Surging crime rates and social disorder have become critical issues for voters in America, with its midterm congressional elections on the way in November. In California earlier this month, the former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission and longtime Republican Rick Caruso made it through his overwhelmingly Democratic city’s mayoral primary, advancing to the general election this fall, on a platform of clamping down on crime—while more than 55 percent of voters in San Francisco recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin, largely for failing to address the crime and public disorder related to homelessness, mental illness, and poverty in their city. With the U.S. homicide rate having jumped during the pandemic, elevating crime as a national political issue again, President Joe Biden says the California results demonstrate that Americans want higher spending on police resources and training. But crime and disorder represent tough challenges for his Democratic Party, many of whose officials adopted the political language of the Defund the Police movement after a Minneapolis patrolman murdered George Floyd in 2020. Republicans are meanwhile looking to take advantage of those challenges, blaming their opponents for “carnage” in the cities they control. Where is this all going?

Lisa L. Miller is a professor of political science at Rutgers University and the author of two books on the politics of crime. Back in February, with American crime rates similar to where they are now, Miller explained that crime is a “first-order political problem when it’s rising.” High crime rates put the Democrats in a politically “riskier position,” she said then, because they hadn’t articulated “a clear and compelling message that grapples with serious violence and embraces serious reform.” As she sees it today, most Democratic officials have acknowledged the problem, and there’s a growing recognition that the rhetoric of Defund the Police could be damaging in the midterms, while Republicans are certain to make rising crime a major part of their agenda this year, as they have over decades. American voters’ decisions, Miller says, are usually influenced by escalating crime where they live—and they’ll tend to punish any candidate who pretends it’s not happening. The candidates most likely to succeed are those who call for both more policing and enhanced programs to address the social causes of violent crime. But for now, Miller says, it’s unclear to what extent U.S. voters will be preoccupied with high crime rates come November’s elections, because it’s unclear whether those rates will decline—or what other developments in American life might end up making them less decisive.


Michael Bluhm: How do you see the idea of rising violence and disorder affecting U.S. public opinion?

Lisa L. Miller: I don’t see any indication that Americans are any less concerned about these issues now than they were a few months ago. The United States is an exceptionally violent country, relative to other affluent, long-standing democracies, so rises in other kinds of social disorder can make people here anxious about the potential for more violence. They certainly distinguish between violence and non-violence—Well, it’s only burglary that’s going up—but when you live in a high-violence society, you can be forgiven for getting anxious about noticeable spikes in all kinds of criminal activity and disorder.

Voters in the U.S. notice when crime is on the rise. But there is a distinction between their generalized disconnect about national crime levels—which they tend to think is always going up, regardless of the data—and the way they’ve historically tended to hold politicians accountable for rising crime near them. American voters may say, Crime is fine in my neighborhood, but it’s skyrocketing elsewhere. Yet if it’s not rising in their neighborhood, they’re not likely to punish anyone electorally for the appearance of rising crime broadly. When it’s in their immediate environment, however, then voters are more likely to act.

Bluhm: How do you see them acting now?

Miller: Violent crime is certainly affecting some local politics. Voters in America tend to associate mayors, district attorneys, and police chiefs with the day-to-day response to crime. We’re seeing that in San Francisco and in some challenges to mayors and district attorneys elsewhere. In New York, for instance, we’ve heard tougher rhetoric from Democrats than we have over the past decade. It’s an important issue locally—and one that local politicians avoid at their peril.

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