Left and right must reckon with American violence and rethink government’s role in reducing it.
When I give talks about my research on the politics of crime, I often ask whether anyone in the audience has ever met someone, even if only briefly, who they later learned had been murdered. In Europe, almost no hands go up and people look around the room as though they would be shocked if any did. In the U.S., typically half the hands in the room are raised.
Americans now are fretting that the “Great Crime Decline” they enjoyed over the last two decades is being reversed. Surging violence has already brought back a politics reminiscent of the post-1960s, when Republicans hammered Democrats as insufficiently devoted to law and order. But we should not romanticize the 2000s and 2010s. Violent crime was indeed lower than in the last three decades of the 20th century. But it was an era of peace only by American standards. The recent uptick in homicides and shootings has simply widened a consistently large gap in lethal violence between the United States and other affluent nations. The suffering falls most heavily on Black citizens, but Americans of all demographic groups face shockingly high rates of life-threatening violence, relative to our democratic peers.
In spite of this persistent bloodshed, powerful groups on both the left and the right in American politics stubbornly refuse to reckon seriously with the problem. On the left, a long-standing narrative persists that fear of violent crime is misplaced, and that policing, prosecutions, and incarceration should be severely curtailed or even abandoned. On the right, talk about violent crime arises when the issue can be exploited for political advantage. But in practice, Republican lawmakers often hamper efforts that could yield meaningful reductions in violence over the long term, particularly around gun control. Both of these positions make policy reform untenable.
American violence: High and pervasive
The United States is an outlier among developed democracies when it comes to lethal violence. As the figure below illustrates, the lowest rate of murder in the United States since World War II is higher than the highest rates of murder in Canada, Germany, Britain, and Spain. In fact, the U.S. far exceeds the murder rates in all of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea over the same time period. The gap between the United States and the rest is immense. Canada comes closest, with a peak in homicides at three per 100,000 residents, but it is dwarfed by the peak U.S. murder rate over the past 50 years, which was over 10 per 100,000.
Most other democracies have rates of homicide below two per 100,000, and some, such as the Netherlands, Japan, and Denmark, had peak homicide rates around one, roughly 10 times lower than that of the United States.
Though Americans of all demographic groups are exposed to violence at much higher rates than citizens of other democracies, national homicide trends hide cruel realities about the distribution of the bloodshed. Lethal violence is concentrated in areas marked by poverty, disadvantage, stress, social isolation, and decaying infrastructure. For example, the overall U.S. homicide rate in 2019 was 5.4 per 100,000. But in Mississippi and Louisiana, two of the most disadvantaged states in the country, it was roughly 15.
The risk of serious violent victimization is highest for Black Americans. In 2019 in Philadelphia, a city that is roughly 45 percent Black, more than 80 percent of homicide victims were African American. That same year, across the country, homicide was the leading cause of death for Black men between 15 and 44. For white men, it wasn’t even in the top three.
But let’s be clear: violence in the United States is not an African American problem. It is an American problem to which Black Americans are disproportionately exposed, much like poverty or economic precarity. While homicide victimization for whites in the U.S. is much lower than for Black and Latino Americans, whites are still murdered — overwhelmingly by other white Americans — at rates more than twice the average of European Union countries. Moreover, no other democracy experiences routine mass shootings, or suffers a comparable volume of homegrown, armed, far-right movements that commit more violence than foreign terrorists.
Solution aversion impedes policy reform
Despite these facts on the ground, too many people in positions of influence and authority on both the left and right do little to confront the problem of violence in their policy programs. The problem on the left, particularly at the national level, is refusing to take violence seriously. Some appear to be genuinely unaware of just how pervasive life-threatening violence is in the United States and how much it matters to people, even with the decline over the past 20 years. This view typically treats concerns about violence as largely a function of political exploitation, media hysteria, or white racism, rather than as a reaction to a serious and persistent social problem. That the issue is also ripe for manipulation does not change the underlying reality of high violence. Others focus on the fact that violent crime is lower than it was in the 1990s, as though people should stop worrying because the average homicide rate is only six per 100,000 instead of ten. At times, progressives seem more preoccupied with proving that crime isn’t as bad as Americans think it is than with pursuing policy proposals to fix it.
