To hear the press tell it, Democrats are facing a political conundrum (distinct from a genuine and organic problem of maladministration) in the form of rising violent-crime rates. And that problem is primarily a result of the fact that Republicans just won’t let the issue go.
The GOP is ramping up its “misleading attack” on Democratic policing policies, according to the Associated Press. Democrats are devoting renewed focus to policing and quality-of-life issues in the interest of “staving off GOP attacks,” per the New York Times. The Hill put it in the bluntest terms: “Republicans are seeking to tie Democrats to the country’s rising crime wave as part of their strategy for recapturing control of Congress in 2022.”
As they did in responding to the bottom-up reaction against educational mandates around divisive race-conscious curricula, Democrats are swaddling themselves in a comforting fiction. Republicans did not summon into existence voters’ increasing discomfort with progressive governance. They merely noticed it. The problem Democrats are encountering when it comes to crime is an outgrowth of tensions within their own coalition, which many of the above reports admit after several paragraphs of throat clearing. Prominent Democrats like Joe Biden are trying to mollify the radical reformers on their left flank while addressing the concerns of the Democrat-leaning voters who will preserve or break their majorities. This is a conversation in which Republicans are only outside observers.
There is a growing consensus “at the highest levels of the president’s party,” the Times reported, “that Democrats need to treat crime as an urgent political issue,” which right off the bat frames the party’s challenge as one that can be resolved by rhetorical cleverness. Many Democrats, from Biden on down, have not “backed away from efforts to reform policing or pursue racial-justice measures at the local and federal levels,” the Times continued. “Both men have melded rhetoric about fighting lawlessness with calls for an exhaustive reassessment of policing…” In other words, this is a contest of competing values within the Democratic coalition.
That contest has taken the form of opposing, incompatible initiatives that the Times suggests are perfectly complementary. On the one end, Joe Biden’s calls for more funding for municipal police, quietly rebuking the “defund the police” wing of his party. On the other, the Congressional Black Caucus introducing legislation to fund “violence intervention and work force development programs” that progressive advocates back explicitly to curtail law enforcement’s remit.
The competition between these two mandates—one practical, the other ideological—is glaringly apparent to anyone willing to see it. To the extent that Republicans are participating in this contest, they’re on the bleachers taking notes.
The most discomfiting aspect of this debate from the Democratic operative’s perspective is that crime has become a political landmine because of Democratic reforms. And the voters who are most disquieted by rising crime rates are Democrats themselves. New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary race hinges on the issue of rising crime rates because that is the chief concern among the city’s Democratic voters. That isn’t a false consciousness inculcated in New York’s leftwing electorate by the Fox News Channel. It is the conclusion they’ve reached as a result of their own experience.
Much as they’d love to overcomplicate the matter, progressives cannot argue voters out of their own memories. They remember that Bill de Blasio’s administration briefly capitulated to reformers who convinced him to scrap a new police precinct, disband plainclothes units, decriminalize quality-of-life crimes, and eliminate bail and pretrial detention not just for minor, non-violent offenses but for charges ranging from hate crime, to vehicular assaults, to second-degree manslaughter. And they remember how crime rates spiked as a consequence. Voters with deep roots in their communities tend to resent it when they and their neighbors are condemned to live out a social experiment gone wrong.
New York City has sought to reverse the course on which it set itself following the mania that overtook Democrat-led municipalities across the country in the long, hot summer of 2020. And the city is not alone. Baltimore is attempting to restore the funding it stripped from the police budget after 2020, but only started doing so after homicides and other violent crimes spiked. Oakland, California is following a similar path, and only in response to similarly odious circumstances. A rise in murder, shootings, and robberies has led Los Angeles to restore $50 of the $150 million in funding it stripped from the police last year. In Minneapolis, where it all began, the city has abandoned its city council’s plan to defund and “reimagine” police when criminals capitalized on this lax-enforcement regime to “reimagine” themselves as the new owners of their neighbor’s car. And on, and on.
And though this welcome reversal was the product of urgent necessity, it is still very much resented by the progressive left. Progressives remain deeply invested in reconceptualizing police as an institution of last resort and transforming social workers into first responders. Where those reformers have not yet faced a backlash (e.g., the most homogenous, affluent, and well-heeled bastions of progressive thought), left-wing ideologues continue to pursue “crime reduction” policies that succeed in reducing crime only by redefining it.
That, not the GOP, is Joe Biden’s challenge. Republicans are mere spectators to this intramural debate. And while it is no doubt grating on Democrats that their opponents are keen to highlight the Democratic coalition’s contradictions and inform voters of their failings, that’s also what we traditionally call “politics.” The president cannot impose sanity on his party’s elected officials at the municipal level; he is in many ways a hostage to their initiatives and the progressive activists who are leading them down the primrose path.
If, in the end, Biden successfully synthesizes the rhetoric around “reimagining” police with voters’ desire to enjoy a secure and stable quality of life, it won’t be because he and his media allies pounded the table with adequate vehemence. It will be because either he or the voters have made an example of the progressive reformers who place abstract principles above the lives of their constituents. I know which of these outcomes Democrats should prefer. It seems that they don’t. At least, not yet.