Commentary Magazine

Crime & the Liberal Audience

A frenzied and often acrimonious campaign seems to have produced election results that on the whole are moderate, conventional, and reasonable. Voters everywhere are without any question still concerned with what Scammon and Wattenberg call the “Social Issue”—crime, campus unrest, pornography, drugs, alienation—but for relatively few candidates did this issue seem to be the decisive one. Taxes and unemployment were obviously important, as well as the normal inclination to vote for attractive, personable candidates. Vice President Agnew’s bitter attacks produced local enthusiasms but not a national mood. Wherever the two-party system is operating, the Center-seeking tendencies of politics seem to have been reasserted. Where there is no longer a two-party system, as in New York, more extreme candidates have won. The Liberal party made it possible for John Lindsay to remain Mayor over the opposition of a majority of the voters in 1969 and the Conservative party made it possible for James Buckley to become Senator over the opposition of a majority in 1970.

Though there are good grounds for optimism in the 1970 election returns, there is also the danger of drawing false inferences. One already being heard is that the “Social Issue” was a spurious one or that while it once existed it is no longer important. After all, some are saying, no one is in favor of crime or violence, except perhaps a few on the radical Left or Right; therefore, crime and violence are not really issues and the less said about them, the better. But no one is in favor of pollution, unsafe housing, unemployment, or high taxes either; does that mean that these problems are not really issues and the less said about them, the better? The lesson that should be drawn from the election results is that crime and disorder have perhaps ceased to be ideological issues and have begun to become practical issues—which is what they should have been all along.

In retrospect, the curious thing is that for so long one party, the Democratic, struck many voters as being indifferent to these concerns. Sensing this, the President and Vice President hit hard at the Social Issue, thinking that the advantage they had on this question outweighed the normal disadvantage any White House emissaries—from Franklin Roosevelt to the present—have had in trying to influence local elections. In most states, Democrats scrambled back to the political Center fast enough to prevent the one-issue attack of Mr. Agnew from having much effect. But the question remains, why did they vacate—or appear to vacate—the Center in the first place? For it is, after all, an axiom of American politics that ambition leads a candidate to occupy the Center on any issue. In Presidential elections, at least, there are few exceptions to that rule. Gold-water in 1964 was one, and he was crushed. George Wallace in 1968 was another, and he received only 13 per cent of the popular vote. Humphrey and Nixon, by contrast, sought the Center, the former hesitantly but loquaciously, the latter eagerly and with vague generalities.

The Center consisted then, and consists now, of people displaying deep confusion about the war, hoping somehow to end it without “losing” it, and a great (perhaps too great) certainty about the need to get tough on criminals, “welfare chiselers,” disruptive college students, and the purveyors of obscenity. As a backdrop to the overriding issues of war and civility can be found an enduring—and on the whole not too begrudging—willingness to see public money spent in rather large amounts to improve education, end poverty, and extend medical care.

The clear emergence of the Social Issue may be dated from May 1965, when the Gallup Poll showed for the first time that “crime” (along with education) was viewed by Americans as the most important problem facing the nation. More careful surveys done over the next two years, some under the sponsorship of the President’s Crime Commission, confirmed and amplified this finding. At about that time I happened to be supervising a survey in Boston, and I noted a striking fact: when asked what was the biggest problem facing large cities, Negro respondents were more likely to mention crime and juvenile delinquency than any other issue. Most whites agreed with them, though Italians and Poles put “the Negro problem” slightly ahead of lawlessness. It struck me that “crime in the streets” could not be simply a codeword for anti-black feeling if blacks themselves were voicing it.

In the months leading up to the Democratic National Convention in 1968—specifically, in February, May, and August—Gallup continued to report crime as the most important issue, now accompanied by Vietnam and the high cost of living. Not only was the crime issue important to millions of voters, most of the voters who were the victims of street crime were Democrats-Negroes, poor whites living in big cities, and upper-middle-class Jewish professionals living in midtown Manhattan. By contrast, Orange County suburbanites who complained a lot about crime rarely experienced it and would vote Republican anyway. Furthermore, crime—unlike Vietnam and inflation—was not an issue for which the Democrats had to explain away their part in causing it. The President may have sent troops to Vietnam, but he had not sent muggers to East 67th Street; he may have overheated the economy, but he had not opened the prison gates. One would naturally suppose that, at the convention, much would be made of the crime issue.

