Democrats Find Themselves Navigating the Politics of Fear

The most thought-provoking newspaper stories often come out on Sundays. My guess as to why: More people have time to read them on a lazy Sunday. This Sunday’s Washington Post and New York Times had quite a few of them, and there was a theme: fear and public safety.

Consider the increase in homicide in big cities. Many urban areas are seeing a spike for the second year in a row.

The public is noticing it, too. One Washington Post column cited a recent Navigator survey conducted for a group of liberal labor groups and individuals involved in Democratic politics and policy. Three in five registered voters in its national sample said they believe that the country is in crisis—72 percent of Republicans, 60 percent of independents, and 53 percent of Democrats. When respondents were given a list of 14 different possibilities and asked which ones they considered a major crisis, the top issue was violent crime, with 54 percent. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans said so, as did 52 percent of independents and Democrats. This was 3 points higher than the coronavirus pandemic and well above a whole host of Democratic priorities, including China, climate change, voting, joblessness, and infrastructure, as well as “cancel culture.”

Earlier this month, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found “concern over crime has reached the highest point in four years amid a spike in killings in big cities and an uptick in violent crime.”

second Post story, posted on the front page, explored how the share of gun ownership increased from 32 to 39 percent last year, with 40 percent of the sales going to first-time gun owners, according to one study. The most telling examples were people who had previously viewed gun ownership negatively but now, plagued by fear, had changed their minds.

The headline in Trip Gabriel’s New York Times front-pager on Sunday read: “Biden’s Agenda Rests on Appeal in the Suburbs.” But a bit farther down, you can read how Republicans are also going to war for suburban votes. The party is painting the six-month old Biden administration as a failure, one that has lost control of the Southwestern border, is presiding over soaring crime rates and rising prices and is on the wrong side of a culture clash over how schools teach the history of racism in America.”

To be clear, President Biden has been talking a lot about getting crime under control, but from elsewhere in the party, it has been like the sound of one hand clapping. While few (if any) responsible Democratic elected officials have actually proposed “defunding the police,” community activists and very progressive Democrats found their words made for great news stories—especially by conservative media.

Just as rivers have changed direction, last fall we saw an election change direction in the last month. Talk of a Democratic wave seemed to trigger a counter-movement, attributed by some to the Left’s calls to defund the police, abolish ICE, decriminalize immigration, enact Medicare-for-all, and pack the Supreme Court, to name just a few.

There does seem to be an escalation in fear among Americans of all political stripes and leanings, some of it driven by journalistic sensationalism but a lot more stoked by political arsonists who fan the flames with hyperbole and apocalyptic predictions. They pretend that every problem, every debate is an existential threat to democracy and our way of life.

As Biden tries to navigate rising crime, he and his team are clearly mindful of how toxic his party’s most extreme voices are to swing voters. Despite his efforts to create a lot of distance from that movement, there is a certain guilt by association that’s amplified very effectively by his GOP and conservative critics.

Many Democrats—including Biden at his press conference on crime last month—point to their efforts to enact tougher gun laws. But voters are savvy enough to know that new regulations on guns aren’t likely to get through Congress. Until then, they want to know: What happens? What else can you do to keep me safe? Democrats’ majority may depend on their answer.

This article was originally published by the National Journal on July 13, 2021.