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The Myth of Mob RuleViolent Crime and Democratic Politics$

Lisa L. Miller

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780190228705

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190228705.001.0001

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Mass Publics, Crime, and Democratic Politics

Mass Publics, Crime, and Democratic Politics

(p.1) Chapter 1. Mass Publics, Crime, and Democratic Politics
The Myth of Mob Rule

Lisa L. Miller

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The chapter provides an overview of the book’s central claims and a framework for empirically assessing the conventional causal narrative about the relationship between crime, mass publics, and politics. The chapter also introduces the key questions of the book: First, does violent crime contribute to the public and political salience of crime? Second, when crime is salient, what policies emerge? Third, how do variations in the institutional design of democratic systems—especially with respect to the accountability and responsiveness of elected government to mass publics—shape the political dynamics of crime and punishment? The research design is also explained and a summary of the chapters is provided.

Keywords:   violence, institutions, policy alternatives, democratic deficit, mob rule

Citizens who dislike the recent expansions in incarceration that have occurred in so many of the advanced democracies should not seek political arrangements that give the public greater political influence.1

Few images undermine the ideal of democratic self-rule as quickly as that of the bloodthirsty masses demanding punishment for suspected criminals, real or imaginary. Lurking even in highly developed democratic systems lies the concern that mass publics have difficulty responding rationally to emotionally charged social issues such as crime. Scholars and commentators from a wide range of perspectives express skepticism about the capacity of democratic publics to resist purely repressive policies, let alone to protect less powerful minorities from overbearing majorities when issues like crime become politically salient. As the opening of this chapter suggests, for many scholars, limiting the power of democratic publics is an essential component of modern governance—broad democratic participation, they argue, can encourage impulsive, irrational, and even murderous demands that are deeply at odds with principles of justice.2

(p.2) The substantial buildup of imprisonment and other repressive forms of law in developed democracies in the latter half of the twentieth century is an oft-cited illustration of this problem. With the United States as the world leader in incarceration and an outlier among its rich, democratic peers on a wide range of repressive criminal justice practices (e.g., arrest rates, the death penalty, solitary confinement, prison overcrowding, and so on), its political structure is frequently indicted for providing elected officials with too many opportunities to respond directly to mass public opinion, through legislative and judicial elections, referenda, and so on, even when that opinion is “mercurial or mean-spirited” (Tonry 2007, 26). Other countries with political systems that only weakly insulate lawmakers from public pressure, such as Great Britain (specifically, England and Wales), have been similarly implicated in the growth of punitive policy and practice in the latter half of the twentieth century (e.g., Lacey 2008).

This anxiety about panic-prone and irrational mass publics, which I will refer to as the “mob rule thesis,” though widespread, is rarely subjected to systematic empirical inquiry and thus forms the central focus of this book. The politics of crime and punishment provide an excellent opportunity to explore the purported dangers of “mob rule” precisely because of the issue’s highly charged nature, the growth of crime’s public and political salience across developed democracies over the past 50 years, and because of the widely accepted notion that crime policy is best left to elites insulated from mass public pressure.

The aim of this book is to understand whether the political salience of crime—that is, crime as a prominent public and political issue—and the accountability of lawmakers to democratic publics necessarily lead to singularly repressive policies that are largely untethered from the origins and consequences of real crime risk. Are democratic majorities easily drawn to crime as a political issue, even when the risk of serious violence is low? Are mass publics capable of supporting rational alternatives to wholly punitive policies? Or are they essentially la bellua multorum capitum, the “many-headed beast,” winnowing the complex problems of crime and violence, both real and imaginary, down to the pathologies of “bad individuals” and leading to inexorably harsh, retributive justice? While comparative sociologists and legal scholars have produced a (p.3) broad literature in this area, political science has largely neglected crime as a political issue, particularly in comparative context.3 As a result, few analyses have sought to understand the specifically political mechanisms that link crime, mass democratic politics, and policymaking.

The fundamental question of the book is this: When, and with what consequences, does crime become politically salient? As explained in greater detail in Chapter 2, salience is a particularly useful mechanism by which to explore extant theories because the mob rule thesis hinges on growing public and political attention to crime in relation to other political concerns, such as economics, education, health, and so on. Using widely accepted measures of public salience (e.g., public opinion surveys and mass media) and political salience (e.g., legislative activity, executive speeches, party manifestos), which are explained in Chapter 2, we can observe distinctive periods of high and low salience across a range of issues, including crime, and observe variations in salience in relation to actual crime rates.

The approach here is to focus on serious violence as a starting point for exploring the political salience of crime. The emphasis on violence, rather than on policing or incarceration, reverses traditional studies of crime and punishment, which typically begin with and seek to explain variations in arrest or imprisonment and largely decouple punishment and other repressive state practices from the lived experience of serious violence. In contrast, the analysis presented here treats serious criminal violence as a first-order political problem and a real social risk, in order to explore whether high or rising rates of violence are related to the public and political salience of crime.