One’s natural guess would have been wrong. To be sure, the keynote speaker deplored crime and the platform called for implementing the Crime Commission recommendations. More revealing was the conduct of what some might have thought to be the two major interest groups speaking for the problems of urban America—the AFL-CIO, representing labor, and the Urban Coalition, attempting (in vain) to represent everybody else. Both organizations presented elaborate statements to the platform committee. Crime was mentioned only in passing, and though many proposals were made on all other aspects of urban life, none was made in the area of criminal justice. The Attorney General of the United States, Ramsey Clark, was quoted as saying, no doubt in an unguarded moment, that he did not think the United States was having a crime wave at all.

In the actual campaigning, individual candidates began to sense the importance of this and related issues. Robert Kennedy, speaking in the closing days of the Indiana primary, had given major emphasis to his opposition to crime and his desire to find a way to put welfare recipients to work. Hubert Humphrey, after his nomination, issued a lengthy statement on what was now re-christened “order and justice.” Eugene McCarthy, . as far as anyone can tell, never sensed the issue at all.

After Humphrey’s defeat, the center of activity—if not of votes—within the Democratic National Committee and its allied policy groups became expressive of the New Politics and the determination of those gifted at it to carve out a position for the Democratic party in left field—literally and figuratively. It is of course normal for the party out of power to acquire as spokesmen those at the ideological extreme; at the game of being against the incumbent administration, any number can play and those most willing to play without remuneration are usually those ideologically most highly committed.

Meanwhile, those who aspired to hold office were paying a heavy price for being caught on the wrong side of a major issue. An attractive black candidate could not beat an undistinguished Los Angeles mayor; in losing, Thomas Bradley could not manage to win the large majorities usually available to liberals in the Jewish precincts. A law-and-order mayor won in Minneapolis with almost no credentials but his position on crime. Another law-and-order candidate was beaten in Detroit, but only, it would appear, because she had the misfortune to run against a Polish ex-sheriff (who turned out to be a “moderate” on the police issue). And John Lindsay—the liberal mayor of the most liberal city in the nation—“won” reelection only because it was a three-man race. As Scammon and Wattenberg put it: what kind of would-be national Democratic politician is it who can carry, in his own city, only a quarter of the votes of the white working class and less than half the votes of the Jews?



The major problem facing anyone seeking to give an account of party politics in the 1960’s is why a party with which a majority of the voters identify, confronting an issue of great practical importance to its own rank and file and of great symbolic importance to everyone else, and in a position to take the initiative rather than defend a record, chose to display itself in a manner leading millions of its own followers to think of it as wrong. If Vietnam was a divisive issue and the Social Issue a unifying one, why did the Democratic party preoccupy itself with the former and neglect the latter?

One explanation requires the assumption that Democratic politicians are nobler than others. In this view, the war is a much more important matter than crime and disorder and alienation; until it is ended, nothing can be done about these other questions. Even though winning a national election is easier if one has a clear position on the Social Issue, we choose to direct our attention to a more divisive issue. There are many people who believe this, and some are Democratic party leaders. Some—a very few—are even prepared to risk their political careers because of this belief. But rare and noble sentiments cannot usually explain the actions of more than rare and noble persons, especially if the rejoinder can be made that whatever one wishes to accomplish in public affairs one must first win office. The general rule is—find a majority, and then lead it; for some today, the rule seems to be—find a minority, and follow it.

Another possible explanation is that there are several persons who have won, and sometimes won resoundingly, with a strong dove position on the war and with very little else by way of platform. If some can do it, many can. Perhaps. No doubt districts where that is possible exist, possibly more than anyone suspects. But it is important to be sure that one is running in such a district before adopting a position that ignores the Social Issue. There are such districts in suburban Boston; Father Drinan was nominated and elected in one. There are no such districts in Boston itself; there, Louise Day Hicks was nominated and then elected. The nation as a whole is not such a district.

