The Coming Democratic Crack-Up

The party has looked unified compared to the fractious Republican presidential field, but contentious issues—like increasing crime—are starting to tear it apart.

Cliff Owen / AP

Nobody explained the crack-up of the New Deal coalition better than New York Mayor Ed Koch at the 1980 Democratic convention:

When I ran for Mayor, I went up to a Bronx senior citizens center, and I told 200 senior citizens: “Ladies and gentlemen, a judge I helped elect was mugged recently. And do you know what that judge did, ladies and gentlemen? He called a press conference and he said to the newsmen, ‘This mugging of me will in no way affect my decision in matters of this kind.’ And an elderly lady got up in the back of the room and said, ‘Then mug him again.’”

It was crime more than any other single issue that drove blue-collar voters in the industrial states from the party of Truman and Johnson to the party of Nixon and Reagan. In 1974—a year of energy shock, inflation, recession, Watergate, Vietnam, and other crises—Americans told pollsters they regarded crime as the single-most important issue facing the country. That year, the Department of Justice introduced a new and more accurate method of collecting crime statistics. It found that 37 million American households—one out of four—had suffered a rape, robbery, burglary, assault, larceny, or auto theft in the previous year.

It was crime—and the welfare programs thought to incubate crime—that elected Republicans across the American industrial heartland in the 1990s: governors like Michigan’s John Engler, New York’s George Pataki, Pennsylvania’s Tom Ridge, and Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson, as well as mayors like Rudy Giuliani in New York City and Richard Riordan in Los Angeles.

It was crime that separated New Democrats from Old in the 1980s. Bill Clinton was determined that nobody would Willie Horton him. He backed the death penalty, endorsed longer sentences, and funded local police forces, all with a view to stopping crime by punishing criminals.

Then the crime rate fell. It fell suddenly, it fell fast, and it fell far. By 2010, rates of crime against person and property had fallen to levels not seen since the early 1960s. In New York City, crime rates tumbled even lower. The great crime decline reshaped cities, remade the economy, and transformed American politics.

As crime declined, the law-and-order issue faded—and the national Democratic party revived. A potent symbol of that revival: Michigan’s Macomb County, the famed barometer of white-ethnic backlash. This blue-collar suburb of Detroit had delivered landslide majorities to John F. Kennedy in 1960—and to Ronald Reagan in 1984. Pollster Stanley Greenberg conducted a series of focus groups in the county in the mid-1980s. At one, he read aloud a quotation from Robert F. Kennedy about the wrongs done to black Americans. “No wonder they shot him,” snapped one participant.

But between 1990 and 2010, the rate of violent crime in the state of Michigan dropped by one third. In 2008, Macomb County voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by almost nine points.

Emancipating Americans from the fear of crime emancipated Democrats from the need to position themselves against crime.

The death penalty has all but vanished from the blue and purple states. The state of California has not executed a criminal since 2006. Ditto North Carolina and Ohio. Illinois and Pennsylvania have not carried out an execution since 1999; Colorado and Oregon not since 1997.* The Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential front-runner, Hillary Clinton, has forcefully distanced herself from the tough-on-crime policies of the 1990s. “It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration,” she told an audience at Columbia University in April 2015.

She’s already getting her wish. The rate of incarceration in the United States peaked in 2007. California has moved especially fast: The rate of incarceration in the nation’s largest state has tumbled by almost 25 percent over the past decade, from over 450 persons per 100,000 to 350.

Day-to-day policing is becoming less intrusive too. In 2013, Bill de Blasio won election as mayor of New York City on a promise to end the stop-and-frisk policing of the Bloomberg and Giuliani years.

