America Is Safer Than It Used to Be. So Why Do We Still Have Calls for ‘Law and Order’?

tags: election 2016, Trump

Beverly Gage is a history professor at Yale. She is writing a biography of J. Edgar Hoover.

By its own historical standards, America circa 2016 is a safe place. The country’s violent crime rate is about half of what it was in 1991. Cities, in particular, have become markedly less dangerous. Less than half as many police officers are killed in the line of duty today as in the mid-1970s. In 1968, Americans rated “crime and lawlessness” as the single most important domestic problem facing the nation. Today, according to Gallup, they rank “crime/violence” below issues like the economy, unemployment, racism and race relations, and dissatisfaction with government.

This would seem to be news to Donald Trump, who, speaking to voters in Michigan in August, offered a vision of a “new American future” in which “law and order will be restored.” The language echoed his convention speech, in which Trump used the phrase “law and order” not once, not twice but four times. After painting a bleak picture of American cities overrun by marauding gangs and murderous illegal immigrants, he vowed: “When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country.”

We all understand, more or less, what Trump is getting at. In American politics, “law and order” is lock-em-up language, tough talk that is used to vilify far more than crime and criminals. It also tends to encompass the supposed disorder created by poor people, African-Americans, street protesters and immigrants. During the 1960s, Richard Nixon and other conservatives famously used the phrase to present “a comprehensive critique of liberalism’s failure,” in the words of the historian Michael Flamm. Like “the silent majority,” another Nixonian throwback that Trump recycles from time to time, “law and order” conveyed which side you were on in the political and cultural wars of that era.

But there are some big differences between then and now. In the 1960s, the United States experienced rising murder rates, devastating urban riots and the assassinations of some of the era’s most prominent public figures. By contrast, despite this summer’s episodes of acute violence and unrest — the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June, Micah Johnson’s deadly assault on police in Dallas in July, the rioting and protests that followed a shooting by a police officer in Milwaukee in August — American society now looks almost pacific. In this context, Trump’s reheated language raises the question of why the Nixonian vision of a collapsing nation in need of “law and order” still has such political currency, and why, of all the shifting connotations the phrase has carried in American history, this is the one we still cling to.

The phrase “law and order” (“lex et ordo” in the Latin) dates back to somewhere around the late 16th century, when modern states began to emerge. For at least two centuries after that, the words seem to have evoked only a vague sense that society should operate in an orderly and reasonable fashion. In the United States, a wide range of groups, from Whig Party offshoots to late-19th-century temperance leagues, claimed the slogan to various ends. Opponents of lynching put their own social-justice spin on the term, arguing that tolerance of mob action and gruesome violence against African-Americans constituted “a sinister menace to all forces of law and order,” in the words of one early-20th-century Southern activist. ...

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