A third—and to me more important—explanation is that while the forces impelling the major parties to move toward the Center at the time of a national Presidential election are as strong as ever, the forces impelling them to move away from the Center between those elections have become in recent years almost equally strong. As long as the chief prize of politics is the Presidency and as long as there are for all practical purposes only two contenders for that prize, finding and moving toward the Center is the inevitable strategy of each contender. But during the three-and-a-half years when no Presidential contest is underway, the parties must decide to which of many competing internal pressures they will respond. Increasingly, those internal pressures—in both parties, but especially the Democratic—have led key party figures to occupy positions far from the Center.

Chief among these internal forces are those exerted by persons whose volunteer contributions to the party are deemed essential and whose esteem is deemed worth winning. For the Democrats, these persons include activist professors whose advice—and more important, whose blessing—is valued; friendly syndicated columnists and key editors and reporters in the “national” press (the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, etc.) from whom the assurance of sympathetic treatment must be won; wealthy individuals, mostly in New York (and some in Los Angeles), who are prepared to give substantial sums even to unlikely, high-risk candidates if they feel strongly enough about “the issues”; and volunteer workers, some organized into political clubs, others available on an ad hoc basis for individual campaign organizations when and if they find those individuals attractive.

Some may see in this nothing more than a rehash of familiar charges about the “Eastern Liberal Establishment” that “dictates” policies and “selects” candidates. But this simplistic view is quite inadequate, both in suggesting a level of agreement on issues that does not exist and in failing to explain why so few people can wield so much influence over supposedly canny professional politicians. There is in fact nothing conspiratorial at all about the sources of liberalism in the Democratic party, just as there is nothing spooky or pathological about the sources (and influence) of Goldwater-Reagan conservatism in the Republican.

Between elections “the party” hardly exists except as a label. Between elections, the political process, especially among those not in national office, consists in great measure of engaging in a partly competitive, partly cooperative struggle to marshal or husband valued political resources-visibility, reputation, allies, money, followers. The net effect of this struggle at any point in time is measured in terms of the “standing” of various political figures, that standing being a composite of “soundness,” “style,” and “appeal.” Increasingly, the standing is judged in terms of ideas and in this way ideas tend to have consequences. Ideas in American politics usually do not affect the course of events because masses of people are persuaded of them (though that sometimes happens—an “idea whose time has come”) but because to a great extent the standing of individual politicians has been allocated in terms of the ideas (as well as style and appeal) valued by the attentive audience of those politicians; the good reputation of the politicians, in turn, is communicated to millions of citizens, not so much in terms of statements that say “Senator Jones is a good man because of his position on poverty” but rather in the form of ones that say “Senator Jones is a good man because he has a position on poverty,” or better yet, “Senator Jones cares” or is “concerned.” “Caring”—empathy—is the vulgar expression of ideology, where ideology exists. Sometimes empathy is an expression of nothing at all.




The influence of this attentive audience increased during the 1960’s in both political parties, but particularly in the Democratic. And the attentive Democratic audience is a liberal one, made up of volunteers and part-time public servants with discretionary money to spend, personal style to display, campaign skills to use, “interesting ideas” to propound, and influence in the mass media to wield. The importance of the members of the Liberal Audience has grown as the power and cohesiveness of the political party at the local level declined; as the bright young millionaires created by the boom of the 60’s became interested in applying their social conscience to politics; as television acquired a power to bless or curse formerly reserved to archbishops; as organized labor came to be scorned for its “middle-class values” (though courted for its working-class money); and as key posts in city halls, federal agencies, and even the White House were filled with brilliant young men fresh out of law school or sometimes even fresher out of college. To a substantial degree, at least on the East Coast, Democratic politics when the party is out of power occurs within this group and the several communications nets linking it.

To some extent a comparable process was underway in the Republican party, at least in 1964. The nomination of Goldwater was a triumph of the volunteer spirit among Republicans and exceedingly pleasing to those conservative intellectuals and fund-givers who had long chafed under the Center-seeking tendencies of the party, a process they liked to call “me-too-ism.” But the difference between what happened in 1964 to the Republicans and what happened in 1965-70 to the Democrats is that the rise of amateur politics among the Republicans was led and symbolized by one man who was an active candidate; the high-water mark of conservative ideology was his nomination and the low-water mark his defeat. With Goldwater’s loss, those identified with him were at a profound disadvantage in the party; many, indeed, became more interested in Governor Reagan in California. But amateur politics in the Democratic party was not identified with or led by any single candidate; indeed, to a considerable degree the movement took strength from its opposition to the party’s leader, President Johnson. To the extent that the Liberal Audience identified with any political figures, none of those it identified with ever lost a national election: McCarthy could not win the nomination, Robert Kennedy was murdered, George McGovern was never a serious contender, and Ramsey Clark has not even entered electoral politics as yet.

