This Time It's Different: The Conservative Response to Ferguson

The politics of crime has changed since the 1990s. Can Rand Paul help his party embrace the new reality?

Alex Brandon/AP

A dead black teenager, an enraged black community, an aggressive and ham-handed mostly white police force: The standoff in Ferguson, Missouri, is depressingly familiar. What’s not is the way conservatives have reacted.

For decades, from George Wallace to Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to Rudy Giuliani, conservative pols have responded to conflicts like Ferguson in the same way: support the cops, paint your liberal opponents as soft on black crime, and reap a vast harvest of white working-class votes. Forty, 30, 20, or even 10 years ago, the idea that a leading Republican presidential candidate would react to a violent confrontation between police and black demonstrators by insisting that “we must demilitarize the police” and bemoaning the fact that “our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences” would have been inconceivable.

In explaining Senator Rand Paul’s response to Ferguson—and the growing skepticism of tough-on-crime policies among leading Republican politicians today—commentators often cite the libertarian attitudes of younger voters and the GOP’s desperate need to change its image among African Americans and Latinos. But reaching out to these constituencies by shifting GOP policies on crime would be impossible if it produced the kind of furious backlash among conservative activists that Republican politicians have endured for trying to change their party’s policies on immigration.

Why can Paul get away with it? Because of one of the most fundamental, and underappreciated, shifts in the American political landscape: the decline of crime. From the late 1960s, when violent crime began to rise, through the mid 1990s, when it began to fall, crime was among the most potent issues in American politics, and a key factor in pushing political discourse to the right.

In 1968, Richard Nixon ran an ad consisting solely of a middle-aged white woman walking alone a dark and deserted street as the narrator declared, “Crimes of violence in the United States have almost doubled in recent years. Today a violent crime is committed every sixty seconds.”

In 1988, Republicans made Michael Dukakis’s furlough program for state inmates—and the image of convicted murderer Willie Horton, a black man who did not return from a furlough and committed rape and armed robbery—a key element of their assault on the Massachusetts governor.* During that year’s debates, CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis whether he’d want the death penalty for a man who raped and murdered his wife. (The question is virtually inconceivable today.) When Dukakis gave an unemotional and statistics-laden answer, some pundits declared his candidacy over.

When Bill Clinton ran four years later, he was so determined to avoid Dukakis’ fate that in late January 1992, with the Iowa caucuses only days away, he flew back to Arkansas to preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a man so mentally impaired that during his last meal he asked guards to save his pecan pie for “later.” Upon becoming president, Clinton signed a crime bill that rescinded the right of inmates to receive Pell Grants for university education, created “boot camps” for delinquent minors, allocated large sums for new prisons, and made 60 new offenses eligible for the death penalty.

But in the two decades since, violent crime has dropped and dropped. As a result, public attitudes have softened. The percentage of Americans who favor the death penalty for murderers, which hit 80 percent in 1994, fell to 60 percent last year. Even more importantly, crime has virtually disappeared as a political issue. In 1994, according to the University of Albany, 37 percent of Americans cited crime or violence as the “most important problem facing the country.” By 2012, it was 2 percent.

It’s not that many of the white conservatives who once voted Republican because of their fear of crime no longer harbor racialized fears about illegality and public disorder. They still do. But to a large degree, those fears have shifted from black crime to Latino immigration. And this shift has given Paul and other Republicans the space to challenge harsh police tactics and sentencing policies without incurring the wrath of their party base.

In intriguing ways, Rand Paul in 2014 is the mirror image of Bill Clinton in 1992. Clinton won white votes by confronting their stereotype of Democrats as soft on black crime. Paul is trying to win black and other minority votes by confronting their stereotype of Republicans as indifferent to white racism. By 1992, the rise of crime had made liberal Democrats so desperate that they were willing to accept Clinton’s embrace of policies that made them uncomfortable. Today, demographic change is making some conservative Republicans desperate enough to accept Paul’s embrace of policies that make them uncomfortable. If Republicans are smart, they will heed the shifting politics of crime and follow Paul's lead.

* This post originally stated that Horton committed murder while on furlough. We regret the error.