Culture Wars/Current Controversies

What’s rising crime doing to American politics?

The Signal

What’s rising crime doing to American politics? Lisa L. Miller on how the fact of violence and feelings of chaos are shaping this year’s U.S. elections.
Surging crime rates and social disorder have become critical issues for voters in America, with its midterm congressional elections on the way in November. In California earlier this month, the former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission and longtime Republican Rick Caruso made it through his overwhelmingly Democratic city’s mayoral primary, advancing to the general election this fall, on a platform of clamping down on crime—while more than 55 percent of voters in San Francisco recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin, largely for failing to address the crime and public disorder related to homelessness, mental illness, and poverty in their city. With the U.S. homicide rate having jumped during the pandemic, elevating crime as a national political issue again, President Joe Biden says the California results demonstrate that Americans want higher spending on police resources and training. But crime and disorder represent tough challenges for his Democratic Party, many of whose officials adopted the political language of the Defund the Police movement after a Minneapolis patrolman murdered George Floyd in 2020. Republicans are meanwhile looking to take advantage of those challenges, blaming their opponents for “carnage” in the cities they control. Where is this all going?
Lisa L. Miller is a professor of political science at Rutgers University and the author of two books on the politics of crime. Back in February, with American crime rates similar to where they are now, Miller explained that crime is a “first-order political problem when it’s rising.” High crime rates put the Democrats in a politically “riskier position,” she said then, because they hadn’t articulated “a clear and compelling message that grapples with serious violence and embraces serious reform.” As she sees it today, most Democratic officials have acknowledged the problem, and there’s a growing recognition that the rhetoric of Defund the Police could be damaging in the midterms, while Republicans are certain to make rising crime a major part of their agenda this year, as they have over decades. American voters’ decisions, Miller says, are usually influenced by escalating crime where they live—and they’ll tend to punish any candidate who pretends it’s not happening. The candidates most likely to succeed are those who call for both more policing and enhanced programs to address the social causes of violent crime. But for now, Miller says, it’s unclear to what extent U.S. voters will be preoccupied with high crime rates come November’s elections, because it’s unclear whether those rates will decline—or what other developments in American life might end up making them less decisive.
Michael Bluhm: How do you see the idea of rising violence and disorder affecting U.S. public opinion?
Lisa L. Miller: I don’t see any indication that Americans are any less concerned about these issues now than they were a few months ago. The United States is an exceptionally violent country, relative to other affluent, long-standing democracies, so rises in other kinds of social disorder can make people here anxious about the potential for more violence. They certainly distinguish between violence and non-violence—Well, it’s only burglary that’s going up—but when you live in a high-violence society, you can be forgiven for getting anxious about noticeable spikes in all kinds of criminal activity and disorder.
Voters in the U.S. notice when crime is on the rise. But there is a distinction between their generalized disconnect about national crime levels—which they tend to think is always going up, regardless of the data—and the way they’ve historically tended to hold politicians accountable for rising crime near them. American voters may say, Crime is fine in my neighborhood, but it’s skyrocketing elsewhere. Yet if it’s not rising in their neighborhood, they’re not likely to punish anyone electorally for the appearance of rising crime broadly. When it’s in their immediate environment, however, then voters are more likely to act.
Bluhm: How do you see them acting now?
Miller: Violent crime is certainly affecting some local politics. Voters in America tend to associate mayors, district attorneys, and police chiefs with the day-to-day response to crime. We’re seeing that in San Francisco and in some challenges to mayors and district attorneys elsewhere. In New York, for instance, we’ve heard tougher rhetoric from Democrats than we have over the past decade. It’s an important issue locally—and one that local politicians avoid at their peril.
Nationally, it’s harder to say. The recent wave of mass shootings in the U.S. clearly has national implications. A gun bill might now come out of the U.S. Senate, which is an extraordinary prospect. In the 1980s and ’90s, American politicians used to engage in bidding wars for voter support by demanding ever-longer criminal sentences and other stiff punishments. These are very different times. The ’90s saw an economic boom. The Soviet Union had just collapsed; there was peace. It was an ascendant era for America, so serious violence felt more like an outlier; it was more noticeable.
Today, we have a lot of things going on the minds of U.S. voters: inflation, the January 6 inquiries, anxieties about the state of democracy, and the war in Ukraine. There’s a lot of noise in the political conversation. Whether violent crime will stand out from that in late September and October, before the November midterm elections, is difficult to say. A lot will depend on what happens with the incidence of it.
Bluhm: You made the point back in February that crime is “very easily pushed off the political agenda by the economy or national security.”
Miller: It is. Voters only have so much capacity to think about issues. If a number of significant issues that aren’t about crime rise to the top of the list of things they care about, it could move the issue of crime down the list, even if crime rates themselves remain high. A lot of things can push crime off the agenda. Economic crises, in particular, tend to draw attention away from crime concerns, which is happening to some extent now. So it’s not surprising that we’ve seen these election outcomes we’ve been seeing in American cities, but it’s harder to predict how that will translate into voter priorities for the U.S. midterms this fall.
Karl Hedin
Karl Hedin
More from Lisa Miller at The Signal:
The biggest mistake any elected official in America can make with violence on the rise is to deny it—to tell people, You’re imagining it, or, It’s not really rising here—maybe somewhere else but not here. Sure, we’ve had a few more homicides than usual, but property crimes are down. Crime is down overall. It’s not as bad as it was in the ’90s. I’ve been able to see in my research what a potentially fatal mistake this is for an American politician. I don’t know that a candidate has to be exceedingly tough or saying, Lock them up and throw away the key. There are lots of ways to demonstrate democratic responsiveness to problems of violence—but a sure way to risk losing an election is to deny reality.”
Republicans will very much try to capitalize on rising crime, but they’ve also spearheaded a lot of reform over the past 20 years, so that could play out in interesting ways at the state level. One could argue that Republican policies from the 1970s to the ’90s were not only extremely punitive but deeply racialized; but one could also argue that Republicans were at the same time engaged in democratic responsiveness to the problem. Nationally, there’s a lot of traction to be gained for Republicans by returning to some of that old punitive and racialized rhetoric. It wouldn’t surprise me to see that come back, particularly in this environment, where racialized rhetoric isn’t even particularly veiled. Overall, though, partisanship has the biggest influence on how Americans vote today. They’re a lot less likely than they used to be to vote for candidates from both parties in the same election. So while I do expect some Republicans to bring back those racial signals—and for some people to respond to them—I don’t expect they’ll have a big impact; partisanship will still be the key factor.”
If you look at public-opinion polls, Americans want everything. They want more police, and they also want more education funding; they want more aggressive gun control, and they also want more mental-health treatment. But when it comes to what wins elections, I’ve seen no political cost from the policy of what some call punishment-plus: We need to have police confronting rising violence—and we probably need some people incarcerated—but we need, as well, to think more holistically about how to confront crime. We need better gun control, we need more activities for at-risk people, and we need better mental-health services. I’ve seen no electoral costs from advocating the punishment-plus model, but I do see electoral costs from only doing the plus stuff—as in, If we just fix socioeconomic inequality, then we’ll get rid of violent crime. You might be right, but if my neighbor got shot around the corner last week, that doesn’t help me right now.”

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