The rise in importance of the Liberal Audience was thus never checked by electoral realities. The rise itself, however, cannot be explained merely in terms of a change in the distribution of political resources. To be sure, the television medium is more powerful than before, idea-men are in demand, and fund-givers for high-risk candidates are valued. But all this might not have produced the extraordinary shift in the Democratic party’s center of gravity had it not been for other processes that were also at work. The most significant of these changes was the loss of political and moral authority by the old sources of party leadership. As late as 1960 Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago was held in high esteem by many liberals, not simply because he was an effective mayor but because he had helped nominate Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and John F, Kennedy in 1960. Kennedy became President of the United States because old-line party bosses gave him the nomination and helped give him the election (anyone who doubts the latter statement need only recall the long delay in the Chicago returns in that November of 1960 when the outcome depended almost entirely on the Illinois electoral votes).

The voters at large were increasingly suspicious of party “bosses,” finding men who practiced politics out of self-interest or in ways that catered to the particular self-interest of others distasteful. The chic of the Kennedy administration did not cause this change, but it did help it along—Daley might get a few laughs welcoming Queen Elizabeth to Chicago but no one could imagine inviting him to the White House to hear Pablo Casals. Thus long before Daley’s police hit anybody in Grant Park, it seemed to many that to govern the nation in the 1960’s it was more important to understand “fiscal drag” and “second-strike capability” and “counter-insurgency warfare” (or at least be able to mention them knowingly; very few really understood those phrases) than it was to tend to what party leaders were saying. In the first place they seemed to be saying irrelevant or out-of-date things; in the second place they didn’t say them very grammatically; in the third place “everybody knew” their days were numbered; in the fourth place the federal government, through various anti-poverty programs, was going to build a rival and more enduring political structure in the big cities; in the fifth place the federal government was going to “bypass” the states (and thus state party structures) and deal directly with urban problems; and in the sixth place, and perhaps most important, the party bosses were not very good when it came to dealing with blacks.

And they weren’t. A party is an aggregation of interests; a party leader is a man who maintains the aggregation. Men who build coalitions or maintain aggregations tend not to emphasize larger principles, especially those that will divide the coalition. Men who are good horse traders rarely clarify or advance the rule of law. Reasons one through five in the preceding paragraph might explain the decline in the political authority of party leaders; the sixth reason explains their decline in moral authority.



But where would new party leadership on matters of race come from? And what would it do? The central problem, apparent only in retrospect, was that if the party leaders seemed to lack the moral authority to deal with the black question, the Liberal Audience—an elitist group rooted in the upper middle class—lacked the knowledge. There were three sources of knowledge about blacks—census data, militant black spokesmen, and slum romanticism. A few first-hand studies existed, but not many. The economists, but few others, paid great attention to the census data. Militant blacks and slum romantics quickly found they could agree on rather little—blacks were beginning to object to whites who thought they “understood the Negro”—but on one principle they could agree: there was no “Negro problem,” there was only a “white problem.” It was not until the Kerner Commission that this doctrine received the imprimatur of a Presidential agency, but it was the operating doctrine long before it was set in type by the Government Printing Office.

To a great extent, this doctrine was an advance. It repudiated Southern racist notions of white supremacy; it forced on one’s consciousness the realization that race was a national responsibility; and it directed attention toward the need for a change in white attitudes and white practices without waiting for blacks to be “ready” for the change. The doctrine also conferred some political advantages in intra-party struggle: it was an explicit rejection of the old-line party leaders’ private views that Negroes were like any other ethnic group, except with less gumption, and should be treated accordingly.

