How Conservative Media's Crime Fearmongering Undermines “Constructive Discourse” About Criminal Justice

Eric Lewis, chairman of Reprieve US, highlighted how conservative media's fearmongering about crime undermines efforts to reform the criminal justice system and inspires GOP candidates to adopt scare tactics about the Black Lives Matter movement and immigration into their campaign strategies. 

Conservative media have repeatedly used baseless claims to link the Obama administration to crimes against police, and often use inflammatory rhetoric to describe the Black Lives Matter movement. Fox News hosts and anchors have derisively called Black Lives Matter a hate group - despite often praising the work of actual hate groups - and right-wing media figures have misleadingly cited President Obama and Mayor Bill de Blasio's statements about police brutality to suggest that they are responsible for violence. Right-wing media also used the murder of San Francisco woman Kate Steinle to defend Trump's immigrant smear.

In a September 15 commentary for the Marshall Project, Eric Lewis, chairman of Reprieve US, argued that conservative media outlets have seized on the “potential” for a “Republican renaissance on fear of crime,” which prevents a “constructive discourse”  around “the crushing costs of incarceration, the waste of mandatory minimum sentences,” among other criminal justice issues.

The conservative National Review sees the potential here for a Republican renaissance on fear of crime. In a recent paean to Nixonian nostalgia, “Revive Law and Order Conservatism,” Stephen Eide writes, “So long as the New York Times and anti-cop activist groups continue with their provocations, we can be reasonably confident that more violent unrest is to come. The spectacle of chaos descending on cities long dominated by Democrats obviously plays to the GOP's advantage.”

He decries conservative attitudes on crime as “notably softer now than they have been in many decades.” Acknowledging that “New York City's murders hit a 50-year low,” he observes, “there were still more than three times as many as in London, which has about the same population.” Surely that could have nothing to do with robust Second Amendment rights, another cornerstone of the Republican platform. Eide counsels Republicans that a key to victory in 2016 is to “emphasize that we still have a serious crime problem.”

Republican candidates are taking note. On Hot Air, a conservative web site, Scott Walker properly lamented a recent spate of tragic police shootings but blamed them on President Obama. “In the last six years under President Obama, we've seen a rise in anti-police rhetoric. Instead of hope and change, we've seen racial tensions worsen and a tendency to use law enforcement as a scapegoat.” And Chris Christie threw Bill de Blasio under the bus as well, “It's the liberal policies in [New York] that have led to the lawlessness that's been encouraged by the president of the United States,” he said. “And I'm telling you, people in this country are getting more and more fed up.”

Republicans are increasingly positioning the issue as a rift between Black Lives Matter and police unions, between Sanctuary Cities and thousand mile anti-rapist walls. The constructive discourse in recent months about the crushing costs of incarceration, the waste of mandatory minimum sentences, the twin crises of mental health and addiction in prison, the endless cost and delay in enforcing the death penalty has all but ended. In its place, Republicans are moving toward the traditional toxic brew of race, ethnicity, white middle class insecurity and panic about crime.

Get ready for the return of Willie Horton.