Crime panic: The 2022 midterms and Nixon’s War on Drugs


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Every election season, politicians and major media outlets become obsessed with crime. Specifically, that there feels like there is more of it and someone must be to blame. Yet, despite running candidates who supported the January 6th insurrection and who fail to condemn extremist violence (like the attack on Paul Pelosi just a week ago), the Republican party manages to control the messaging on crime. They know exactly who is to blame for the apparent spike in crime: Democrats.

The crime rate

You may notice that I said “apparent spike in crime.” That’s because there is no evidence that the national crime rate has actually increased in a meaningful way.

Annual government surveys from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show no recent increase in the U.S. violent crime rate. In 2021, the most recent year with available data, there were 16.5 violent crimes for every 1,000 Americans ages 12 and older. That was statistically unchanged from the year before, below pre-pandemic levels and far below the rates recorded in the 1990s…

The FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System also found no rise in the national violent crime rate between 2020 and 2021. But national trends aren’t very helpful because crime is local. Zooming into state-level data, the most crime-ridden places in the country over the past few years have been governed by Republicans. Eight out of 10 of the states with the worst violent crime problems are solidly red; just one (New Mexico) is blue and one (Michigan) is considered purple.

This is an inconvenient fact for Republican candidates. Take Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), for example. During a debate with his Democratic challenger, Joy Hofmeister, the governor accused his opponent of lying about the state’s high homicide rate:

“So let’s talk about facts: The fact is, the rates of violent crime are higher in Oklahoma under your watch than in New York or California,” said Hofmeister, who is Oklahoma’s superintendent of public instruction. “That’s a fact.”

Stitt interrupted twice to protest that it wasn’t true.

Hofmeister was right: Oklahoma has a homicide rate of 9 deaths per 100,000, compared with California’s rate of 6.1 and New York’s rate of 4.7.

Crime, however, is something in which perception often matters more than reality. If the local news (increasingly controlled by rightwing companies like Sinclair) is packed with reports of violent crime, it doesn’t really matter to people what the national statistics say. They feel threatened – and fear is a very powerful motivator for voting…and for buying firearms.

Gun laws

While national violent crime has not increased, 2020 was marked by an increase in homicides. This disparity is due to how organizations like the FBI define violent crimes: murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. A significant decrease in rape, robbery, and aggravated assault would mask a rise in homicides and manslaughter.

The states with the highest homicide rates are overwhelmingly governed by Republicans. These states also, not coincidentally, have the laxest gun laws. According to the CDC, seven out of the 10 states with the highest homicide rates are solidly red. Four of the seven have permitless carry, one (Alabama) has a permitless carry law that will take effect in January, and all seven allow open carry.

Making guns easier to obtain and carry is contributing to an increase in violent crime. We know this from a study conducted in Philadelphia by the Philadelphia Inquirer. An influx of guns caused by increased access to concealed-carry permit applications created an explosion of legally carried guns and gun theft. The number of granted permits exploded from 7,444 in 2020 to 52,230 in 2021. That’s over 3 percent of the entire city population in just one year. Rather than using words and fists in confrontations, disagreements turn into shoot-outs, often with bystanders injured or killed. More people then fear being attacked, leading to the purchase of more firearms.

It’s not just the public that is suffering from the proliferation of guns. According to the New York Times, Texas’ 2021 law allowing adults over 21 to carry handguns without a permit has led to police encountering an armed citizenry, making their jobs more dangerous.

…many sheriffs, police leaders and district attorneys in urban areas of Texas say [there] has been an increase in people carrying weapons and in spur-of-the-moment gunfire in the year since the state began allowing most adults 21 or over to carry a handgun without a license…

“Now that everybody can carry a weapon, we have people who drink and start shooting each other,” said Sheriff Tom Schmerber of Maverick County, which includes Eagle Pass. “People get emotional,” he said, “and instead of reaching for a fist, they reach for a weapon. We’ve had several shootings like that.”…

In Harris County, criminal cases involving illegal weapons possession have sharply increased since the new law went into effect: 3,500 so far this year, as of the middle of October, versus 2,300 in all of 2021 and an average of about 1,000 cases in prior years going back to 2012.

“It’s shocking,” said Kim Ogg, the Harris County district attorney. “We’ve seen more carrying weapons, which by itself would be legal. But people are carrying the weapons while committing other crimes, and I’m not talking just about violent crimes. I’m talking about intoxication crimes or driving crimes or property crimes, carrying weapons on school property or in another prohibited place,” including bars and school grounds.

