Commentary, National Commentary

Crime: Red Delusions About Purple Reality

By Paul Krugman of the New York Times

During last week’s Oklahoma gubernatorial debate Joy Hofmeister, the surprisingly competitive Democratic candidate, addressed Kevin Stitt, the Republican incumbent, who — like many in his party — is running as a champion of law and order.

“The fact is the rates of violent crime in Oklahoma are higher under your watch than New York and California,” she declared.

Stitt responded by laughing, and turned to the audience: “Oklahomans, do you believe we have higher crime than New York or California?”

But Hofmeister was completely correct. In fact, when it comes to homicide, the most reliably measured form of violent crime, it isn’t even close: In 2020 Oklahoma’s murder rate was almost 50% higher than California’s, almost double New York’s, and this ranking probably hasn’t changed.

Was Stitt unaware of this fact? Or was he just counting on his audience’s ignorance? If it was the latter, he may, alas, have made the right call. Public perceptions about crime are often at odds with reality. And in this election year Republicans are trying to exploit one of the biggest misperceptions: that crime is a big-city, blue-state problem.

Americans aren’t wrong to be concerned about crime. Nationwide, violent crime rose substantially in 2020; we don’t have complete data yet, but murders appear to have risen further in 2021, although they seem to be declining again.

Nobody knows for sure what caused the surge — just as nobody knows for sure what caused the epic decline in crime from 1990 to the mid-2010s, about which more shortly. But given the timing, the social and psychological effects of the pandemic are the most likely culprit, with a possible secondary role for the damage to police-community relations caused by the murder of George Floyd.

While the crime surge was real, however, the perception that it was all about big cities run by Democrats is false. This was a purple crime wave, with murder rates rising at roughly the same rate in Trump-voting red states and Biden-voting blue states. Homicides rose sharply in both urban and rural areas. And if we look at levels rather than rates of change, both homicides and violent crime as a whole are generally higher in red states.

So why do so many people believe otherwise? Before we get to politically motivated disinformation, let’s talk about some other factors that might have skewed perceptions.

One factor is visibility. As Bloomberg’s Justin Fox has pointed out, New York City is one of the safest places in America — but you’re more likely to see a crime, or know someone who has seen a crime, than elsewhere because the city has vastly higher population density than anyplace else, meaning that there are often many witnesses around when something bad happens.

Another factor may be the human tendency to believe stories that confirm our preconceptions. Many people feel instinctively that getting tough on criminals is an effective anti-crime strategy, so they’re inclined to assume that places that are less tough — for example, those that don’t prosecute some nonviolent offenses — must suffer higher crime as a result. This doesn’t appear to be true, but you can see why people might believe it.

Such misconceptions are made easier by the long-running disconnect between the reality of crime and public perceptions. Violent crime halved between 1991 and 2014, yet for almost that entire period a large majority of Americans told pollsters that crime was rising.

However, only a minority believed that it was rising in their own area. This tendency to believe that crime is terrible, but mostly someplace else, was confirmed by an August poll showing a huge gap between the number of Americans who consider violent crime a serious problem nationally and the much smaller number who see it as a serious problem where they live.

Which brings us to the efforts by right-wing media and Republicans to weaponize crime as an issue in the midterms — efforts that one has to admit are proving effective, even though the breadth of the crime wave, more or less equally affecting red and blue states, rural and urban areas and so on suggests that it’s nobody’s fault.

It’s possible that these efforts would have gained traction no matter what Democrats did. It’s also true, however, that too few Democrats have responded effectively.

In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul was late to the party, apparently realizing only a few days ago that crime was a major issue she needed to address. On the other hand, Eric Adams, New York City’s mayor, has seemed to feed fearmongering, declaring that he had “never seen crime at this level,” an assertion contradicted by his own Police Department’s data. Even after the 2020-21 surge, serious crime in New York remained far below its 1990 peak, and in fact was still lower than it was when Rudy Giuliani was mayor.

I’m not a politician, but this doesn’t seem as if it should be hard. Why not acknowledge the validity of concerns over the recent crime surge, while also pointing out that right-wingers who talk tough on crime don’t seem to be any good at actually keeping crime low?