But there were costs to this doctrine. One, relevant to the argument here, is that it became impossible to construct a political strategy that rested on finding what problems blacks and whites had in common. Politics, under the “white racism” doctrine, became a zero-sum game—anything blacks win, whites must lose, and vice versa. There are some problems like that, but there are others that are not. Crime is one.

The fact that blacks commit a disproportionate share of certain crimes (not by any means of all crimes) led those who spoke for or about blacks in the 1960’s either to deny the fact (“we all know crime statistics are inaccurate”), to explain it as the result of a discriminatory police system (“they pick on blacks”), or to argue that blacks are driven to it by poverty and segregation (“they can’t get a job legally so they must earn money illegally”). Now, there is some truth in all of these points, but only some; taken as a full account of the matter they are seriously inadequate. A different perspective on crime, one easily available to a person of reasonable sense who lived in the ghetto, was that no matter who was committing crimes, the victims were disproportionately blacks and whites in the inner city, that police protection was inadequate, and that more efficient (and fairer) deterrence and apprehension systems were immediate needs. Here, as with many social problems, it is necessary to deal with symptoms before one can deal with causes.



The transfer of moral and political authority from one segment of the party to another and the effort to provide vicarious leadership on the race issue, taken together with the question of peace, were enough to insure that not only would the political resources of the Liberal Audience be courted, but that its views would be taken seriously as well. But adding moral authority to political resources meant that the Liberal Audience became encapsulated—it acquired a sense of being self-sufficient, without need of any political infrastructure, capable of operating (it thought) a government based on talent defined as facility with ideas, and disdainful of traditional sources of Democratic votes (except for an idealized conception of blacks).

Encapsulation in turn facilitated a general philosophical shift in the nature of liberal opinion. Liberalism arose in the 19th century as a group of ideas opposed to despotic authority, and consisted chiefly of the rule of law, representative government, and civil liberties. To this came to be added an equally strong concern for advancing welfare and social amelioration. Both sets of ideas had essentially utilitarian justifications—society would be “better off” if government respected personal liberty and advanced social welfare. Since the advent of the New Deal, and especially since the Supreme Court began after 1936 to vote to support welfare measures, the procedural elements of the liberal creed have steadily been lost sight of or taken for granted. McCarthyism briefly called forth their reassertion, but that is now a generation past. The growing preoccupation with social welfare, and the apparent ease with which American society seemed to hold together and the democratic process seemed to work, made many liberals almost entirely result-oriented. Programs and ideas were to be judged by the extent to which they conferred benefits on particular groups of people. It was assumed, of course, that the law would be obeyed.

This shift changed the central tendency of liberalism from a commitment to certain ideas to the manifestation of “concern” or empathy for certain worthy others. There was little wrong and much that was generous and decent about this impulse, but it increasingly left liberals unprepared for the day when the law would no longer be obeyed and personal liberty no longer respected. Reverting to a defense of liberty and of constitutional processes might have been easy if the attack on the law had come from “unworthy” sources, but the attack in fact came from “worthy” ones—chiefly the young.

Empathy (though not outright approval) governed the liberal response to urban riots and campus disorders; rage governed its response to police misconduct and violence from construction workers. Instead of reasserting fundamental liberal principles—the right of free speech and free assembly and the obligation of all to obey the law in a democratic society—many liberals tended to call for dealing with youthful disorders by “eliminating the causes” and hard-hat or police disorders by “enforcing the law.” There is nothing wrong with taking sides in political issues, but there is something wrong with allowing essential principles to be so far lost sight of that these issues are exploited to the detriment of all concerned.

It is my view, and I think the view of many, that the campus unrest issue should not have become a political issue. When government, as in this case, can do almost nothing about a problem without destroying the institutions it seeks to protect, it should resist having the problem placed on its agenda. For the internal affairs of voluntary associations to become the subject of political debate and action would be to weaken further the distinction between what is public and what is private that is essential to a liberal society. Yet for the matter to stay off the agenda it is necessary that it be neutralized as an issue, and this requires the early and firm assertion by all parties of agreed-upon principles and, on the part of the universities, their consistent application. The American public might not have been mollified if university authorities had reasserted their commitment to free discussion and their determination to use their powers of exclusion to protect free inquiry from the tyranny of minority acts of coercion and harassment, but at least such commitments would have made it easier to repudiate politicians who sought to exploit the campus issue for partisan and personal advantage.

