I’ve been writing for years about the Crime Wave of the Late 20th Century and its driving role in the rightward turn of American politics starting in the 1970s. The most fascinating and sobering aspect of it in retrospect is that we don’t really understand why it happened or why it ended. There are some compelling theories. But we really don’t know.
To refresh our collective memory about what we’re talking about here’s a chart showing the national murder rate in the US from 1960 to 2016.
And here’s the number of murders per year in New York City from 1928 to 2017.
The point of these graphs is to illustrate that the Crime Wave of the Late 20th Century was real. The response to it was shaped by racism. It was spurred forward by the national addiction to guns and the War on Drugs. But it was real. It wasn’t made up. It began in the middle of the 1960s, plateaued through much of the 70s and spiked again in the late 1980s before dropping precipitously in the early 1990s.
This brings me to the sharp uptick in at least some kinds of violent crime in the last year. It’s important to note that the numbers are still low relative to the Crime Wave period. Last year there were 462 murders in New York City, a 45% increase from the year before. But that number is still lower than it was as recently as 2011.
What’s more, we still don’t have the kind of organized, hard data from throughout the country that one can make real judgements from. In recent months I’ve been trying to sift the news stories I read to get a sense of how much of this is anecdotal hype and how much is granular, data-based and real. But there is little question that violent crime, including murder and especially shootings, have risen markedly.
People on the right see it as the result of anti-police activism, criminal justice reform, the Black Lives Matter movement and more. My own sense is that it’s overwhelmingly the result of the vast dislocations caused by the pandemic.
But my point here isn’t to solve that question. It is to make a simpler point. No one has a greater interest than progressives in public safety and low rates of crime. Because rising rates of crime, especially violent crime, drive rightist politics as sure as night follows day. This is a demonstrable fact.
It goes without saying that it drives aggressive, brutalizing policing cultures, what we now call mass incarceration, support for the death penalty, and more. But it’s not only that. It drives a whole constellation of repressive politics that grow in more complex ways from high fear rather than high trust social contexts.
Politicians of the right are for obvious reasons always looking for signs of rising crime, hyper-focused on it. This makes sense. At its root conservatism is a fear-based political orientation. So this makes sense both characterologically and politically. But really people who want a more progressive and just society have the greatest interest in doing so. As I said above, I think the current spike especially in shootings is because of the pandemic. I suspect it will ebb as the pandemic does. But we don’t know that. And a vast dislocation like the pandemic can start cycles or patterns that take on a life of their own.