the race, the Arkansas governor returned from the campaign trail to be in Little Rock when a convicted murderer was executed. Since Clinton could have responded to last-minute court rulings or clemency appeals from outside the state, the trip served no plausible governmental purpose. Rather, Clinton chose to be “flamboyantly punitive” as a way to demonstrate that he was so free of guilt about protecting the innocent as to actively favor the death penalty.

Once elected, Clinton worked to make himself and his party invulnerable to accusations of being soft on crime, signing into law bills that expanded the federal death penalty and gave states incentives to extend prison sentences. He ran for reelection in 1996 on a Democratic platform designed to leave no doubt about the party’s stance. “Today’s Democratic Party believes the first responsibility of government is law and order,” it declared, implying that yesterday’s Democrats took this responsibility less seriously. “The Democratic Party under President Clinton is putting more police on the streets and tougher penalties on the books.” To make absolutely clear that Dukakis had left the building, the platform went on to state:

We believe that people who break the law should be punished, and people who commit violent crimes should be punished severely. President Clinton made three-strikes-you’re-out the law of the land, to ensure that the most dangerous criminals go to jail for life, with no chance of parole. We established the death penalty for nearly 60 violent crimes, including murder of a law enforcement officer, and we signed a law to limit appeals…

We provided almost $8 billion in new funding to help states build new prison cells so violent offenders serve their full sentences. We call on the states to meet the President’s challenge and guarantee that serious violent criminals serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. The American people deserve a criminal justice system in which criminals are caught, the guilty are convicted, and the convicted serve their time.

The platform declared, moreover, that the tough approach had worked. “In city after city and town after town,” it stated, “crime rates are finally coming down.” It was true. The homicide rate declined from 9.8 per 100,000 Americans in 1991 to 7.4 in 1996, the lowest since 1969. The trend has continued steadily since then, reaching 4.7 per 100,000 in 2012, the lowest rate since 1963.

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n America’s federal system, criminal justice is largely a state and local responsibility—and across the country, governors, mayors, police commissioners, and judges all responded to the same political imperatives that motivated Clinton. In New York City the number of annual murders peaked at 2,245—a rate of six per day—in 1990, the first year the Democrat David Dinkins was mayor. That September the New York Post ran a story headlined, “Dave: Do Something!” By the time Dinkins ran for reelection in 1993, the body count had dropped to 1,946, but this 13 percent reduction was not enough to avert a narrow loss to Republican Rudolph Giuliani. And crime fell so dramatically after Giuliani took office in 1994—there were 1,177 murders in 1995 and 770 in 1997, the year Giuliani was easily reelected—that no Democrat would return to Gracie Mansion for 20 years after Dinkins departed.

By 2013, however, New Yorkers had only faint memories of walking the streets in constant fear. Republican mayoral candidate Joseph Lhota, a deputy mayor under Giuliani, made so little headway with a campaign stressing public safety that Democrat Bill de Blasio bested him by a margin of 73 to 24 percent.

Nationally, the story has been much the same. The defeat of Michael Dukakis, who seemed neither to comprehend nor respect the national fear and outrage about crime, marked the fifth time in six elections dating back to 1968 that the Democratic presidential nominee had won fewer popular votes than his Republican opponent. In five of the six elections since, beginning with Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory as a law-and-order Democrat, that party’s nominee has won more popular votes than his Republican opponent. As the Washington Post’s Charles Lane wrote after Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney, fear of crime had once “converted many a white working-class Democrat into a Republican.” Today, however, voters neither perceive a big partisan difference on the issue—the parties argue “mainly over how to control and punish unlawful conduct most cost-effectively,” wrote Lane—nor regard crime itself as a problem grave enough to make any lingering GOP advantage electorally significant.

New York City, 1961
New York City, 1961

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ne might suppose that Democrats would regard the decline of crime, and of their political vulnerability on the issue, as an unqualified blessing. Not so. The party’s resurgent progressive wing, which has come to detest Clintonian concessions to Reaganism on such issues as financial deregulation and national security, is now equally determined to repudiate the tough-on-crime rhetoric and policies that made it hard to differentiate Democrats from Republicans. Thus, Hillary Clinton took a very different tone from her husband’s in 1992 and 1996 when she made crime the subject of what was widely described as the first major policy address of her 2016 presidential campaign. (She delivered the speech at Columbia University’s David N. Dinkins Leadership & Public Policy Forum.) Neither disparaging guilt over protecting the innocent nor affirming that law and order remained her party’s paramount responsibility, Clinton instead called for creating new approaches that would “end the era of mass incarceration” as well as “working with communities to prevent crime, rather than measuring success just by the number of arrests or convictions.”