Essentially, liberalism is in part a notion of how government should legitimately proceed. If liberals abandon that entirely in favor of choosing sides over who should benefit from government, then they lose their moral authority in the nation as a whole, even though they temporarily may increase their political ascendancy in one party.




The Liberal Audience is frequently torn asunder by the most bitter internal divisions. Members in good standing were barely speaking to each other over whether or not Robert F. Kennedy should run for the New York Senate seat then held by Kenneth Keating; they were later divided into two openly warring camps over the competing claims of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy for the Presidential nomination; in 1970 they divided again over Goodell versus Ottinger. (The Liberal Audience is not identical with what is sometimes called the New Politics; New Politicians are only one of its wings.) But whatever the differences, between elections, national leaders and would-be leaders of the Democratic party are heavily affected by their desire to win the support of that Audience and the Audience itself is under heavy pressure to award support on the basis of what its “Left”-most branches believe.

It is not hard to see why the Left edge of the Liberal Audience should exercise disproportionate influence. Partly it is simply a case of the most committed being willing to work harder. But more importantly it is a matter of the Left, within the Audience, seeming to have moral superiority. It was the Left, after all, that was calling for an end to the war at a time when the more established, in-and-out-of-government Audience members were merely calling for an end to the bombing of North Vietnam. After Cambodia, the Establishment types decided, with great embarrassment, that they, too, wanted all the way out of Vietnam. The Left then seemed to have been correct all along.

Above all, the Left is committed to change, innovation, and the redistribution of authority and resources; responding to the Social Issue, on the other hand, seems to require one to favor order and stability. This placed the non-Left members of the Audience at a hopeless disadvantage. How could they appear to favor cops and college presidents? That was not in fact the only alternative, but when a man feels himself at a moral disadvantage, his capacity to think clearly is seriously attenuated. Never mind that anti-poverty programs won’t work as long as crime and heroin addiction are ravaging the ghetto; never mind that liberalism itself springs in no small measure from those universities victimized by a small group of persons practicing totalitarian politics; never mind that a cornerstone of liberalism—freedom of expression—was in genuine jeopardy, not at street-corner soap boxes but in the classroom itself. Never mind, in short, that there was something worth conserving.

Lyndon Johnson never had a chance with this Audience and increasingly (to his deep frustration) neither did Hubert Humphrey. The reasons for this are many, not the least of which were manner and style. But in the late 1960’s, unlike the late 1950’s, the Liberal Audience came to assign reputations (again, I stress, more or less spontaneously; there really aren’t any Chief Image-Makers in this group) on the basis of one or two overriding issues—race and war. It was no longer enough to be personable, slightly intellectual, and vaguely liberal; it was essential that one identify with the new civil-rights movement and with a skeptical posture on Vietnam. Almost any previous transgression or present occupation could be forgiven a person who was “right” on these matters. Prior service as an employee of Senator Joseph McCarthy could be overlooked if one now struggled effectively against Vietnam. Holding office in the Johnson administration could be tolerated if by public hint or private disclaimer one showed oneself unhappy, restless, or doubting.

Given the importance they attached to these issues, for the persons who allocate reputations among Democrats to behave in this manner was both rational and proper. Given, on the other hand, a wish to win the Presidency, the behavior, while laudatory, was irrational.

The last point requires some evidence. After all, did not Eugene McCarthy, whose posture on the war was “correct,” beat President Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, and beat him on the war issue? The answer to both questions is “no.” The Scammon and Wattenberg review of 1968 primaries is an especially useful feature of their book. The President won the preference primary though his name was not on the ballot and McCarthy’s was. Furthermore, a poll showed that three out of five McCarthy voters in New Hampshire thought the Johnson administration was not “hawkish” enough on Vietnam. Wisconsin was a different story—McCarthy beat Johnson in a head-on contest with both names on the ballot. How much of his victory was on the war issue and how much on other issues is unclear (the voters in Madison, Wisconsin, in that election defeated an anti-war referendum issue at the same time as they were going heavily for McCarthy), and how representative of the nation Wisconsin may be is questionable (a Gallup Poll showed, at the time of the primary, Johnson preferred to McCarthy among Democratic voters in the nation as a whole, 59 per cent to 29 per cent).

