I remember graphically (because I worked for him at the time) when Zell Miller, who (lest we forget) had an early reputation as a reasonably progressive “populist”, came out for a “Two Strikes and You’re Out” law during the run-up to his difficult 1994 re-election campaign as Georgia governor. True, the provision only applied to offenders convicted of violent crimes, but the gambit was typical of the tendency of many Democrats to adopt mandatory minimum schemes to avoid being outflanked on the right on the crime issue.
Ed is a seasoned political observer and his observation rings true. I would like to take it one step further: WHY was it frightening for liberal politicians to be viewed as soft on crime? The correct answer is not “because conservatives had fooled the public into worrying about crime” but that crime had been increasing for decades and the public were desperate for politicians to respond.
As Mark Kleiman has noted, the American left lost on the crime issue starting in the 1960s and 1970s because it stopped listening to the public (not unlike how the left later lost the public education issue). The extraordinary surge of crime that began in the 1960s caused enormous suffering. And when Americans are suffering, they get very angry when politicians tell them their suffering is no big deal (“Many neighborhoods are as safe as ever!”), or is really due to something else (“We don’t have a crime problem, we have a poverty problem!”), or that the public should apologize for being upset (“Complaining about crime is just coded racism”). Americans who feel unheard often express their anger by voting for some politician — any politician — who seems to be listening. And when it came to crime, for many years most of those politicians were conservative.
Liberals were in shock on crime policy for a long time afterwards. They had been talking amongst themselves when they should have been listening to people outside the bubble. California Republicans made the same mistake when they decided to go anti-immigrant in the 1980s. The Tea Party is committing the same blunder right now as they plan out where they will store all the roses the public will supposedly buy them if the federal government is shut down on October 1. Failure to listen isn’t a left or right thing. Rather, it’s a thoroughly human weakness about which political parties should be constantly vigilant.
Perhaps the dynamic of political parties not listening until the suffering public rebels is an unavoidable part of politics in a democratic republic. It’s healthy insofar as it puts power in the hands of the citizenry, but it’s malign in that it can led to the adoption of some destructive public policies. Given a choice between submitting meekly to a political party that tells them to STFU and a bad policy proposed by someone who seems to be listening, suffering voters will go for the bad policy most of the time. Perhaps the lesson for the political class is that if you want good public policy, respond to unhappy voters by taking the cotton out of your ears and putting it in your mouth. If you don’t, they will find someone else who will.