The address was “Clinton at her finest,” according to Jonathan Allen of Vox.com, and “represented a full break with her husband’s 1994 crime bill, which pushed for more arrests, more incarcerations, more prison cells, and longer jail sentences.” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie praised the “definitive rebuke to the ‘law and order’ politics used by her husband throughout his career.” By making “police reform” a “Democratic agenda item,” the speech reversed the 1990s dynamic of placating working-class whites. The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart agreed but cut Bill Clinton some slack: Given voters’ attitudes in 1992, “being ‘tough on crime’ was critical” to winning office. Advancing the “mass-incarceration policies that candidate Hillary is now denouncing” was one of political life’s “brutal, tragic tradeoffs,” wrote Beinart, but one without which she wouldn’t have become first lady then, or be in the running for the presidency now.

And yet there is a fundamental disconnect when it comes to Hillary Clinton’s speech and the praise it generated. Over the past two decades, in the eyes of progressives, America has done little to alleviate the deprivation, misery, and social injustice that supposedly accounted for the rise in crime. They continue to believe that the “root cause” of crime is poverty and privation. And yet by their own description, America hasn’t addressed root causes at all. So how on earth could the crime drop have taken place? Worse still, the reduction in crime has been accompanied by exactly the stern measures progressives warned would be futile and cruelly punitive: namely, the renewed determination to make sure that “criminals are caught, the guilty are convicted, and the convicted serve their time,” as the 1996 Democratic platform stated.

Embarrassed by the simultaneous decrease of crime and increase in vigorous police and sentencing practices, progressives have taken refuge in the axiom that correlation does not prove causation. Maybe, they hint, more aggressive policing and prosecuting, combined with longer prison sentences and fewer paroles, merely coincided with plummeting crime rates. Maybe safer streets just…happened. “Nobody is really sure why” violent crime has declined for two decades, according to Slate’s Justin Peters, but it “seems to be declining on its own regardless of what [police] do.” The Brennan Center for Justice is quite sure that higher incarceration rates had a “negligible” effect on the drop in crime, and is equally sure that the real causes are inexplicable. Its regression analysis ascribes less than half of the drop in crime to changes in the criminal-justice system, or to such social trends as an aging population and reduced alcohol consumption. No, it cites “other factors,” unknown and perhaps unknowable, to account for most of the decline.

It’s possible that crime would have declined without more arrests, convictions, and prison sentences, just as it’s possible that the number of polio cases would have fallen by 99 percent in the 1950s without the introduction of the Salk vaccine. By definition, however, common sense is democratically potent, which means the idea that locking up violent criminals has had nothing to do with the reduction in violent crime is likely to prove as unpersuasive as it is implausible. This counterintuitive assessment will gain even less political traction when it comes from the same sorts of experts and activists who insisted during the crime wave that it would be indecent and unavailing to do much of anything besides deploying brigades of social workers to nurture the criminals into obeying the law.

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o overcome the political weakness of their position on criminal justice, progressives strive to amalgamate it to their position on racial justice. “Mass incarceration” and “broken windows” policing violate one of modern liberalism’s highest principles: They have a “disparate impact.” (That term has come to define the liberal view on a range of questions, including school discipline and the use of standardized tests.) According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2,805 black males over the age of 18, out of every 100,000 in the national population, were imprisoned in a federal or state facility in 2013. Measured the same way, comparable numbers for Hispanic and non-Hispanic white males were 1,134 and 466, respectively. Such disparities are the basis of Ohio State law professor Michelle Alexander’s argument that in “an era of colorblindness,” we have come to “use our criminal-justice system to associate criminality with people of color and then engage in the prejudiced practices we supposedly left behind.” Or, as Hillary Clinton said in her Columbia speech, “We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America,” including that “African-American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts.”

