Talking Points

Why Democrats lose when they reduce all talk of crime to racism

Crime wasn't one of the top issues in last week's elections. But it was among the reasons Democratic number-crunchers concluded their party underperformed at the ballot box last year and is primed to do even worse in the midterm elections of 2022.

Violent crime, especially murder, is on the rise. Yet a fashionable and seemingly ascendant part of the Democratic Party is in favor of defunding the police, despite President Biden's best efforts to distance them from the movement (and their idea's telling failure in Minneapolis on Tuesday).

Democrats have been down this road before. Beginning in the late 1960s, the most liberal among them began asserting that the phrase "law and order" was a euphemism for white backlash against civil rights gains. Racial animus certainly drives a nontrivial part of the conversation about crime, both then and now. But people of all backgrounds genuinely do not want to be raped and murdered or see their families become victims.

When liberals see crime as being only about racism and lose sight of public safety, Democrats start to lose elections. Crime became a political liability for Democratic candidates in the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in Michael Dukakis' presidential election loss in 1988. Whatever one's views of the propriety of the Willie Horton ad, Democrats did not win presidential elections again until they changed the perception they were soft on violence. By 1993, the issue had grown potent enough to get a Republican elected mayor of New York City.

Some of the things Democrats did to fix their crime perception problem, like passing the 1994 crime bill (for which Biden drafted the Senate version), only made the problems of racial injustice in the legal system worse. But crime reduction also benefited communities of color, just as spikes in violence often disproportionately endanger them. These neighborhoods need better, fairer policing, not less policing.

One typically Democratic area that was spared last week's red wave was New York City. There Democrats rejected defund the police and closed the opening for a Rudy Giuliani 2.0 candidate. Instead they nominated a black former police officer for mayor. He won handily. While a more substantive policy answer is also required, politically the messaging was right: Good government fights both crime and racism.

Democrats would do well to marginalize any politicians in their midst who see these goals as being in tension with each other.