Do Voters See a Difference Between Crime and Homelessness?

Plus: The case for staying in a bad marriage

The scene of a mass shooting is blocked off with police tape
Liu Guanguan / China News Service / Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Every Monday, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

How do you perceive crime in your neighborhood? How about homelessness? Disorder? What’s your relationship to these things? How much do you think about them? How, if at all, do they affect where you live or the political candidates you support?

Conversations of Note

Top of mind today are election returns in my home state, where Shane Goldmacher offers this news analysis:

Voters in California delivered a stark warning to the Democratic Party on Tuesday about the potency of law and order as a political message in 2022, as a Republican-turned-Democrat campaigning as a crime-fighter vaulted into a runoff in the mayoral primary in Los Angeles and a progressive prosecutor in San Francisco was recalled in a landslide.

The two results made vivid the depths of voter frustration over rising crime and rampant homelessness in even the most progressive corners of the country — and are the latest signs of a restless Democratic electorate that was promised a return to normalcy under President Biden and yet remains unsatisfied with the nation’s state of affairs.

But Henry Grabar argues that voters aren’t motivated by crime as much as homelessness:

Crime and homelessness are not, in fact, the same issue at all. They are not meaningfully correlated; they do not share causes; they do not share solutions. But in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, Democrats’ inability to address the homelessness crisis is going to cost them generational progress on criminal justice, as the forces for reforming the police go into retreat.

It’s tough to watch. Reformers like Boudin (and the left wing of the Democratic Party generally) are right on principle and in practice to dismantle the system of unaccountable police, cash bail, and long prison terms for petty offenses. But they’re going to lose their chance to make it happen, because Democratic leaders have proved themselves so inept in confronting an issue that can easily be conflated with crime.

In my view, Grabar understates the degree to which voters are motivated by aversion to disorder, something that is triggered by both crime and homelessness. Maybe I’ll write more on that soon. If so, I’ll just be reminding everyone of this timeless insight from the sociologist James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling:

Many citizens, of course, are primarily frightened by crime, especially crime involving a sudden, violent attack by a stranger. This risk is very real, in Newark as in many large cities. But we tend to overlook another source of fear—the fear of being bothered by disorderly people. Not violent people, nor, necessarily, criminals, but disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed.

That’s from a 1982 Atlantic article that’s still worth reading.

Go Outside

That’s Matt Labash’s advice for those depressed by the news:

I go outside, as often as possible.  Just as they make a lot of bad news, they make a lot of outdoors, too—conveniently located right outside your indoors. And I use those outdoors to get away to places where algorithms don’t try to program me, to feed on my fear and paranoia and rage, so that they can serve me up more of it. Sometimes, to see humanity more charitably, you need to escape it. And for me, nature’s escape hatch puts the world right, because it reminds me of how beautiful the world actually is when vandals aren’t defacing it. These are places where  I can feel God’s rhythms instead of man’s, the latter of whom tend to clap on the one and the three. I fish, I paddle, I walk my beloved dog, the purest soul I know, through the woods. I am never sorry when I do these things —even if the stripers want nothing to do with my fly, or an unexpected squall turns my kayak into a water trough, or the deer flies are biting through my shirt. It still beats subjecting myself to the anger-generating machines all the live long day. Because anger is a thief. It will steal everything if you let it: your perspective, your balance, your peace of mind. As the late, great outdoors writer, Nelson Bryant, put it in a letter to his daughters:

The secret I would have you know … is that even though the years will steal your fresh beauty, it need only be, in truth, a minor theft. What you must guard against is that jaded state wherein there is nothing new to see or learn. Marvel at the sun, rejoice in the rhythmic wheeling of the stars and learn their names, cry aloud at the swelling beauty of an orchid in the white oak woods, or December’s first snow; slide down the wind with a hawk and cherish the smell of woodsmoke and mayflowers, or the caress of a warm wool blanket; tarry by a stream where willows bend and flee tedium’s gray embrace. Cherish laughter and whimsy, but battle unrelentingly for what you know is right and be aware that the thieves of wonder can enter any heart.

The Case for Staying

Tish Harrison Warren sketches two changes in the culture of marriage:

There was a time, not long ago, when getting a divorce in America was prohibitively difficult. That left individuals—usually women— stuck with philandering husbands and in abusive and dangerous marriages. Divorce is at times a tragic necessity. I’m very glad it is available.