Maybe this should not have come as a surprise—but as law enforcement has relaxed, crime may suddenly have begun to rise again. It’s early to say whether we’re looking at a blip or a trend. But something big and ominous seems to be taking form across the country:

  • Homicides have jumped sharply higher in many American cities since 2013, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego, and Washington, D.C.
  • California experienced an 8 percent jump in property crime between 2012 and 2013. In the city of San Francisco, rates for property crimes jumped even faster, by as much as 24 percent over that same year. That jump was partially reversed the following year, but California’s rate of auto theft remains the highest in the nation. The gap between rates of property crime in California and in the rest of the nation is widening.
  • Crime against people and property trended up across the St. Louis area even before Ferguson, and the trend continued into the first half of 2015: murder up 34.6 percent; robbery, 40.3 percent; assaults, 16.5 percent; burglary, 19.7 percent; vehicle theft, 18.1 percent.
  • In some smaller urban centers, too, property crime rose sharply between 2013 and 2014: Abilene, Kansas; Carson City, Nevada; Portland, Oregon; and Ithaca and Binghamton, New York.

It’s too early to proclaim a sustained trend. There are cities in which crime rates have remained level, or continued to decline. That is little consolation to residents of those areas in which crime appears to be spiking upwards, though. And even the national averages are alarming. After decades of fairly broad, steady decline, the decreases seem to have halted, and very likely gone into reverse, at least in urban America.

Explanations for the crime rise remain contested too. In California, some blame de-incarceration. In St. Louis and Baltimore, others point to the pullback of policing after spectacular police controversies. America may be suffering, with a lag, the consequences of the rise in drug use over the past decade. Some ascribe it to demographic change; as the Hispanic share of the population rises, its greater rate of reported crime—whatever its causes—may contribute to the national increase. The post-2000 gun-buying spree may also bear part of the blame.

The crime resurgence has received comparatively little attention from national media. This may reflect the concentration of elite media in New York City—which has not (yet?) seen a reversal of the positive post-1990 trend. Or it may reveal the deep commitment of many in the media to the cause of curtailing police abuse. Whatever the reason, the disconnect between reported narrative—and so many Americans’ lived experiences—is opening a political gap similar to that of the late 1960s. Back then too, crime was rising. Back then, many also condemned the fear of crime as thinly concealed racial bigotry—only to be rebuffed again and again by voters who did not agree.

In the 2016 cycle, the Democratic Party and its presidential nominee may be even more vulnerable to the crime issue than they were in the 1960s.

The Democratic strategy for 2016 is whipsawed between two great political facts. The first is the party’s deep post-Obama dependence on African American votes. The second is the deepening divide between black Americans and all other Americans on issues of criminal justice.

According to the Cook Political Report:

[In 2012] African-American voters accounted for Obama's entire margin of victory in seven states: Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Without these states' 112 electoral votes, Obama would have lost decisively.

The 2008 Obama campaign assembled a large pan-ethnic coalition of young, non-affluent, and non-white voters. But as his first term failed to deliver on the promise of rapid economic improvement, many of those 2008 voters fell away. Beginning with Andrew Jackson, every twice-elected president has seen his vote total rise at his second appearance on the ballot: Lincoln, Grant, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton. Barack Obama was the first and to date only exception. He received almost 3.6 million fewer votes in 2012 than he did in 2008. Where did these votes go? Not, mostly, to his Republican challenger. Mitt Romney won only 900,000 more votes than John McCain. Nor was there any significant exit to third- and fourth-party candidates. Rather, some 2.5 million 2008 Obama votes just ... didn’t show up in 2012.

Who were those no-shows?

They were young: In 2008, 48.5 percent of 18-24 year olds turned out to vote; in 2012, only 41.2 percent did so.

They were Latino: 50 percent of self-identified Latino voters cast a ballot in 2008, declining to 48 percent in 2012 (even as Obama increased his share of the Latino vote).

They were unmarried: Both single men and single women turned out at lower rates in 2012 than 2008.

Some Democratic partisans at first blamed reduced turnout on ballot-tightening measures adopted by some Republican states after 2010. That seems unlikely, however. The group most vulnerable to ballot-tightening—African Americans—actually increased its voter participation in 2012 over 2008. In fact, in 2012 black Americans voted at higher rates than whites for the first time since the election after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

A Democratic party so dependent on black votes is constrained to accept the de-incarceration, de-policing agenda of groups like #BlacksLivesMatter. But that brings us to the second profound political fact: the rejection of the de-incarceration, de-policing agenda by other groups, including other groups that aligned with Barack Obama and the Democrats in 2008.