But, while Americans may not know data details or trends, on a visceral level they understand that the United States is a high-violence society. And because the baseline is already high, increases quickly raise the problem to a crisis level, in the same way that even a short recession can have devastating consequences for the millions of Americans living with economic precarity. Telling someone at relatively low risk of violent victimization that they are overreacting is like telling someone with a job that they have nothing to worry about when unemployment is rapidly rising. It is condescending, at best.
The recent spike in murders has led some to grudgingly acknowledge the political perils of ignoring violence. But violence is a serious social problem that should be addressed on its own terms, not just because it is politically risky to avoid it. Like poverty, inequality, and ill-health, violence causes suffering across the country and this suffering is borne disproportionately by lower-income people, and especially by Black Americans.
At the most extreme, some on the left argue that the modern U.S. criminal justice system is illegitimate and inextricable from systematic oppression. In this view, enforcement-centered crime control is, by definition, solely a tool of race and class subjugation, making any 21st century civil rights agenda inherently incompatible with policing, prosecution, and incarceration. These beliefs have policy implications, including most obviously a categorical rejection of using state coercion to deter crime and incapacitate criminals.
But what is the alternative right now? What is the progressive strategy — today — for addressing violent crime? Who should be charged with confronting people engaged in violence? For their apprehension, disarmament, or constraint? Should murders be investigated? By whom?
Some offer models from countries like Britain, France, and the Netherlands, where community mediators take on responsibility for dealing with low-level conflicts. Gazing wistfully across the Atlantic is a common strategy among reformers of the American criminal legal system but it is one that completely overlooks America’s unique violence problem. The murder rate in most of Europe in 2021 was roughly one per 100,000, or even lower. In the U.S. it was 6.9. And no European country (or any other democracy for that matter) has anything close to the U.S. rate of civilian firearm ownership.
Mental health counselors, violence interrupters, community-based groups, and other civilian partners can make a real difference, but in a country awash in guns, do we really expect social workers, volunteers, neighbors, family members, friends, or even unarmed police officers to confront people who could have firearms? Taking violence seriously means thinking through these hard questions. People want — indeed have the right — to demand that their government disarm and, if necessary, temporarily incapacitate people who are hurting them.
Calling out the criminal legal system as abusive, excessive, and damaging simply changes the subject, not the fact that Americans face unacceptable risks of life-threatening violence. The horrors of the criminal system are obviously a vital topic for discussion, but no more so than the private violence that shatters lives. In the U.S., taking violence seriously surely must include finding ways for the government to exercise force legitimately. As sociologist Patrick Sharkey has noted, any “reimagination” of public safety “must acknowledge that America’s overflowing supply of guns means that an armed response is sometimes required.”
If the problem on the left is refusing to take violence seriously, the problem on the right is a steadfast refusal to take government seriously; that is, the positive role that government can play in reducing violence. The modern Republican Party has not only consistently refused to invest in policies that might mitigate violent crime, it has ushered in an era of shocking government failure on gun violence. While there are a number of reasons for the high rates of violence in the United States, the most important is the easy availability of firearms. Yet all but a handful of lawmakers on the right in Congress reject sensible gun safety legislation, and some have aggressively sought to reverse the gun control laws already on the books.
Decades of attacks on government as “the problem not the solution,” a growing willingness to simply stymie action in Congress, and a policy agenda that is devoid of real ideas for reductions in violence leaves conservatives with few options other than the standard scapegoating of the poor and vulnerable. One is reminded of the old P.J. O’Rourke joke that Republicans get elected by saying government doesn’t work, and then they prove it.
Conservatives ostensibly care about both crime and individual liberty, but paradoxically, under the influence of a hard anti-statist ideology, the right has resisted building the kind of infrastructure that can reduce crime and rely less on the violent and coercive arm of the state. Any policy that invests in people — e.g., expanding health insurance, funding public schools, raising the minimum wage, building infrastructure (beyond highways), youth employment — is immediately rejected by all but a handful of pragmatists. What are Republicans afraid of? It can’t be expenditures per se, since both federal outlays and borrowing increase when they are in power. Many Republicans seem captured not only by corporate interests but also incentives to inflame racial resentments that activate hostility to policies that could boost the social and economic conditions of all Americans.