But now the pendulum has swung so far that surrendering personal happiness to remain in an unfulfilling marriage seems somehow shameful or cowardly, perhaps even wrong. We hear stories of people leaving a marriage as an act of self-love, to embark on a personal, spiritual or sexual journey … The story of someone staying in a disappointing marriage … seems inauthentic and uncreative, lacking in boldness and a zest for life.

Still, she makes the case for staying married:

Perhaps part of forming the meaningful relationships we long for involves enduring prolonged periods of dissatisfaction and disappointment … I don’t give a lot of marriage advice. But I want to simply offer that choosing to stay in a marriage for all kinds of unromantic reasons is a good and even a brave choice. And, even if it would never make a great book or movie, that choice offers its own kind of quiet path of discovery, growth, love and flourishing … I want to normalize significant periods of confusion, exhaustion, grief and unfulfillment in marriage.

Who Is the Suburban Voter?

Ruy Teixeira looks ahead to the November midterms to assess the prospects of the Democratic Party:

The Democrats have a plan … sort of. In the face of a dreadful political environment dominated by voters’ negative judgment on Democrats’ economic stewardship and further defined by strong disapproval of Democrats’ approach on issues like crime and immigration, Democrats propose to flip the script by focusing their message on abortion and guns. Here they feel they are on stronger ground and can win the all-important battle for the suburbs.

But that plan won’t work, he argues:

The idea seems to be that the suburbs are full of liberal, highly-educated voters who are likely to be particularly moved by these issues and turn out against the Republicans. That may be true in some limited areas at the margins but it seems highly unlikely to work in the suburbs writ large for a very simple reason: actually-existing suburban voters are quite different from this caricature.

Start with who actually lives in the suburbs. Contrary to popular perception, less than a third of the suburban vote nationwide is made up of college-educated whites, the presumed locus of appeal for the suburban abortion/guns/very liberal on social issues vote. In fact, about three-fifths of suburban white voters are working class (non-college).

Unapologetically Pro-Free-Speech

I’ve recently highlighted an ongoing argument about whether the ACLU is steadily abandoning or doggedly continuing its historic defense of free-speech rights and principles. Now another civil liberties organization, known for its nonpartisan defense of free-speech rights and principles on campus, is expanding its mission to include fighting for the free speech of all Americans. Its name, FIRE, will now stand for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. (Previously it was the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.) One of its staffers, Nico Perrino, told Matt Taibbi what the change means in practice: a $75 million expansion into off-campus programming, with litigation in specific cases coming soon and $10 million budgeted for ads to unapologetically advocate for a culture of free expression.

Here’s Perrino on the philosophy behind the approach:

Too often, there’s a lot of throat-clearing before for the defense of free speech. A lot of apologies, it almost comes off as apology for free expression. We’re genuflecting before other values before we can say anything about what we believe is a fundamental human right.

FIRE doesn’t take a position on the content of speech. You won’t see us condemn speakers, even the most vile, racist, or offensive of them. For us, it’s enough that the speech is protected or should be protected. We’ll defend it. We’ll argue on first principles. That’s what’s necessary to win.

Provocation of the Week

Sarah Menkedick reflects on parenting in America today and the sorts of activities kept apart from it:

I began to notice that, as kid culture filled up most of my days, I had been exiled from adult culture. Or rather, I began to notice that parents in the US lived in a strange, lonely and depressing gulf between two opposing cultures: one designed entirely around the fantasies not necessarily of children but of parents imagining the kind of uber-stimulation and play their children might need; the other designed almost entirely for single people or couples without children. Mixing these cultures is taboo. It was utterly surreal and hilarious to take my little brother, a single, 29-year-old musician living in Sweden, to the Children’s Museum—‘What is this place?’ he kept repeating. It was also surreal and slightly stressful to take our daughter to certain restaurants and, once, to a bar in Portland at midnight, or out for the evening with adult friends, and it was off-limits to take her to many shows and performances.

Our ‘family life’ was not supposed to intersect with our ‘adult life’... People rant about kids in fancy restaurants behaving badly, or wonder why on Earth anyone would bring a kid to a show, a brunch, an event, a bar or whatever. And it is true that, because kid culture is so ubiquitous and capable of swallowing up all of adult life, some parents assume everything revolves around their children; they become so absorbed in the child-centred fantasy world of constant play, attention, development and stimulation that they forget children are members of a society and not priestlings inhabiting their own sacred realm … This is why many people—three acquaintances in the past year alone—have taken to stipulating that their weddings are kid-free. It’s always gently phrased—‘No little ones, please! We want you to enjoy the evening!’—but the message is clear.

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