A 2014 Los Angeles Times survey asked Californians whether local police were too aggressive and posed more of a threat than anything else: 42 percent of black voters said yes, as against 28 percent of Latinos, 21 percent of Asians, and 11 percent of whites. Only 12 percent of whites and 11 percent of Asians could recall a time in the past year when police had treated them unfairly as against 26 percent of blacks. Nationwide, over 80 percent of white millennials believe that crime remains a greater threat than police misconduct.

If crime rates continue to rise through 2016, identification as the “soft-on-crime” or “anti-cop” party may again haunt Democrats as it did a generation ago. Progressives may hope that they can hold together the Obama coalition with an embrace of social welfare, income redistribution, and new issues like universal pre-K. But those policies, too, potentially divide more than they unite.

For the black voters who saved Barack Obama in 2012, the Great Recession and the slow recovery have been one long continuing catastrophe. Between 2007 and 2009, black homeowners were 70 percent more likely to suffer foreclosure than whites. Higher-earning black families were 80 percent more likely to lose their homes than their white counterparts.

The evanescence of black homeownership explains why post-recession the wealth of the median black family tumbled to 1/13th the wealth of the median white family—a disparity wider than any at time in the past quarter century.

The black middle class depended more than other groups on the state and local public-sector jobs that vanished in post-recession budget cutting. The income of the median black household dropped 9.2 percent between 2007 and 2013—as against 5.6 percent for the median white household.

Despite three years of supposed economic recovery, black children were as likely to be poor in 2013 as in 2010—and more likely than at any time since the early 1990s. Almost four out of 10 black children are now growing up in poverty, as against one in nine white children. More than 25 percent of the black poor now live in areas of concentrated poverty, triple the rate for poor white people.

The uniquely harsh African American economic experience since 2007 has divided black opinion further from that of other elements of the Obama coalition. Only 29 percent of Latinos under age 30 think illegal immigrants take jobs from Americans—but 48 percent of African Americans under 30 think so. No wonder.

African Americans have been very much bypassed in the recovery, as employers substituted immigrant for native-born labor. As of mid-2015 all of the net new job growth from the previous employment peak in 2007 has gone to foreign-born workers. The black unemployment rate—although declining—in summer 2015 still hovered well above the rate in December 2007. Among younger black people, 16-24, the unemployment rate is a Greek-like 20 percent. Nearly half of black youth aren’t in the workforce at all.

Meanwhile, younger white voters have evolved to share the economic views of their parents. In 2008, Barack Obama won the votes of almost 60 percent of white millennials. By 2012, only 44 percent backed Obama—51 percent of white voters under 30 went for Romney. A 2014 survey found that only 34 percent of whites under 30 still approved the Obama presidency. A solid majority of them, 52 percent, now say they prefer a government that provides less in services but also costs less in taxes.

The Democratic Party still has a potentially bigger voting base than the GOP.

A record number of adults over 25 have never been married: 20 percent.

The proportion of Americans with no religious affiliation now exceeds 22 percent, more than the share who identify as Catholic and nearing the 25 percent who identify as evangelical.

Seventy-eight counties in 19 states have tipped majority-minority since the 2000 election.

But the easy assumption of 15 years ago that Democrats could sit back and wait for the immutable processes of demography to deliver the White House to them forever—that assumption looks ever more doubtful. In a country of 310 million people, any attempt to cram all politically relevant constituencies into just two parties must be inherently unstable. Holding party coalitions together demands the nimblest statesmanship even in easy times. Since the Great Recession, the times have been anything but easy. And Democrats are already discovering—or being reminded—that Hillary Clinton is anything but nimble. The Democrats have not yet ripped themselves apart as the Republicans have done in the Summer of Trump. But the preconditions are all there. They just await the spark.

* This article originally stated that Ohio's latest execution took place in 1999. We regret the error.