The Corner

Law & the Courts

A Few Thoughts on an Hour of Peril

There are so many angles to the past few days’ anguish over the shootings in Baton Rouge, in Minnesota, and in Dallas. Many of them deserve a lot more detailed expansion, but allow me a few related big-picture observations:

‐The absolute worst thing that can happen in this climate is the default response, not just of a lot of partisans on Twitter, but of people like Donald Trump and Barack Obama: falling back on pre-existing resentments, agendas, and canned talking points. There are absolutely some specific parts of the debates we’re having where I firmly believe that the Right is in the right and the Left is in the wrong. But circling the wagons around our areas of longest-standing and most intractable disagreement is a way to inflame passions, cheapen deaths to the point where they’re just political props, and ensure that absolutely nothing of any concrete benefit gets changed. We should be looking instead at less sexy but more practical agenda items like the reforms in some places to have all investigations and prosecutions of police handled at the state rather than local or federal levels.

‐There are multiple causes for the current angry mood afoot in the country right now, of which our law enforcement debates are just one subset. One is that our political class has lost the ability to find and agree on common ground that does exist, even in the presence of those intractable disagreements – something that the two parties in DC did plenty of before 2009, and that they still do in many state capitols (though fewer than in the past). Another is that the public has figured this out, and grown accordingly cynical about the system’s responsiveness to anyone but a narrow center-left elite that stretches politically and demographically no further than from Mike Bloomberg to Hillary Clinton. Trump and Sanders and the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter and Kim Davis and Cliven Bundy are all, despite their fundamentally different complaints, expressing the same frustration at the system’s lack of responsiveness and accountability outside that narrow sphere. It’s a chicken and egg problem, since both voters and politicians feed off each others’ tribalisms, and it breeds cynicism.

‐On the Right, tribalism manifests itself as a failure to admit that the cops can be in the wrong sometimes; that in a big country, “sometimes” can add up to a lot of individual incidents; and that these tend to fall disproportionately on African-Americans. Moreover, in a big country there are a lot of different police forces (big city and small town, mostly-white to mostly black, etc.), and not all of them function the same. Leon Wolf has some bracing things to say over at RedState, and you don’t have to agree with every word for it to be worth a read. My dad, who spent 30 years on the NYPD, used to tell us that “the NYPD is 25,000 of the best men you’ll ever meet…but there are 35,000 cops.” But he would also remind us that the police force was, when push came to shove, the biggest gang in town. If forced to fight, the cops will close ranks because that’s what their training teaches them to do in order to trust each other. Most cops do not want to be put to that extremity. 

‐On the Left, there are two common problems: one is a tendency to insist on squeezing every individual incident into the same ideological preconceptions (the mirror image of the cops-can-do-no-wrong viewpoint), which fires up activists while hardening opposition when normal, sane people notice that the facts of cases like the Michael Brown case in Ferguson frequently end up having facts that are quite different from the original first-48-hours media narrative. But the broader problem, in terms of constructive solutions, is that a lot of people on the Left are still sore about the law enforcement revolution of the early/mid 1990s – “Broken Windows” policing, expanded stop-and-frisk, longer prison sentences. In fact, the way forward if the Left wants real policy change is to convince the Right that this is not about relitigating those old debates and bringing back 1991’s crime rates, but rather about adjusting to the fact that we’ve solved many of yesterday’s problems and are ready to apply the lessons of the intervening quarter century to fix tomorrow’s. If the Left is serious about accountability for misbehaving cops, that is where it should focus its attention rather than reviving decades-old failed “cops are all part of a racist system” rhetoric. And if we really want to change the behavior of cops before the fact, it helps to approach them with some empathy for their point of view, which much of the Black Lives Matter type rhetoric fails utterly to do.

‐Likewise, if there’s one crucial piece of advice I would offer for Republicans at every level of government who dream of reaching out to the black community (a task made much more difficult by the Trump nomination), it is this: find common policy ground and get it done, and don’t sweat the fact that it won’t yield benefits at the ballot box any time soon. African-Americans mistrust Republicans in much the way white Southerners did a century ago: not just on issues but at a fundamental tribalist level of “they’re against us.” It took decades and the birth of new generations to change that in the South, a process that started in the late 1920s and wasn’t really completed until about 2010. But in the interim, Republicans often worked with white Southern Democrats on areas of mutual agreement (from national security to taxes to labor law to religious issues). Those decades of bridge-building eventually paid dividends once white Southern Democrats got disenchanted with their own party, but in the interim they broke down barriers of mistrust and created issue alliances that gave Republicans agenda-passing power beyond their own numbers (the most conspicuous example being the Phil Gramm-led House Democrats who backed the Reagan agenda in 1981-82). Besides which, it’s the right thing to do. 


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