But whatever the political, as opposed to moral, value of an anti-war position, it is hard to imagine anyone winning a nomination and running a Presidential campaign on that issue alone. And yet no active and imaginative concern for any other issue, excepting poverty/race, emerged. The crime issue in particular was either ignored or rejected—partly because for much of the Liberal Audience “crime” was a synonym for anti-black feelings, partly because it was Barry Gold-water who had injected “crime in the streets” into the political dialogue, and partly because the behavior of the Chicago police at the Democratic convention made it impossible for anyone to retain his standing with the Liberal Audience if his statements about the police in general were anything but critical.

But on both substantive and tactical grounds, these reasons for downplaying the issue were inadequate. Tactically, some affirmative and constructive response had to be made to those voters, constituting not only a clear majority of the national electorate but even a clear majority of the “dove” vote, who thought the police, not the students, were right. As the University of Michigan Survey Research Center has shown, 70 per cent of all white voters with a clearly “dove” position on Vietnam in 1968 denied that the Chicago police used too much force and 40 per cent thought they had used too little. Only 12 per cent of the clearly dove voters in 1968 voiced extreme sympathy for “Vietnam war protesters,” and they were, predictably, the very young, college-educated, urban voters.



If one grants that tactically a strong position on crime and disorder was expedient, was there any such position to be taken that was reasonable, morally defensible, and coherent? Or was the only position to take one that was blindly “pro-cop” and that played on sentiments of vengeance and repression? I think there was such a position, defensible by liberal standards, that would have addressed predatory crime, urban violence, and campus disorder; at the time, I found few people who agreed with me. Even to speak of those things, to say nothing of speaking of them critically, was to “turn Right,” to be a “backlasher,” to “go after the Wallace vote,” and so on. It almost literally became a mark of one’s acceptability as a liberal that one would have nothing to do with any of these issues except to say that the “only” cure for rioting and crime was to “solve the underlying problems of poverty and racism” and the “only” way to prevent campus disorder was to “end the war.” Such a view as this was not only politically disastrous, it was simply wrong.

This is not the place to state in any detail what a responsible position could have been, but some essential elements can be outlined. With respect to crime, a liberal position would have rested on the following assertions which I believe are accurate: First, the rise in the rate of predatory crime—especially “street crime”—has been real and dramatic and is neither a statistical artifact nor an FBI public-relations stunt; second, blacks and whites alike are the victims of these crimes (blacks more than whites), and thus blacks and whites alike have a common interest in their control; third, the increase came concurrently with a general rise in the standard of living and thus cannot be explained by worsening social conditions; fourth, though continued improvements in prosperity and in ending discrimination may ultimately be the best remedies for crime, in the short term (anything less than the next generation or two) society’s efforts must be aimed at improving the criminal justice system as a mechanism for just and effective social control; fifth, any such improvements must focus as much on the criminal courts and the correctional system as on the police because these institutions are failing to deal with persons already identified as criminal repeaters; and sixth, there must be a massive effort to cut off the flow of heroin into this country and to extend the use of chemical alternatives to heroin addiction.

To some readers, these points will seem self-evident. For their benefit let me recount what I have typically heard as the alternative, “liberal” position: The rise in crime is illusory or exaggerated; whites are using the crime issue as a way of expressing racist sentiments; if there is a real increase in crime, only remedying the underlying social causes with bigger expenditures on poverty programs will make any real difference; the overriding need in dealing with the criminal justice system is to make it fairer, not to make it more effective; and much so-called “crime” would be eliminated if we did not “over-criminalize” behavior by making public intoxication and the sale of marijuana illegal.

