As we watch the turmoil in Ferguson — where protests and police crackdowns raged for a week in the wake of a police shooting of an unarmed black teenager — many Americans have been forced to reassess their views on the duty and tactics of the police. But we conservatives — with our dueling affinity for law-and-order institutions like the police and our libertarian-inspired opposition to abuses of government power — are perhaps the most torn.
Over at the Federalist, Hans Fiene notes, "For many conservatives, especially those of us living in nice, comfy suburbs, it's hard to apply the 'power corrupts' doctrine to law enforcement because we've never seen corrupted enforcers of the law." But now we're all seeing it. As libertarian Conor Friedersdorf writes at The Atlantic, the Ferguson images, for many Americans, are akin to the video of the Rodney King beating, which first taught him to distrust cops.
Like Fiene and Friedersdorf, I grew up being taught that the police were the good guys (my dad was a correctional officer; my father-in-law was once a police officer). But experience in the real world — even as a white kid in western Maryland — quickly dispelled my perception that all cops are heroes.
Many of us are drawn to the police. They are seemingly honorable people who want to make a difference — to make the world a better place. They also get to drive fast and carry guns, which might sound pretty awesome when you're a kid. Cops are admirable and fearsome, and that authoritative combo is something that many Americans almost reflexively respect.
Until recently, conservatives were decidedly in the pro-police camp. Cops pretty much always got the benefit of the doubt on the right. In the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, America's crime rate was a major concern, and conservatives' tough-on-crime stance played no small part in the rise of the modern-day Republican Party. For many Americans, there was a sense that the world was falling apart, and that the bleeding-heart liberals and bureaucrats were more concerned about the rights of violent criminals than about law-abiding citizens.
For a long time, there was a real hunger for someone to come in and take charge with tough-on-crime attitude — but there were also consequences. Surely, conservatives' pro-police politics fueled the party's continued loss of minority voters, some of whom likely saw law and order as a code term for abuse and discrimination. It also led to an interesting bit of cognitive dissonance, whereby the small government party was more than willing to trust the police. (Though this can be squared when one considers Burkean conservatism is about "ordered liberty," and that one can have his liberty taken away both by the government and by violent mobs.)
But times change, and with it, political parties and ideologies evolve. In recent years, conservative opinion leaders have been more willing to question authority. They're more skeptical of the police and the military, and don't just accept everything these institutions do as being in service of their "protect and serve" purposes. And the way conservative opinion leaders have reacted to Ferguson illustrate this reordering.
Now, one might expect libertarian-leaning commentators like Friedersdorf and Radley Balko (author of Rise of the Warrior Cop), and politicians like Rand Paul, to stake out positions that diverge from traditional conservative thought. But that's not the only shift we're seeing. More notable is the fact that traditional conservative commentators seem to have adopted a more nuanced take these days — as opposed to the almost knee-jerk support of the police you might have expected a few years ago.
As Red State's Erick Erickson writes, "It is perfectly fine to think Mr. Brown was no saint, the rioters should be punished, and in addition to both of those, to think the police in Ferguson, Missouri, behaved badly too. Before rioting even began the police in Ferguson decided to behave like soldiers instead of police."
He's right. And the adoption of a "Warrior Cop" persona might be the symbolic turning point. Instead of the iconic neighborhood police officer in a blue uniform — the guy working the beat who got to know the community — much of our experience with the "protect and serve" business these days involves paramilitary visuals.
As Mark Steyn writes, "A soldier wears green camo in Vietnam to blend in. A policeman wears green camo in Ferguson to stand out — to let you guys know: We're here, we're severe, get used to it." He continues:
"...So, when the police are dressed like combat troops, it's not a fashion faux pas, it's a fundamental misunderstanding of who they are. Forget the armored vehicles with the gun turrets, forget the faceless, helmeted, anonymous Robocops, and just listen to how these 'policemen' talk. Look at the video as they're arresting The New York Times and Huffington Post reporters. Watch the St Louis County deputy ordering everyone to leave, and then adding: 'This is not up for discussion.'
Really? You're a constable. You may be carrying on like the military commander of an occupying army faced with a rabble of revolting natives, but in the end you're a constable." [Mark Steyn]
Now, not all Republicans are following these conservative opinion leaders...yet. A recent Pew Research Center survey on Ferguson shows that "more Republicans think the police response has been about right (43 percent) than say it has gone too far (20 percent); 37 percent have no opinion," while "Democrats by 56 percent to 21 percent say the police response has gone too far (23 percent have no opinion)." Still, based on what I'm seeing from some prominent conservative opinion leaders, this survey seems a lagging indicator.
Because when the police start losing prominent conservatives, well, they have more than just a PR problem.