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Will History Rhyme Again?
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Will History Rhyme Again?

How crime and communism could transform American politics

This is the rare newsletter that’s going to start with a reading assignment. While you don’t have to read Jonah’s mid-week newsletter to understand what follows, it’s going to help. It’s about the political, economic, and cultural ramifications of America’s surging violent crime rate, and it’s spot-on. All too many progressives have forgotten there was a time when crime rates were so high that you were simply unelectable unless you ran as a “law and order” politician. 

I like the way Jonah puts it:

Crime—particularly violent crime—causes people to prioritize safety and security.  This is a fact of human nature, and an entirely justifiable one. Get on the wrong side of that priority, and you can’t get elected to do the other stuff you want to use government for. This is because, again, government exists to protect people from violence and murder before literally anything else.

His newsletter helped me crystalize a question that I’ve been increasingly pondering these last few weeks. Is history about to rhyme again?

I’m referring to Mark Twain’s famous declaration that “history never repeats itself but it rhymes.” This version of “rhyming” is a changing domestic and international landscape that may start to remind one more of 1980 than 2020. How does American politics change if emerging foreign threats and increasing domestic disorder start to create a version of the Cold War-era fears of crime at home and communism abroad?

Earlier this week I was talking to a thoughtful Republican friend my age, and he said his most basic conception of the Republican Party—going back to the 1980s—was that the GOP was “against the bad guys.” It was against criminals and communists. Democrats, however, couldn’t fully face the threat. 

His words resonated. I came of age as a conservative and a Republican in the mid-1980s, at a time when crime rates were soaring, the Soviet Union was an intimidating military superpower, and only the GOP seemed to treat both threats with the gravity they deserved. 

The prominence of those issues warped discussions of justice and compassion in ways that aren’t truly recognizable to those who didn’t live through the Cold War. As Jonah notes, high crime really hurts the poor. It devastates cities. In many ways, bringing crime under a degree of control is a prerequisite to effective governance and meaningful social reform. Crime rates were so high that total urban breakdown was a common theme of near-future dystopian cinema:

I also have a minor obsession with reminding people that the Cold War was a really big deal. The threat of war was always in the back of our minds. Immense numbers of troops faced off in Western Europe. The Soviet and American rivalry spanned the globe. 

Sometimes war felt imminent. I’ll never forget when the Soviet Union shot down KAL 007. I remember studying the balance of power between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. I remember when debates about the MX missile, IRBMS in Europe, and the B-1 Bomber could dominate American politics. I remember the shocked silence at my public school when The Day After aired on ABC. 

Soviet communism was a direct threat not just to the lives and liberty of the American people, it was a direct threat to western civilization itself. While there were undoubtedly gross excesses of Cold War zeal (see, for example, McCarthysim), there was a reason an ad like this—from Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign—resonated with the American people:

Just as we forget the sheer power of crime and communism to influence political debate, we forget the GOP’s extraordinary hammerlock on the presidency when those issues dominated American minds. Between 1968 and 1992, the Republican party lost exactly one presidential contest. The corruption of Watergate was but a speed bump for the GOP. It barely lost in 1976 and came roaring back in 1980. 

It took the end of the Soviet Union and the rise of a law and order Arkansas governor for Democrats to win back the White House. Interestingly, just as the Democratic Party was on its heels when crime and communism ascended, the Republican Party has faced its own identity crisis after they receded. Consider this: The Republican Party won five of the six presidential contests before the Warsaw Pact collapsed. It lost four of the next six contests (and won only one popular vote) after the Cold War triumph.

It also matters that the single popular vote victory correlated with the first election since 9/11, when the GOP was back—for a time—in its familiar posture of demonstrating strength in the face of a recognized, urgent foreign threat. 

Looking back, it’s obvious that the GOP never truly cemented a political identity after the end of the Cold War. It phased through Newt Gringrich’s Contract with America, George W. Bush’s pre-9/11 compassionate conservatism, his post-9/11 aggressive interventionism, the “constitutional conservatism” of the Tea Party, and the reactionary populism of the Trump right. Outside of its short-term commitment to one man, it still doesn’t know exactly what it is.

It’s not likely to know anytime soon. We’re not back in 1968 or 1980 yet. Crime rates are still far from the highs of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and China and Russia are powerful but not yet frightening. And we’re likely too polarized to see landslides like 1972 or 1984 ever again. 

But the trends are negative, and if the trends continue, the landscape will change. If crime comes back and international threats increase, the GOP could quickly find its footing on very familiar ground. We can’t forget rising crime is happening right alongside increased (and increasingly dangerous) great power competition. And if there truly is any long lasting geopolitical consequence of now-mainstream concern that coronavirus leaked from a Wuhan lab, it’s likely to manifest itself in increasing anger and mistrust of a secretive and deceptive Chinese regime. 

Don’t doubt for a second that smart progressives see the clear and present danger of high crime to their justice agenda. Here’s Ezra Klein previewing his most recent podcast, which asks if liberals have an answer to spiking violent crime:

Violent crime is a crisis on two levels. The first, and most direct, is the toll it takes on people and communities. The lost lives, the grieving families, the traumatized children, the families and businesses that flee, leaving inequality and joblessness for those who remain.

It’s also a political crisis: Violent crime can lead to more punitive, authoritarian and often racist policies, with consequences that shape communities decades later. In the 1970s and ’80s, the politics of crime drove the rise of mass incarceration and warrior policing, the political careers of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, the abandonment of inner cities. If these numbers keep rising, they could end any chance we have of building a new approach to safety, and possibly carry Donald Trump — or someone like him — back to the presidency in 2024.

And this week on there was bipartisan outrage at WWE star John Cena after he apologized—in Mandarin—to the people of China for referring to Taiwan as a country:

He was obviously attempting to preserve access to the Chinese market in advance of the release of F9, the latest movie in the Fast and Furious franchise. It was a dreadful moment. Across Twitter, conservatives and progressives alike tweeted “Taiwan is a country.” As I’ve written before, craven corporate capitulation to Chinese communists can unite left and right alike in revulsion and outrage. 

There exists an urgent moral and cultural necessity to combat rising crime. There similarly exists an urgent moral and strategic necessity to confront and contain Chinese expansionism and Russian militarism. If crime continues to rise and if foreign threats continue to emerge, there’s a clear path for the Republican Party to assume its (recent) historic role. The Democratic Party, however, has to reach back perhaps as far as John F. Kennedy before it can find the right kind of hawk. We never saw Bill Clinton confront a meaningful foreign threat. 

One of the perils of punditry and politics is that they are always contingent on multiple, complex contingencies that can intervene and completely reset political debate. We’ve been conducting debates about the future of both parties as if the salient political and cultural realities of the recent past—low crime, American military ascendancy—were permanent conditions. If either changes, the debate changes. If both change, the debate changes dramatically. 

So put a pin in this post. If present trends continue, and our streets and our world grow more dangerous, then the political realignment America experiences may be considerably different than the realignment most predicted even twelve short months ago. 

One more thing …

Sarah and I took Monday off, but we came back today with a truly action-packed pod. Come for the discussion of transcendental meditation in schools (yes, there’s a court case!) and stay while The Dispatch’s own Ryan Brown and Alec Dent discuss their culinary adventures with cicadas:

One last thing …

Ja Morant. 47 points. On the road. Against the team with the best record in basketball. It was a performance so glorious that it almost made me forget that the Grizzlies lost:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.