What progressives get right — and wrong

Progressive overreach on policing has contributed to a surge in homicides, but Republicans share the blame as well.

PART THREE OF A THREE-PART SERIES. TO READ PART ONE, CLICK HERE. TO READ PART TWO, CLICK HERE.

Picking up where we left off, while American voters tend to lean more to the left than to the right, they don’t necessarily lean to the far-left — and this is where progressives are in danger of overplaying their hand.

Because for all the talk of political polarization, America is still a centrist country, and the backlash to “woke” progressive policies is growing among centrists — especially when it comes to calls to defund the police that emerged after the killing of George Floyd.

To be clear, the majority of Black Lives Matter protesters were calling for reforms, not a wholesale dismantling of police.

But enough activists turned it into a rallying cry that Republicans were able to latch onto it as a convenient cudgel, resorting to their Trumpian playbook of exploiting cultural divisions to divert from the fact that they no longer offer ideas to solve tough problems.

Most protesters didn’t want to abolish the police; they wanted sensible reforms, such as shifting some law enforcement duties to social workers who are better-equipped to deal with issues such as mental illness and homelessness.

But the pendulum (as it often does during a crisis) swung too far.

Liberals failed to appreciate the anti-police sentiment that swept the country and contributed to the sharp uptick in homicides in U.S. cities.

The reasons behind this crime surge are multifaceted — inequality exacerbated by the pandemic, backlogged courts, the proliferation of guns, criminal justice reforms that take time to pan out. But overlooking the important role police play is a Democratic blindspot perpetuated by progressives.

The Need for Police

Communities need both police reforms and police officers. They’re not mutually exclusive.

Money in police budgets can be redirected toward better training or body cameras (which are still not widespread). Or, yes, some of the funds can be reallocated to social services.

But gutting entire police departments produces predictable results: a dramatic rise in crime. We’ve seen this in Minneapolis, where, after Floyd was killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck, homicides skyrocketed as officers quit in droves.

There is no excuse for police resisting reforms that weed out murderers like Derek Chauvin, but many of these officers quit or retired early because of the hostility they faced (see this excellent article in The New York Times for more on the trend.) Meanwhile, with morale so low, new recruits are scarce.

The combination is deadly. Because of staffing shortages, officers in some cities are struggling to respond to calls. Because of mistrust after Floyd’s killing, officers can no longer do the kind of community outreach that is known to reduce crime — and is all the more important because the pandemic shut down many youth intervention programs.

We’ve seen this before — in Baltimore, which in the mid-2000s had been at the forefront of policies that were significantly reducing crime. The city’s multipronged strategy included aggressive but targeted policing of criminal hotspots, additional resources for officers but also mechanisms to hold them accountable.

Homicides plummeted, investment surged and the approach showed that you can be tough on crime without mass incarceration.

But after Freddie Gray died in police custody in Baltimore, sparking violent protests in 2015, officials threw out the strategy altogether, instead of improving on it. The result: Baltimore is once again a national epicenter of murder. (For anyone trying to understand the nuances of police reform, “The Tragedy of Baltimore” by Alec MacGillis is a must-read.)

Baltimore illustrates the dangers of focusing exclusively on police excesses while overlooking the thousands of non-police-related shootings that take place across the country each week.

Here in the D.C. area, there were headlines about the recent shooting outside Nationals Park, the shooting death of a 6-year-old girl and a few other shootings because the bullets struck five or more people.

What you often don’t hear about are all the other gun deaths and injuries that have become the norm in the area — let alone the gunfire erupting in neighborhoods all over D.C., Maryland and Virginia every day. (As I was writing this, at least 20 to 30 shots rang out on D.C.’s 14th Street, a popular dining destination, hitting two people and sending diners scrambling for cover.)

Yet there is no mass outrage or protests in front of the White House when predominantly young Black men are shot and killed in street violence every day. These shootings receive scant media attention. The arrests that police make to bring justice to these victims also barely get a mention.

Nor do you hear about how the same people tend to be arrested over and over again (the Nats shooters were apparently known to police.) Rehabilitation programs in prisons are absolutely essential to reducing recidivism. But the harsh truth is that certain repeat offenders need to remain behind bars, or at least not be released so easily.

Democrats are gobsmacked that Trump can still attract so much support, even among moderates. But take a look at this fundraising ad from James Craig, Detroit’s former police chief and a Trump supporter:

When I came home to run the Detroit Police Department, it was in shambles. Morale, equipment – it all needed help. The response time to 911 calls was an hour, if you were lucky. 

I started with Colony Arms – the epicenter of crime in Detroit. I made it an example. We mounted an assault. Twenty to thirty arrests later, we cleaned it up. It showed that the police force was back in Detroit and that we never again would allow criminals to rule our city. 

The message may be overly simplistic, but it resonates with voters who have little sympathy for people who flagrantly break the law and hurt others. This is part of Trump’s appeal that Democrats need to acknowledge if they want to win: Voters want to feel safe and many think Republicans do a better job of that.

Part of this mentality stems from the perception that progressives paint criminals as the victims (of an unjust system), ignoring the actual victims — and the police trying to protect people from becoming victims.

The reality, of course, is far more nuanced, but as Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic consultant, told The Hill recently: Too many on the left “don’t understand that crime and disorder are unacceptable to the entire population. People will lie to pollsters and go into the voting booth and vote for the person they think is going to protect them.”

Indeed, poll after poll shows that while a majority of voters support police reforms, a majority do not support defunding the police.

And now, with homicides up about 25% nationwide, the pendulum has swung yet again, as Democrats call for more police funding and voters gravitate toward “law-and-order” candidates like New York’s Eric Adams.