Any list of hard truths, however, must begin with the fact that the propensity to commit crimes is not randomly distributed. The Bureau of Justice Statistics finds, for example, that men are seven times more likely than women to be “homicide offenders.” From 1980 to 2008, people between the ages of 18 and 24 were at least 15 and, in some years, more than 30 times as likely to commit homicides as those older than 50. And blacks were seven times more likely than whites to commit murders. Among males age 14 to 24, the group that commits and suffers most of the lethal violence in America, whites were 2.67 times as likely to be murderers as they would be if homicidal acts were evenly distributed throughout the entire population. Black males in the same age group were 27 times more likely to commit homicides, accounting for 1 percent of America’s population in 2008, and 27 percent of its homicide offenders.

Jason Riley has pointed out in the Wall Street Journal that within the categories of violent crimes more generally, blacks commit them at rates seven to ten times higher than whites do. That black males are only six times more likely than white males to be in state or federal prison therefore argues against pervasive racial bias in our criminal justice system—or, at least, that blacks are not its victims.

The question of disparate impact has become especially urgent with respect to policing practices. Riots in Missouri and Baltimore, and tension and demonstrations in other cities, have followed incidents in which black suspects died during encounters with police officers. These fatalities “tear at our soul,” Hillary Clinton said at Columbia, and the patterns of police violence against black civilians “have become unmistakable and undeniable.”

Clinton, the author of Hard Choices, has avoided making hard choices throughout a public career of speeches and interviews that purvey Delphic bromides. No one can deny that we should “rebuild the bonds of trust and respect” between “police and citizens,” as she has said, or that everyone benefits “when there is respect for the law and when everyone in every community is respected by the law.” Neither can anyone derive any useful policy guidance from such insights, however. Another hard truth appears to be that the high black crime rate is going to bring police to black neighborhoods often, frequently under situations where tension and danger are inherent. The result will sometimes be police actions that use no more force than necessary but still have tragic consequences. Other times there will be police actions that do use more force than needed, either because the officer misjudged the situation or the police department misjudged the officer’s preparedness and motives.

The adage that where there’s a will there’s a way presupposes that there really is a way. The cities where police actions have resulted in the deaths of young blacks include several where the desire for strong bonds of trust and respect between police and citizens is undeniable. In addition to having a black mayor, black police commissioner, and a city council on which nine of its 15 members are black, Baltimore gave 87 percent of its votes to Barack Obama in 2012. San Francisco, which is only 6 percent black and voted 83 percent for Obama in 2012, had a notorious incident six years ago in which a policeman killed a young black man at a subway station. Earlier this year, a policeman shot and killed a 19-year-old black man in Madison, Wisconsin—the state capital, home of the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus, and seat of Dane County, which Obama carried with 71 percent of the vote in 2012. It is, in short, impossible to believe that there’s a latent but formidable demand for Bull Connor police tactics in these enlightened jurisdictions.

This does not mean that relations between police and the black community cannot be improved, there or elsewhere, but it does argue that insufficient police forbearance and sensitivity is not the main or even a significant part of the problem. If it were, some city or county would have solved it already, and others would be stampeding to implement its successful measures.

Hillary Clinton calls for “a true national debate about how to reduce our prison population while keeping our communities safe.” It is worrisome, however, that she, like the ascendant wing of the Democratic Party, seems more interested in reining in police and corrections departments than in thwarting criminals. “We Don’t Just Need Nicer Cops,” contends Alex S. Vitale of the Nation. “We Need Fewer Cops.” His vague suggestions for how we can follow this advice while keeping our communities safe include “civilian crisis-intervention teams” and “community-based organizations in high-crime areas [that work] with young people to stop the violence using a variety of public health and community empowerment strategies.”

Fifty years ago, during what turned out to be the early days of the great crime wave, the political scientist Joseph Cropsey said that modern American liberalism’s axiomatic belief that humans are innately good and peaceable rests on the conviction that “trust edifies and absolute trust edifies absolutely”—a perfect summary of the philosophy behind the Dukakis furlough program. Both America and the Democratic Party are better off today as a result of Bill Clinton’s repudiation of Dukakis-ism in the 1990s. If Hillary Clinton’s purpose in 2016 is to walk back the position that the first responsibility of government is maintaining law and order, voters will have to decide whether it is time, once more, to insulate, insulate, insulate—either from her candidacy or from the consequences her election will bring.

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