Homicides in the United States increased in 2020 by over 30 percent, on a year-over-year basis. Gun assaults and aggravated assaults also spiked, leading the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice to deem the crime surge of 2020 a “large and troubling increase” with “no modern precedent.” Tragically, the early available statistics for 2021 tell a similar tale. On the American domestic front, however, issues such as Covid, the economy, and illegal immigration still garner more headlines than the escalating rates of violent crime.
This blasé attitude did not materialize overnight. Many in today’s leadership class entered the public arena during a decades-long drop in crime that began during the Reagan presidency and continued well into this century. Following the widespread chaos of the 1960s and the harrowing urban crime sprees of the 1970s, “tough on crime” quickly became a popular bipartisan political stance. President Bill Clinton’s highly successful—and now oft-criticized—1994 Crime Bill, which passed the House on a voice vote and the Senate by a 95-4 majority, exemplified this consensus. Confident that the new trend of plummeting crime would continue, many in the silent law-and-order-supporting majority gradually became complacent, implicitly abetting the political opportunism of emergent light-on-crime libertarians and progressives.
As the Tea Party-era Republican Party evolved into a more libertarian entity and the Democratic Party adopted an ever-more stringent identity politics, “criminal-justice reform”—the very inverse of the 1994 Crime Bill—became the new bipartisan fad. By the mid-2010s, George Soros had begun donating large sums of money to reshape the criminal-justice system, beginning at the district attorney level. Across many of America’s leading cities, light-on-crime district attorneys invoked “prosecutorial discretion” to justify non-prosecution of crimes like petty larceny—reversing the effective Broken Windows policing of the recent past.
The high watermark of the new criminal-justice reform movement was the First Step Act of 2018, an unparalleled federal jailbreak that passed the Senate by a staggering 88-12 margin. It was no big stretch to get from the First Step Act to last summer’s prolonged Antifa–Black Lives Matter urban anarchy.
Signs of a possible pushback have become evident. In Los Angeles, District Attorney George Gascón—an archetype of what Andrew McCarthy calls the “progressive prosecutor project”—faces a possible recall. And sizable majorities among all racial and ethnic demographics poll in strong opposition to the most extreme anti-law and order slogan: “defund the police.”
But the time is ripe for a more aggressive, sustained campaign against the de-carceral, de-civilizational agenda pushed by many libertarians and progressives alike. Citizens of all political stripes, especially conservatives, must recover and publicly advocate anew the time-tested and common-sense notion that a free and just society is impossible without a robust commitment to a strictly enforced rule of law.
Once upon a time, such an effort would hardly have been needed. Abraham Lincoln’s “Lyceum Address,” delivered 23 years before Fort Sumter, famously warned of the dangers of a “mobocratic spirit” taking hold among the citizenry. Almost a century later, President Calvin Coolidge observed, “we are always confronted with the inescapable conclusion that unless we observe the law, we cannot be free.” That a secure rule of law and a concomitant quashing of nascent anarchy is a necessary precondition for justice, human flourishing, and the common good ought to be—and, not too long ago, was—as ubiquitous a belief as any in our politics.
But such a pro-rule-of-law national campaign is now necessary. Activists can start at the local level, getting involved in district attorney races to oppose anti-enforcement, de-carceral candidates. Voters should punish statewide attorneys general and federal legislators alike for throwing law enforcement under the bus and focusing their ire on the “qualified immunity” legal doctrine over substantive commitments to support law enforcement. Citizens should make themselves heard at city council meetings in support of more police officers on the beat, a proven and effective crime deterrent. Conservative commentators must grow comfortable calling out the excesses of light-on-crime libertarianism that come from their own side of the aisle. Republican politicians, cognizant of both the disturbing on-the-ground crime reality and the political truth that the small-government rhetorical emphasis of the Tea Party era is over, must recalibrate and shift back toward a traditional pro-law-and-order political platform. Such a platform would be both proper and popular.
We have reached the point where the pendulum has swung too far back toward decarceration, under-prosecution, and light-on-crime policies. The moral primacy of order and public safety must take precedence over fashionable peddling of pro-criminal “bail reform” and “criminal-justice reform” initiatives. We have been here before; we know what we have to do. Now it’s time to execute the game plan.