The root causes

Just as it is important to correct the record on the recent crime rate reporting, it is also important to refuse to be confined to the arena created by bad faith players. The panic around crime began under President Richard Nixon, when, in a 1971 address, the president created the War on Drugs. Decades later, Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman candidly explained the true purpose for declaring drug use “public enemy number one”:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Nixon’s administration framed addicts as “criminals attacking the moral fiber of the nation, people who deserved only incarceration and punishment.”

Ronald Reagan picked up Nixon’s War on Drugs, then still in its infancy, and turned it into a wide-ranging federal operation. The media was complicit in his efforts to paint Black people, largely from impoverished inner cities, as dangerous crack addicts that must be locked up for the safety of the—mostly white—middle and upper classes. Moral panic quickly took root in America:

…the journalistic recruitment in the anti-cocaine crusade was absolutely crucial to converting the war on drugs into a political spectacle that depicted social problems grounded on economic transformations as individual moral or behaviorial problems that could be remedied by simply embracing family values, modifying bad habits, policing mean streets, and incarcerating the fiendish “enemies within.”

Indeed, in authorizing and advocating the New Right’s antidrug activism, drug experts and network journalists operated as moral entrepreneurs in the political economy of Reagan’s America-entrepreneurs who benefited personally and professionally from coproducing a series of moral panics that centered on controlling this stuff called cocaine and disciplining the people who used it…. they also were deeply implicated in advancing, even mainstreaming, the backlash politics of the New Right in a way that helped mask the economic devastation of deindustrialization, aggravated white-black tensions in the electorate, and, ultimately, helped solidify middle-class support for policies that favored the rich over the poor. (“Cracked Coverage: Television News, The Anti-Cocaine Crusade, and the Reagan Legacy” by J. Reeves and R. Campbell).

Reagan’s hard-line stance on drugs combined with public panic spurred Congress to pass the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which allocated $1.7 billion to the War on Drugs and established a series of “mandatory minimum” prison sentences for various drug offenses. Notably, possession of five grams of crack led to an automatic five-year sentence while it took the possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger that sentence. It wasn’t a coincidence that the majority of crack users were African American.

As a result, the prison population soared.

The percentage of drug arrests that result in prison sentences (rather than dismissal, community service, or probation) has quadrupled, resulting in a prison-building boom the likes of which the world has never seen. In two short decades, between 1980 and 2000, the number of people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails soared from roughly 300,000 to more than 2 million. By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans—or one in every 31 adults—were behind bars, on probation, or on parole. (“The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander)

How does this tie into crime in general? First, long prison sentences do not decrease crime — offenders who spend longer time in prison have a higher recidivism rate. Second, and relatedly, individuals charged with a felony, drug-related or otherwise, are labeled a felon and subjected to numerous hardships that essentially relegate them to a permanent second-class status.

[The] offender may be sentenced to a term of probation, community service, and court costs. Unbeknownst to this offender, and perhaps any other actor in the sentencing process, as a result of his conviction he may be ineligible for many federally-funded health and welfare benefits, food stamps, public housing, and federal educational assistance. His driver’s license may be automatically suspended, and he may no longer qualify for certain employment and professional licenses. If he is convicted of another crime he may be subject to imprisonment as a repeat offender. He will not be permitted to enlist in the military, or possess a firearm, or obtain a federal security clearance. If a citizen, he may lose the right to vote; if not, he becomes immediately deportable (American Bar Association as quoted in “The New Jim Crow”)

Unable to obtain a job and not eligible for assistance, people charged with a felony may find themselves turning back to crime to support themselves and their families.

…these civil penalties, although not considered punishment by our courts, often make it virtually impossible for ex-offenders to integrate into the mainstream society and economy upon release. Far from collateral, these sanctions can be the most damaging and painful aspect of a criminal conviction. Collectively, these sanctions send the strong message that, now that you have been labeled, you are no longer wanted. You are no longer part of “us,” the deserving. Unable to drive, get a job, find housing, or even qualify for public benefits, many ex-offenders lose their children, their dignity, and eventually their freedom—landing back in jail after failing to play by rules that seem hopelessly stacked against them. (“The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander)

Instead of fighting for reforming the system and addressing the root causes of crime, like poverty, politicians from both parties in 2022 are still advocating a “tough on crime” stance and support funneling money not to communities, but to police and jails.

Democrats have enlisted sheriffs to vouch for them, have outspent Republicans on ads that use the word “police” in the month of October, and have been using the kind of tough-on-crime language that many on the left seemed to reject not long ago…

Representative Sean Patrick Maloney of New York…aired an ad in which an officer declared him a “tough-on-crime” lawmaker who confronted those “who wanted to defund the police.”

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada has long highlighted her pro-law enforcement credentials, including with an ad featuring a police chief praising her record of being “tough on crime.”