Just like those on the left whose anti-criminal legal system stance has no real solutions for today’s violence, the anti-government philosophy on the right is no philosophy at all. It leaves little room for creative crime control strategies. It is no wonder that, as Sharkey documented in his book Uneasy Peace, with rare exception, the dominant Republican crime agenda since Nixon has been a mix of disinvestment in social programs and cities along with aggressive policing and incarceration. Or, as Sharkey puts it, “the abandonment of poor urban neighborhoods and the punishment of their residents.”
For some on both the left and the right, then, solution aversion driven by ideological commitments rules out realistic and even promising strategies to reduce violence. But most ordinary Americans are more interested in policy solutions than in ideological agendas. They just want the killing to stop.
People at risk want “punishment plus”
Ironically, both left and right hold anti-statist views about violence and the criminal legal system — they just differ on which part of the state they want to promote and which they want to eliminate. But viable solutions to the violence problem require thinking more carefully and holistically about the role of government in modern societies.
Instead of beginning with the ideological preferences of elites on either side of the political spectrum, what if we took a bottom-up approach? What would violence reduction policy look like if we started with the perspectives of people who have to live with the greatest risk? What I have found, along with others, is that most people subscribe to what we call “punishment plus”: social and economic investments to reduce violence, common-sense firearms regulation, and more effective policing/criminal laws.
This approach is broadly popular across the political spectrum, but our elite politics often pits the “more law enforcement” strategy against the “more investment” strategy. Most people want better approaches to both.
The right focuses on the punishment part to the exclusion of social and economic investment and gun control. But their own constituents prefer more gun control, greater fairness in the application of criminal laws, and smart crime prevention strategies over the singularly punitive approach. Unfortunately, in the recent midterm elections, Republicans took the well-worn path of blaming the worst off and even making racist appeals. Their major policy proposal focused narrowly on increasing police funding. But if militarized, saturation policing was going to solve the high violence problem in the United States, it would have done so long ago. We need more than attack ad platitudes; we need a broader plan for both short- and long-term relief from violence.
A conservative reform movement emerged over the past two decades that is rightly focused on decarceration and more efficient and effective criminal legal institutions. But crime prevention requires more. Ironically, some core conservative ideas, like changing incentive structures to change behavior, have useful parallels in crime prevention. Even modest investments in the built environment — such as home repairs, renovating vacant lots, and planting more trees — have demonstrated violence-reduction effects.
Meanwhile, many progressives restrict the universe of acceptable policy options to only the “plus” parts of “punishment plus.” This essentially asks Americans to accept the violent deaths of their friends and neighbors until those long-term solutions take effect. Ironically, this position would have a particularly devastating impact on poor and minority populations, as violent crime ranks among the most pernicious of all social inequalities. As Michael Javen Fortner notes, African Americans hold complicated views on crime and criminal justice. While support for reform is high (as it is in the general population), the need for immediate relief from violence is as well. One recent study found that “the impact of U.S. violence on the life expectancy of socially marginalized people exceeds the life-expectancy impact on the full U.S. population of all causes of death except heart disease and cancer.”
Failing to address violence in the here and now not only abandons the most vulnerable, it also risks undermining long-term criminal justice reform goals and making it more difficult for crime prevention strategies, like economic development, to be implemented. As I illustrated in my most recent book, when left-of-center parties promise to fix violence by addressing root causes but do not simultaneously offer solutions that can provide relief in the near term, they do not fare well. Right-wing parties quickly step into the breach and their solutions tend to be narrowly punitive.
To be fair, many Democratic lawmakers have worked for years to pass gun control legislation and develop crime-prevention policies and better policing strategies, only to see them dashed by the anti-statist obstructionism of Republicans. But today, Democrats face their own internal struggles as well. Some have taken to gaslighting Americans about violence — telling people that “there is not a big spike in violent crime,” for example, or that “overall crime is down,” as several district attorneys have done this year. This is likely to be met with incredulity and to further delegitimize political institutions. If homicide rates remain high and progressives oppose any approach that includes policing as part of the solution, they may find themselves in the political wilderness. And if progressive prosecutors continue to insist that there’s nothing to see here, the result could be open revolt against the reform agenda. People know when violence is rising, and the absence of policy solutions taps into a powerful “do something” politics. We shouldn’t be surprised that people choose punitive policy solutions when the only other alternative is the status quo.
