The Underreported Story of the Past 20 Years

David Frum wrote a piece at Foreign Affairs recently about the political trends that have transformed the Republican Party during the past couple of decades and their implications for the ability of the GOP to win presidential elections and govern effectively. The piece mainly deals with cultural and economic issues, particularly as they relate to the graying of the Republican Party's base. One passage particularly struck me:

"To those who say it was never so, that America's not been better, I say you're wrong. And I know because I was there. And I have seen it. And I remember." So said the Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole to the Republican delegates in San Diego in 1996. I was there. I saw it. I remember how they cheered -- and how wrong they were. Over the decade and a half that followed Dole's speech, the United States achieved what likely ranks as the swiftest decline in crime in human history. The Internet revolutionized life and business. Auto fatalities plunged, dropping by 8,000 a year. The emissions that cause acid rain were cut in half. The abortion rate dropped to its lowest level since abortions were legalized, in 1973, and tobacco and alcohol consumption fell, too. The proportion of black Americans graduating from college passed 20 percent.

The italicized portion is my emphasis and it jumped out at me. During the past two decades, the crime rate in the United States has dropped dramatically. This has been a tremendous change that was not foreseen at its outset and the reasons for it are much-debated. One thing that isn't debatable is that the decline in the crime rate has made American life much better over the past 20 years on many fronts, from simple personal security (less violent crime obviously leads to less death and injury caused by crime) to race relations. For example, while President Obama faced many thoughtless and frankly bigoted attacks during his presidential campaigns, he did not face race and crime charged advertisements like the infamous Willie Horton ads of the 1988 presidential election.

Yet despite all this, while fear of crime has diminished, it has not declined to a proportionate degree as the drop in the crime rate itself. A large amount of the American public still thinks crime has been increasing. While there are no doubt many reasons for this, I suggest that one reason is that the decline in the crime rate has simply been underreported. Perceptions about crime are fed by "if it bleeds, it leads" media coverage and a political culture that doesn't want to talk about a drop in the crime rate if it isn't politically useful or convenient.

We see how this manifests itself in public policy, such as in the militarization of local police and zero-tolerance policies that create a school-to-prison pipeline. Fortunately, there has been some pushback against this attitude, particularly in the wake of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, but too often the message received and acted on by the general public is that crime is rising and we need to take increasingly draconian steps to stop it, including at the expense of our own liberties.

I'm not suggesting that crime isn't a problem in the United States. It is a problem, particularly with regard to violent crimes involving firearms, but it is a problem that has diminished over recent decades. Politicians, public policy analysts and the general public need to acknowledge this and respond accordingly, both to take reasonable steps to continue this downward trend and to avoid taking steps based on a false and ultimately dangerous over-estimation of risk.