In the New York Times, Thomas Edsall has a very long op-ed titled “Trump Wants Law and Order Front and Center.” The piece is a paean to the progressive trend in law enforcement–i.e., not enforcing laws–combined with fretting about whether the Republicans are likely to benefit politically. It does, I think, highlight an issue that will gain increasing prominence between now and November.
Unexpectedly, the 2020 presidential campaign is drilling down on petty crime and homelessness. Donald Trump and his Republican allies are reviving law-and-order themes similar to those used effectively by Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew in the late 1960s and early 1970s to demonize racial minorities.
Ardent Democrats may be surprised that voters care about crime and the problems associated with homelessness, but no one else is. And the reference to Spiro Agnew and “demoniz[ing] racial minorities” is the kind of irrelevant cheap shot without which we wouldn’t recognize a liberal opinion piece.
These Democratic district attorneys — in cities, counties and suburbs from Philadelphia, Orlando, Chicago and St. Louis to Contra Costa County, Calif., Suffolk County, Mass., and Durham County, N.C. — are pursuing policies intended to decriminalize vagrancy, and eliminate cash bail, and they are aggressively pursuing charges in cases of shootings by police officers.
Edsall acknowledges that these policies are deeply controversial, but never explains why. Rather, he views concerns about crime, vagrancy, and so on as beyond the pale. He calls on an email exchange with law professor Larry Tribe to lend intellectual heft to his argument:
Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard, described the thinking underpinning progressive Democratic policies broadening the rights of the homeless. In an email, Tribe wrote:
The supposed “rights” of those who are upset or psychologically threatened by the homeless, the deinstitutionalized, or others similarly situated are what I would call second-order rights, rights that a polity cannot fairly treat as having as strong a claim to protection, as trumps that override utilitarian claims as is true of genuine rights.
The derelict’s right to defecate in public is a “genuine right,” whereas your right not to have to watch people defecate in public is a “second-order right.” Presumably this is in the Constitution somewhere.
What is not clear is whether the criminal’s right not to be imprisoned for his crime is “genuine,” while your right to be free of criminal violence is “second-order.” This is because throughout his piece, Edsall conflates two very different issues: 1) the quality of life problems associated with vagrancy and homelessness, and 2) violent crime. There is overlap, of course; vagrants sometimes commit violent crimes. But the issues are nevertheless distinct.
On crime, Edsall retails the familiar myths:
The racial disparities pervasive in our justice system compound at every juncture: African Americans are more likely to be stopped by police, arrested, detained before trial, and given harsher sentences than whites.
All of this, as has been copiously documented, is because African-Americans commit far more crimes, per capita, than whites. Not to mention Asians and Hispanics; but then, when the subject is crime, liberals never do mention them.
The good news is that very few people are fooled by this lame sort of argumentation. No one wants to be victimized by violent criminals, and everyone with eyes can see what vagrancy and the refusal to enforce laws against (relatively) minor crimes have done to cities like Seattle and San Francisco. Anyone who thinks what has happened to those cities is good, is welcome to vote Democrat in 2020.
Which, of course, is what the liberals are worried about, and why they dredge up Spiro Agnew:
Republicans, in turn, are betting that the Democratic presidential candidates have moved substantially farther to the left on issues of crime and punishment than the voting public.
That’s right. Another way to put it is that trying to deny obvious realities isn’t a good electoral strategy.
PAUL ADDS: President Trump would be even better positioned to benefit politically from law and order sentiment if he hadn’t supported legislation that enabled some federal felons to be released early from prison and will result in shorter sentences for many thousands more.