Are Republicans going soft on crime?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Over at Slate, Dave Weigel takes a look at the GOP’s evolving position on drug sentencing.

He also uses it as a jumping off point to suggest the GOP may be drifting away from its traditional “law and order” image.

Here’s an excerpt:

“This is a reversal of a trend that helped create the modern Republican Party. After bottoming out in the 1964 election, Republicans surged back in 1966 and won the presidency in 1968. They cracked the old Democratic coalition, in part because rising crime rates and visions of urban riots sent voters sprinting away from liberalism. “In recent years,” said Richard Nixon in a 1968 campaign ad, “crime in this country has grown nine times as fast as population. At the current rate, the crimes of violence in America will double by 1972.” As he talked, images of dead bodies, guns, and wild-eyed protesters played over a soundtrack of atonal horn blasts and drumbeats.

For three more decades, Republicans could win tight elections by capitalizing on the fear of crime. Democrats met them where they could, to neutralize the issue, because to be called ‘soft on crime’ was to be exiled with Michael Dukakis.”

There are a few things at play here. First, it might be a stretch to conflate changing attitudes regarding non-violent drug crimes to a shifting attitude toward crime. There isn’t as much evidence presented to support a general shifting of opinion. Still, I suspect Weigel is on to something…

My guess is that Americans are less focused on crime these days — and the politicians will ultimately follow the culture.

We can see this happening anecdotally. The fact that New York City — once incredibly dangerous and lawless in the 1970s (see Death Wish) — elected Bill de Blasio speaks to the fact that a lot of New Yorkers either don’t remember (or weren’t alive to see) the pre-Giuliani Gotham.

My guess is that the decrease in concern about crime has coincided with the GOP’s falling fortunes. If you think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety is pretty fundamental (right after physiological needs.) But once the need for safety is met, you can begin worrying about other issues, such as self-actualization. To put it in modern political terms, gay marriage isn’t much of a concern to the straight guy who just wants to avoid being mugged on his way home.

Could the GOP be a victim of its own success? Sometimes winning a battle harms the victor by eliminating his raison d’être. Robert Heinlein’s maxim that civilizations get the morality they can afford may also apply to leniency toward criminals. It may be that we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. The British people turned out Churchill after World War II, after all. Who needs tough law and order Republicans when the crime rate is down?

There is a political reordering going on right now, and as the GOP struggles to find its brand identity, the party will inevitably change and respond to market demands. It has always been a little interesting to me that the”anti-government” party was also the law and order party. These two things aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but they also aren’t natural allies.

In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of a libertarian strand of conservatism, which not only opposes mandatory minimums (as do many Evangelicals), but also is much more skeptical of police authority (one man’s police officers is another man’s jack-booted thugs and warrior cops.)

Republicans would be wise to push for prison reform and changes on mandatory sentencing for non-violent drug offenders. But the real danger for us all is that this isn’t just about smarter sentencing, it’s about returning to the bad-old-days of violent crime and lawlessness.