Opinion

The end of the bipartisan war on crime

Joe Biden doesn't want to defund the police. But his party is finally being dragged away from decades of cruel criminal justice policies.

The eruption of protest against police brutality across the United States has Democratic politicians scrambling to respond. The protesters have been overwhelmingly young and nonwhite — ostensibly members of the Democratic coalition. The party clearly thinks it needs to do something to demonstrate its commitment to racial justice and police reform, and to shore up its left flank.

It raises the question of whether Democrats are going to abandon the war on crime. Establishment moderates, which have been running the party since the mid-1970s, are deeply implicated in the problems of abusive policing and mass incarceration — and none more so than presidential nominee Joe Biden. Yet now they sound nothing like their previous selves. It's just possible that if protests keep the pressure up, we could be seeing a sea change in the politics of crime.

Now, so far the Democrats' response to the George Floyd protests have been the usual mixture of cringey out-of-touch symbolism and timid half-measures. Before introducing their Justice in Policing Act, the Democratic congressional leadership donned kente cloth stoles (a Ghanaian fabric typically associated with black activism) and kneeled for eight minutes and 46 seconds — the length of time the Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd's neck — before a group of assembled press.

Though apparently the Congressional Black Caucus had handed out the cloth, the sight of the elderly, wealthy, and largely white leadership kneeling in a sort of African cosplay inspired jeers across the political spectrum. Their police reform bill itself turns out to be a mix of small-but-reasonable (better nationwide data on police violence, a partial rollback of the odious "qualified immunity" doctrine) and the pathetically inadequate (racial bias training for cops).

Meanwhile, Biden (who recently accumulated enough primary delegates to officially clinch the Democratic presidential nomination) wrote an op-ed highlighting his proposal to provide $300 million in additional funding for community policing. This is both starkly at odds with activist demands to decrease police funding, which he rejects outright, and far too small to do much of anything — adding up to a measly $437 for each of the 686,665 police officers in the country. On The Daily Show, Biden suggested that the police should have mental health professionals to accompany them where needed, and that nobody should be sent to prison for drug abuse.

It's not what any activist would call leadership. Nevertheless, it can't be denied that all this is a complete about-face from the moderate Democratic stance in decades past. As we have all seen in cities across the country, both parties have been eager supporters of the policies that made American police departments so brutal and incompetent, and the United States the world leader in locking up its population in prison. Democrats run all the biggest cities, and with rare exceptions (often as a result of progressive primary challenges), until now they have not seriously tried to rein in their police departments or prosecutors.

That in turn is a product of history. For most of the second half of the 20th century, the war on crime was one of the engines of the conservative counterrevolution against the New Deal, and many Democrats were central to this effort. The politics of crime recruited middle-class white voters by stoking unreasoning terror of purportedly bestial, irredeemable criminals (heavily implied to be black), and any effort to address crime through rehabilitation or economic programs as bleeding-heart liberal foolishness.

For instance, in 1989, then-Senator Biden attacked President George H.W. Bush from the right in Democrats' official response to the State of the Union address. He argued Bush did not propose "enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, not enough prosecutors to convict them, not enough judges to sentence them, and not enough prison cells to put them away for a long time." Speaking of criminals in 1993, he said, "It doesn't matter whether or not they're the victims of society … They must be taken off the street." As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden helped write and guide through several brutal criminal punishment measures, including the infamous 1994 crime bill — signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton.

So if Biden and company were to follow through with these new policy ideas, however ridiculously short of the mark they might be, it would be a sharp break with their previous positions. The old frothing hysteria about dangerous criminals, and unquestioning valorization of cops and prisons, has vanished. What we are seeing, I suspect, is that the air has gone out of war on crime politics. Crime is dramatically lower than it was 30 years ago, and it is increasingly obvious that insofar as there is still a murder problem in some American cities, the cops are not helping much, or indeed are making things worse. All the unhinged violence unleashed on peaceful protesters in the last two weeks has damaged cops' reputations, and stoked sympathy for Black Lives Matter. Even Republicans are reportedly working on a criminal justice reform bill.

Personally, I would not trust in this follow-through. Moderate Democrats have to be dragged to justice like recalcitrant mules, even when the issue is a guaranteed winner. On something requiring political courage, like taking on police brutality, they will likely bail out at the first possible moment. But if protesters keep the pressure up and refuse to accept penny-ante tinkering as good enough, we might just see some real change.

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