It is easy to understand why many have given up on the ability of the state to use force in a legitimate fashion, given the parade of horrors that militarized policing and mass incarceration have wrought. But it’s hard to see how state use of force can be deemed illegitimate when it is applied to violent crime on urban streets, but legitimate when it is used to investigate and arrest the January 6th insurrectionists or white supremacist groups. Of course, this contradiction has parallels on the right. Republicans can hardly claim to be supportive of law enforcement and then refuse to support the arrest and prosecution of a violent crowd that beat police officers with their own batons. We can and should do better for the safety of all Americans, including law enforcement.
Getting from here to there
Despite their impulse to play down violence, progressives have a lot of ideas about how to prevent it. They are correct that there are many long-term violence prevention policies that we know can work, including, first and foremost, gun control. More firearms means more homicides, plain and simple. Given the close link between gun availability and lethal violence, it was surprising that Democrats were on the back heel on the crime issue leading up to the 2022 midterm elections. Taking violence seriously as a regular policy agenda item would have allowed Democrats to raise the issue first, providing them with a clear link between Republican obstructionism on gun control and the high murder rate.
But there are many other promising strategies for reducing violence, including increasing high school graduation rates; summer youth employment; access to mental health care and public assistance; and exercising more leniency with first-time offenders. Progressives also rightly argue that we should rebuild the criminal legal system on a more democratic and fair foundation. Everyone wants to be secure. It should not be the case that some American communities are exceedingly safe and rarely have interactions with law enforcement, let alone hostile ones, while others have both high rates of violence and dehumanizing and dangerous police encounters.
But even assuming these programs pay off in ways their advocates believe they will, scaling up or starting them from scratch is a long-term effort. We need a crosswalk of sorts, a set of policy initiatives that can confront serious violence right now and can help reduce it in the future.
What policies now foreclosed would become possible if progressives treated violent crime as a serious social and civil rights problem, and conservatives came to view non-enforcement public safety infrastructure (including sensible gun control) as a legitimate function of a properly limited government, as they do now for police and prisons?
We need a path to safety that relies neither on the crushing dehumanization of an ever-expanding carceral state nor on utopian visions of society without law enforcement. It must become politically possible to be a progressive who appreciates good policing, and a conservative who understands that solutions to violent crime must include more than policing and prisons.
Can we envision a Violence Reduction Act aimed at reducing both criminal violence and state violence? It would almost certainly mean increasing policing in some places, but such increases could come with requirements that jurisdictions receiving additional funding adopt national standards for reform, including: improvements in officer selection and training (particularly de-escalation training), using effective gun-tracing techniques, reforming criminal laws, improving officer well-being, and expanding known violence-prevention techniques with both short and long payoff terms, from “greening” vacant lots to financial and housing assistance to reducing lead exposure. A bill that takes violence seriously and taps into Americans’ dissatisfaction with the status quo would certainly be harder to oppose than one that doesn’t.
One of the many things that reformers get right is the decentering of police in crime prevention strategies. More than two decades ago, I wrote a dissertation about the problem of “police-centered” crime prevention. The subsequent book highlighted how, too often, funding for crime prevention flows through police departments, and police officers become the centerpiece of all crime-prevention activities. This is a mistake not just because many communities have deep ambivalence about the police, but also because policing is not primarily designed to serve proactive, anti-violence ends.
But this fact must also be squared with the high-violence society that is the United States, so it does not mean that police and prosecutions do not have any role to play in confronting violence in the here and now. Figuring out what that role looks like should be a major priority for progressives.
It is true that rampant and unchecked violence by the government is a terrible outcome that further damages and marginalizes vulnerable people. But so, too, does murder with impunity. Investing in effective, accountable policing and prosecutions is only in opposition to civil rights if we do not acknowledge the persistent and serious problem of high violence in the United States that disproportionately affects the most marginalized citizens.
Nor are the problems of high violence and brutal enforcement severable. Though it is not a big part of the public discourse about mass incarceration, the simple fact is that reform of the criminal legal system over the past 20 years was made possible by levels of violence that, in American terms, were very low compared to the late 1960s through the 1990s. The rise in violence over the past two years threatens to unravel decades of work across the ideological spectrum that is aimed at creating a more humane and effective criminal legal system.
How can we avoid doubling down on the degrading, excessive, costly, and racially disparate punitive policies and practices that were ascendant in the last few decades of the 20th century? The first step is admitting we have a problem. The second is offering a vision of reform that takes both violence and government seriously.