How the Issue of Crime has Reshaped the 2022 Midterm Elections
As the Midterm Elections rapidly approach, a number of policy issues have taken the forefront of political debate such as inflation, abortion rights, and crime. Given the uproar over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe V Wade, and rising inflationary concerns, it might be surprising to some that crime has taken center stage of the political debate. As violent crime rocked major cities like Philadelphia and New York City over the summer in the form of homicides and disturbing violence on public transit, politicians and especially Republicans are using the public’s growing concerns as a means of gaining support in the upcoming elections.
The Republican Party’s focus on crime as a key policy issue is not a coincidence, as candidates tout themselves as the best equipped to keep Americans safe and maintain “law and order”, while antagonizing not only their individual opponents but the entire Democratic Party. In competitive Senate races in states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, crime has been discussed in ⅓ of all broadcast and cable TV content that have aired since the beginning of September. In one particular ad, Dr. Oz fails to even criticize his direct opponent, John Fetterman, before mentioning “failed liberal policies” with pictures of Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and AOC to illustrate his claims. Why include the faces of the Democratic Party in an ad about crime in the state of Pennsylvania? One reason could be the fact that local politics in the United States are no longer isolated from national politics, therefore it has become easier for politicians on both the left and right to channel discontent for the given administration into support at the local level. Secondly, the Republican party has seen that populist rhetoric resonates with the American people, illustrated by the ascent of Donald Trump and his 2016 presidential election win. We know that populist rhetoric resonates with people under certain conditions such as times where levels of inequality are high, immigration is salient, and most importantly there is a sentiment of being “left behind” by a portion of the population. In the aforementioned campaign ad in support of Senate Candidate Oz, it is clear why an ad about “skyrocketing” crime also included points about his opponents support of sanctuary cities. Former President Donald Trump and his republican colleagues alike have criticized Democratic immigration policies, implying that more immigrants is equivalent to more crime, and therefore a threat to the American people. Dr. Oz and other Republican candidates have instilled a sense of fear in the minds of voters, insinuating that the Democratic Party and the current administration is not only failing to protect the American people, but they are actively harming them through their policy decisions. However, it is important to note that the Republican Party is not the only side guilty of using their platform to appeal to the “people” and attack the establishment, as Democrats such as John Fetterman have used language such as “Washington doesn’t care” in ad campaigns in order to appeal to voters disillusioned and left behind by mainstream politicians.
The adoption of some form of populist rhetoric on both sides of the aisle, and its apparent success, reveals an insidious trend in American politics. Why is it so bad that politicians are calling out the failings of Washington, Congress, and even the President himself? This type of populist rhetoric has the potential to not only polarize the country even further on hot button issue like crime, abortion, and inflation but also it delegitimizes and erodes confidence in the functioning of the democratic system. If institutions are deemed incapable of fixing problems like rising crime in American cities and suburbs alike, then undemocratic means of achieving policy goals become more and more appealing. As we come closer to the culmination of Midterm Elections, it can be safe to say that candidates on the left and right will use such populist, anti-establishment, nativists, anti-immigrant rhetoric to appeal to voters who have slowly but surely lost some faith in the democratic system.
This issue of Republican rhetoric surrounding crime certainly connects to the issue of democratic erosion in the US, especially to the erosion of democratic norms, specifically that of mutual toleration, discussed in many of the readings. The Republican’s allegations against the democratic party as uncaring about the issue of crime serve to villanize the party, specifically when arguing that through protecting/enacting sanctuary cities democrats are allowing “murderers” and criminals onto the streets. This villainization of the opposing party is certainly reminiscent of what is discussed by Levitsky and Ziblatt regarding the erosion of the key norm of mutual toleration. Such erosion, as you pointed out, has harmful consequences for the functioning of democracy. However, it’s important to add that Republican rhetoric surrounding rising crime doesn’t even reflect today’s current trends in crime, but rather exacerbates the issue all for political gain. Crime overall has gone down significantly since the 1980s, and while as a result of covid recent homicide rates did increase, 2022 is seeing a decrease in these rates. Additionally, regarding the issue of sanctuary cities, studies have shown that illegal immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than US citizens, in fact, sanctuary cities report lower crime rates. So, it’s important to note that republicans are not only pinning issues of crime on the democratic party, but they are exacerbating the issues entirely, evoking fear for political gain. Finally, we must recognize that this strategy isn’t new, but rather has been a part of US politics for years and has been influential in shaping policy, for example in the War on Drugs. This history demonstrates that this villainization of the democratic party may influence the policies put forth by said party. Before the war on drugs, the democratic party approached the issue of crime through a rehabilitative lens; however, Clinton adopted a much harder stance on crime following Republican accusations of being uncaring towards the issue. In the future, it will be interesting to see if such accusations influence the actions of the democratic party today, will they adopt a more moderate approach for fear of backlash?
I appreciate your connection to democratic erosion from the discussion of crime through the lens of polarization. More than of 75% of voters see violent crime as a major issue in the United States (https://www.politico.com/news/2022/10/05/midterm-voters-crime-guns-00060393), which although likely influenced by the national 4.4% increase, is a statistic fueled by the biased coverage you discuss (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2022/09/11/united-states-major-cities-violent-crime-homicides-survey/8060734001/).
I think that it’s also interesting and necessary to analyze how race plays into our discussions of crime (https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2022-10-14/how-race-entered-the-midterms-in-the-guise-of-crime). This is especially highlighted in ads that group local politicians with national politicians, especially politicians of color: Vice President Kamala Harris and Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, as you mentioned, but also Representatives Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley. You could also discuss the greater issue of associating crime with racial minorities and immigrants, an association significantly older than this year’s midterm cycle and statistically incorrect (https://news.wisc.edu/undocumented-immigrants-far-less-likely-to-commit-crimes-in-u-s-than-citizens/).