President Biden has also gone out of his way to emphasize that “we need more policemen, not fewer policemen.”

This shift reflects a basic reality: Crime-prevention programs are critical, but (substantially) fewer cops means more crime, which often hurts the very communities that progressives are trying to help.

It’s no different than another truism: more guns mean (substantially) more gun violence.

The Need for Gun Control

On that point, Republicans bear significant responsibility for the country’s homicide rate — not only during the pandemic, but long before it.

Nowhere is Republican obstructionism and out-of-touchness more shameful than on gun control. The GOP refusal to even consider the most benign of reforms contributes to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans each year and the destruction of countless more lives.

The Republican mantra of “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” has made us a global laughingstock. Technically that’s true, but guns make it a whole lot easier to kill people. No other developed nation in the world even comes to close to our rate of gun violence. Are people in all these countries somehow less violent than us? Of course not. They’re simply not awash in guns like us.

By some estimates, America has 400 million guns in circulation (on par roughly with Yemen, a model of stability and peace). That means every grudge or argument can quickly become deadly. It also means mass shootings — as opposed mass stabbings — are much easier because people have ready access to semi-automatic guns whose sole purpose is to kill as many people as fast as possible.

It’s not rocket science: When assault-style weapons were banned in 1994, mass shootings plummeted. When the ban expired in 2004, they skyrocketed.

Most voters are aware of this.

Common-sense gun reforms such as universal background checks enjoy widespread public support (as in well over 80%), including among Republican gun owners. Yet the NRA, significantly diminished in the wake of financial scandals, still maintains an inexplicable stranglehold on Republican lawmakers.

These Republicans continue to push asinine arguments — the biggest being that gun control laws won’t do anything to prevent gun violence because it’s committed by criminals using illegal guns — not by responsible gun owners.

According to that logic, why not get rid of all laws that make robbery illegal? After all, people still commit robbery even though it’s illegal, so what’s the point of the laws?

Of course, any rational person will tell you that the point is deterrence and those laws do, in fact, deter plenty of people from robbing one another.

It’s true that tighter gun laws would not prevent all gun fatalities. But it would prevent some. Even if it’s “only” a few hundred lives saved each year, aren’t those lives worth it?

They sure as hell would be if they were your daughter, brother, mother or father.

And here we get to a reality that can be too un-PC to openly discuss: Many people in rural White America see gun violence as an inner city Black problem among gang members, drug dealers and other criminals. To a degree, they’re right. Inner cities suffer disproportionately from gun violence and, yes, many victims and perpetrators are involved in criminal activity.

But many are not. They are innocent bystanders working hard to earn a living but unable to live in safer neighborhoods.

Regardless, everyone is still a fellow American. So yes, while cities need to address the problem (and they are trying to), everyone needs to do their part to help reduce crime.

And here’s the thing: Helping involves almost no effort or sacrifice.

For example, universal background checks aren’t a hardship. In fact, why should people who go to gun shows not have to undergo any checks — when you as a responsible gun owner did?

Or why not give authorities an extra few days to run a background check if takes longer than the current three-day maximum? Is it really that hard to wait five days instead of three for your gun? That extra time could potentially stop a man with a domestic abuse record from getting a gun that would kill his wife.

And why has the NRA been able to continually block efforts to empower the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives Bureau to go after gun store owners who regularly flout the rules, allowing illegal guns to proliferate?

The argument that any kind of law is a slippery slope to the government taking away your guns is ludicrous (no, Uncle Sam is not going to knock on your door and start a civil war).

The other thing to remember is that gun violence is not an inner city problem. It happens in rural America, where suicides are also a major problem (and half of all gun deaths each year, roughly 15,000, are suicides).

One of the most impactful reforms would be to require guns to have biometric identification locks so that only the owner can fire them. This one change would not only slash crime by rendering guns that have fallen into mass circulation essentially useless, it would also prevent all-too-common household accidents among children playing with guns. But biometric locks won’t happen because they’d cut into the profits of already-profitable gun manufactures.

Sadly, if the slaughter of little children Sandy Hook couldn’t push through a single reform, nothing will.

Clearly, gun control is a personal passion of mine. It’s inexcusable for Republicans to stand back as guns needlessly to kill tens of thousands of Americans each year. Unfortunately, this obstructionism has become so ingrained, and we’ve become so numb to the violence, that gun control in the U.S. is a lost cause.

The Need to Support Biden’s Agenda

That is why supporting Biden’s economic agenda is all the more important for Democrats — because it represents one of the most serious efforts in years to tackle the pervasive poverty and inequality that feed crime.

We’ve come full circle back to progressives.

They’ll fight for the priorities, which is laudable. But will they sink Biden’s agenda if they don’t get everything they want?

If they’re smart, progressives will embrace both the hard and human infrastructure packages because the bills represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enact a transformative liberal agenda.

Even if the price of the $3.5 trillion social spending bill has to come down to win over moderates like Manchin (who’s said $2 trillion is his ceiling), so be it.

It would still contain policies that liberals have been clamoring for for years.

We’re talking universal prekindergarten; affordable college; cheaper prescription drugs; child tax credits; dental, vision and hearing coverage for seniors; paid family leave; a cleaner electrical grid; substantial incentives to combat climate change; not to mention jobs to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and expanded broadband access to close the digital divide.

While many of these programs might be temporary to keep costs down, if they prove politically popular, Republicans will find it hard to nix them (see: Obamacare).

And most of these policies are hugely popular among both Democrats and Republicans — and if voters begin to see the benefits before the 2022 midterms, Democrats could see the benefits at the polls.

It can be a winning hand if progressives play their cards right. That means pushing for what you want but also knowing when to pull back, with an eye on the bigger prize: historic victories for poor and working-class Americans.