Here's Why Right-Wing Media Is In A Moral Panic Over Crime

Despite the sensationalist headlines, crime is still trending downwards.
Law enforcement in riot gear line up in Wisconsin in October 2020 after a prosecutor declines to file charges against a police officer who shot a teenager.
Law enforcement in riot gear line up in Wisconsin in October 2020 after a prosecutor declines to file charges against a police officer who shot a teenager.
via Associated Press

The 1990s are back. Clothing stores are filled with acid-wash jeans and scrunchies and just like that, Carrie Bradshaw is once again sexing the city alongside a slew of ’90s TV reboots. But one thing that’s not back from the ’90s is the murder rate.

That is, unless you only read the headlines from your conservative uncle’s favorite news outlets. If not, you might not know that.

American Carnage Goes Endemic reads one headline from the National Review.

Yes, The Crime Wave is As Bad As You Think, says The Wall Street Journal.

The right is in a ’90s throwback, full-fledged moral panic about crime.

It is true that the murder rate has increased. According to the Centers for Disease Control, between 2019 and 2020 murders rose 30%. Seventy-seven percent of the murders recorded between 2019 and 2020 were gun killings, up from 73% the year before. So while plenty of pundits and politicians have blamed the protests that began after the murder of George Floyd and the Biden administration — and liberals in general — for the rise in murders, the truth is that the rise began before all of those factors. Namely, when Donald Trump was still president.

Yet, despite the panicky headlines, crime is still on the decline overall and is nowhere near 1990s levels, when violent crime last peaked in the United States. The real reasons crime rates increase or decline is complicated and due to multiple factors such as the economy, poverty and police-community relations.

But, I suppose, it’s much more fun to shout about the crime-ridden hellscape that Joe Biden’s America has become.

It’s not just about the murder rate either. After a series of robberies at high-end luxury stores in San Francisco, the shop owners boarded up and the moral outrage machine began working overtime. What does it say about a society when we can’t even keep our $500 Gucci belts and precious limited-edition Yeezys from falling into the wrong hands? If thousands of dollars of designer scarves aren’t safe, who is?

The scourge of shoplifting that had beset one of the nation’s largest and most unequal cities was taken seriously, as retailers said organized retail crime had cost their businesses $3.6 billion a year. But closer scrutiny shows that those numbers were overblown. In reality, nonviolent crime has been trending downward for decades.

“Conservatives continue to try riling up their base about crime for the cause because it’s worked in the past.”

But local reporters, pundits, and politicians looking to advance their own ideology have latched on to a narrative perpetuated by law enforcement who never miss a chance to make their agency appear to be hard at work fighting crime.

Conservatives continue to try riling up their base about crime for the cause because it’s worked in the past.

In 1988, presidential candidate George H.W. Bush released what would become known as the Willie Horton ad. The ad was an attack on Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate and the governor of Massachusetts. Horton was a man who had been released from prison in the state’s “weekend pass” program that allowed incarcerated individuals to go home for a weekend. While out on this program, Horton sexually assaulted a woman during a home invasion. The television spot was designed to play on white fears about Black crime and make Democrats look soft. Bush went on to win the election.

In 2015, after a string of police violence went viral, the same people were singing the same tired song. Crime rates were up and it was because police weren’t able to do their job, and the first Black president, Barack Obama, obviously wasn’t helping. This faux moral panic led to the “Ferguson effect”; the idea is named after the city where Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black teenager, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson, Missouri, cop. The theory was that after the protests in Ferguson, police would stop responding to crime, causing the crime rate to go up. It turns out the Ferguson effect was a myth. But this didn’t stop Trump from announcing his presidential candidacy in 2015 by fear-mongering about immigrants and crime.

Maybe they’re not worried about crime at all but maintaining some sort of status quo in which white conservatives can weaponize data to advance whatever moral panic they’re trying to make happen. After all, despite the vast majority of murders being gun-related, the levels of gun worship have become almost pathological.

Just days after 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley was charged for shooting and killing four students and wounded seven people in Oxford, Michigan, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) unveiled his family Christmas photo; seven people staring glassy-eyed into the camera with guns larger than a toddler. ’Tis the season.

So if the faux outrage about crime isn’t really about concern, what’s it really about? The moral panic is about the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential elections. If Republicans and conservatives can convince enough nice white people that they’re only minutes away from being the victim of a crime and only the GOP can save them, as history has shown, that’s an electoral advantage. But even more broadly, fear-mongering about a crime surge is about maintaining a white status quo. The racial justice protests showed that there’s a growing appetite for Black equality — which means a moral panic is never far behind.

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