I think it can be shown that each one of those propositions is either factually wrong or seriously misleading. And I think there can be no doubt that by taking those positions liberals have abdicated to the Right. What should have been a strong liberal position (“we must make all persons free from both the fear of violence and the fear of want”) became instead a conservative position (“we must stamp out crime and deviant behavior by whatever means necessary”). In 1964 the Republicans gingerly and unsystematically spoke of “crime in the streets,” but at that time they seemed to mean black riots (a serious but transient problem, already much reduced in importance) as much or more than individual predatory crime. By 1970, the Republicans, in the person of Vice President Agnew, virtually owned the issue. Having acquired title, however, they have generally confined themselves to making campaign hay out of it with rather little substantively to show for their concern except a rhetorical preoccuption with retaining the death penalty (a barbaric practice, utterly unrelated to the deterrence of most predatory crime) and a good deal of name-calling. Indeed, I suspect the Vice President, because of the default of liberal Democrats and his own oratorical skill, may have led the Republicans themselves into a blind alley, making a divisive issue out of what could be, if properly handled, a unifying one. The Democrats, having abandoned the Center in the 1960’s, have encouraged a Vice President who didn’t recognize the Center when he saw it.



Because of this, members of the Liberal Audience (though no longer so many liberal politicians) had a facile argument for resisting a serious position on crime. Joseph Kraft, in a recent issue of New York magazine, implied it would be unthinkable and said it would be unnecessary for liberal Democrats to try to “out-Agnew Agnew.” To Kraft—the man who put the term “Middle America” into our vocabulary—“the disorder issue can be skirted or muted by personal appeal and stress on local needs such as pollution or housing.” Liberal Democrats must rest their hopes on finding glamorous candidates whose style and charm will make it possible to “skirt or mute” the issues, except pollution (which is a non-issue, since no one is in favor of pollution) and housing (where the records of Republican and Democratic administrations are virtually indistinguishable). To say that charm and motherhood issues are the only alternatives to trying to “out-Agnew Agnew” is to misunderstand, fundamentally and tragically, both the needs and the mood of the electorate. Kraft must have forgotten what happened only a year ago to the most charming and appealing candidate in the most liberal city in America—John V. Lindsay.

In fairness to Kraft and others who think that the Social Issue can be downplayed, congressional and senatorial candidates may often be able to skirt or mute it. Voters know that the Congress doesn’t have much to do with local systems of criminal justice, and in any case the level of popular information about what a congressional candidate says, as opposed to what he sounds and looks like, is not very high. Furthermore, there are other popular concerns—unemployment, inflation, taxes. Mayors and Presidents, on the other hand, have less freedom of action—the former because they are supposed to take charge of urban problems, the latter because they are supposed to symbolize and articulate the deepest and most pressing concerns of citizens no matter what the actual locus of those concerns. To act otherwise—to concede the Social Issue to Agnew—is to practice the politics of illusion.

Things are changing, however. When illusion impedes the realization of ambitions, it is the former, not the latter, that is abandoned. Hubert Humphrey, to the consternation of Kraft, made crime a major issue in winning the Minnesota primary. Five years after the issue surfaced, liberal candidates in most 1970 races seemed to take crime seriously. New York City candidates outdid each other in their expressions of concern over narcotics. Enough expensive midtown Manhattan apartments have been burglarized of late to reduce the tendency of their occupants to dismiss talk of crime as mere “backlash.” Indeed, the same issue of New York containing Kraft’s professions of dislike for going “hard” on law and order had, as its cover story, an article entitled “A Nervous New Yorker’s Guide to Safety Devices,” offering a careful evaluation of the cost and effectiveness of various gadgets for “home defense” against burglary.

Reality has a way of intruding. But only part way. The upper-middle classes are themselves touched by the issue and their candidates are now responding to it, but only, one suspects, as an inconvenience to be overcome. The Liberal Audience, after all, can protect itself very easily—move to the suburbs, or buy a $900 Detectron System, featuring a “radar sensor and perimeter control, incredibly sensitive and effective.” But most blacks in Harlem cannot move to the suburbs and most whites in Queens cannot afford the Detectron System. Self-interest overcomes ideology only when people have no other alternative.

The decline of illusion is not the same thing as the rise of commitment. Taking crime seriously is desirable and, increasingly, that is happening. Defusing crime as an ideological issue is helpful. But giving to the courts and the correctional system the attention, and to their improvement the priority, necessary for major changes to occur is not yet forthcoming. When, for example, delays in the criminal courts are attended to with the same sense of drama and outrage that can be aroused by rats in a tenement, we will be getting the beginnings of real commitment.


About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.