Politics & Law

Crime as a welcome distraction and respite from reality for politicians

Jonathan Simon

Few were looking for 2010 to be a big “crime” election, in the manner of ’88 (Dukakis and the Willie Horton), ’92 (Clinton committed to outshining Bush on capital punishment by carrying out an execution during the primaries), ’94 (massive crime bill and 3-Strikes in California) and ’96 (Clinton as the 100K policemen on the street President). Unlike then, crime is at lows not seen since before the great crime wave of the 1960s began (although precise comparisons are impossible due to the poor quality of crime data from that era). Moreover, while the nation went through a recession in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was not nearly as severe as the Great Recession which has left the US economy weaker then in decades. But while crime is not framing the national dispute between the parties in this midterm Congressional election, it is emerging in a wide variety of state and local races, from Baltimore, to California, to Connecticut.

In some instance, local crimes of great notoriety of galvanized interest, as in Connecticut, where the capital murder conviction of the first of two career criminals who raped and murdered the wife and daughters of a doctor in their family home and the impending sentencing phase have thrust the death penalty into local, state, and federal elections (read William Glaberson’s reporting in the NYTimes). In others, like California, the opportunity of a veteran’s candidate association with a death penalty controversies of the 1980s, for his opponent to attack him as soft on crime. All despite the fact that nationally the death penalty is declining in public support.

But while local factors may the emergence of crime issues, their success attests to the staying power of crime and punishment as organizing issues in political competition in the US. As with the false stories about violent crime in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, the media and politicians reveal the degree to which crime is a comfort zone compared to having to confront the American people with the catastrophic risks that face them. In this case the bankruptcy of American governance and the real prospect that the end of the American middle class consumer economy is over. For decades declining real income has meant that middle class lifestyles have been based on more part-time employment and more debt. That appears to be over but neither the Democrats and President Obama, nor the Republicans and their Tea Party is willing to confront Americans with the news. In such a climate crime is a welcome respite in which politicians can posture as committed to protecting ordinary Americans in their homes (which are being foreclosed away) and the media can re-run narratives that require little actual investigation or thinking.

The contrast could not be more striking in the UK where I am currently writing from. Here the leadership of all the major parties has agreed that the nation is facing a fundamental challenge to its economic and political normal that will require hard choices about priorities and new sacrifices from all sectors of society. While the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in government have prioritized cutting the deficit with real and painful cuts and tax increases, the new Labour leader insists on the priority of generating new economic growth to overcome the continuing effects of the Great Recession. Both are in agreement that increased taxes and spending reductions are essential and that producing a green economy through government regulation is a necessary path to a sustainable middle class economy in the future. Tellingly one area of spending reduction that all three major parties support is reducing prison populations that ballooned in the 1990s and 2000s (although not as dramatically as ours did).

In contrast, neither President Obama, nor the Republican leaders have been willing to tell the American voter that the economic “solutions” of the 1980s and 1990s were largely based on consumer debt that is unsustainable and that prosperity is not coming back without strategies that will require serious risks and sacrifices. As a result our election is turning into a rerun of 1994.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s Governing Through Crime.

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Comment to "Crime as a welcome distraction and respite from reality for politicians":
    • Allie A.

      History is a never ending cycle of repetition. At some point, if politicians and other decision makers want the U.S. to get out of debt, they are going to need to tell the truth. I think that people would be much more understanding about tax increases, if they were told the real reasons that they are necessary. It really is much more difficult for me to be lied to repeatedly about lowering taxes and reducing the deficit, and then have the politicians do exactly the opposite of what was promised during their campaigns.

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