I pay special attention to the uneven distribution of violence across marginalized groups, specifically low-income populations and racial/ethnic minorities, whose exposures to violence and its collateral consequences are more common, and whose daily lives are made insecure by its presence. These groups are also a crucial component of the analysis because “mob rule” is especially implicated in punitive responses to (p.4) crime when dominant racial groups perceive criminal offending primarily as a problem of the “other.” The long history of Whites associating racial/ethnic minorities and the poor (particularly where those groups intersect) with criminality is well documented (see Entman and Rojecki 2001; Gilliam and Iyengar 2000; Muhammad 2010).

In addition to examining violence, this book also brings political institutions more squarely into analysis. While much is written in the name of the “politics” of crime and punishment, surprisingly little work seeks to operationalize the political salience of crime (though Beckett 1997 is an important exception). Nor has there been much exploration of the agendas and alternatives that emerge from varying political institutions that create crime and justice policies (but see Farrall and Jennings 2012).4 While paying attention to violence provides a benchmark against which to explore the temporality of political salience, drawing political institutions more squarely into the frame also allows us to better understand what happens once the issue appears on political agendas, as well as whether institutional variation across democratic systems has an impact on the nature and duration of crime’s salience and the policy proposals that subsequently emerge.

There are good reasons to think that democratic institutions play a role in the nature of political responses to real change in risk of various kinds (e.g., Bermeo and Pontusson 2012 and Pierson 2001 on welfare states). A number of important institutional factors shape social policies in democracies, including structural features such as parliamentarism, the number and strength of political parties, federalism, and the political capacity of low-income and ethnic minority populations to gain voice, representation, and influence.5 Lacey (2008) and others have provided (p.5) excellent models for this sort of analysis with respect to crime politics, linking the political economies of democratic countries to the politics of punishment (see also Cavadino and Dignan 2006). Thus, institutional features can matter both in terms of the capacity of state policies to ameliorate criminogenic risk conditions in the first place, and in terms of their effectiveness in mitigating or exacerbating single-minded punitive policy responses to crime.

There are substantial gaps in this framework, however: notably the absence of an empirical account of the relationship between long-term trends in real crime rates and the political salience of crime temporally and cross-nationally, as well as few attempts to operationalize attention to crime in public and political contexts. The United States and the United Kingdom, for example, are conceptually linked in most punishment analyses (Garland 2001; Lacey 2008), despite rates of homicide that vary, at some points in time, by nearly an order of magnitude. Nor have many scholars confronted the endogeneity problem of low imprisonment and low violent crime in the United Kingdom, compared to high rates of both in the United States. Moreover, the institutional contexts of the two countries have major differences, such as fragmented federalism/separation of powers in the United States, contrasted with Westminster parliamentarism in the United Kingdom.6

This book, then, brings violence, inequality, and democratic institutions more squarely into the scholarly analyses of crime and punishment by confronting three primary questions. First, does violent crime contribute to the public and political salience of crime? As I illustrate in Chapter 2, there are compelling reasons to consider security from violence a foundational public concern. Yet, rather than treat levels of, and changes to, violent crime as underlying social conditions, most analyses (p.6) view the crime rate as simply a discreet variable moving in some incremental fashion (yearly, lagged, or moving averages). The modal scholarly approach is to largely discount changes to actual crime rates as factors in the politics of crime and punishment.

As a result, we have only a limited understanding of whether and to what extent violence, specifically, affects public and political attention to crime across time and place. This is crucial to any understanding of the political significance of crime, as well as to the larger question of whether mass publics are likely to respond to law-and-order rhetoric, even when actual risk is low. Public and political salience of crime can take many forms, such as a rise in public concern about or media attention to crime, new or increased discourse about crime in political party platforms/manifestos and annual speeches of governing coalitions, or the introduction of new laws governing criminal conduct and sanctions. Is there a relationship between serious violence and crime’s salience, or do serious crime and attention to it operate in two separate realms, responding to different underlying conditions and incentives?

Second, this book asks, when crime is salient, what policies emerge? What types of reforms to the criminal law, justice institutions, and/or “root cause” problems are proposed? I focus especially on whether the salience of crime necessarily crowds out other social policy issues such as welfare provisions, the living conditions of the marginalized, police and prison reform, and so on. How broad or narrow is the range of policy proposals that emerge on political agendas when crime is salient? The extant literature is rife with accounts of crime as a powerful political opportunity that attracts the attention of lawmakers and voters alike, producing electoral incentives that push reforms almost entirely in punitive directions and driving more inclusive or community-building projects off the agenda.7 Particularly as it relates to race/ethnic minority and low-income populations, this conventional narrative treats the salience of crime as leading to singularly punitive consequences and criminal justice as essentially replacing social welfare policy agendas.

(p.7) Because most of the extant literature focuses only on criminal law and policy, however, we know little about the full range of social policy issues that might co-emerge when crime is salient (but see Ewald 2012).8 In other words, the literature has largely assumed, rather then demonstrated, that crime colonizes political agendas. But there are a number of reasons to be skeptical that the public is intolerant of alternative social policy proposals. Aside from general surveys that reveal support for prevention, rehabilitation, and treatment, several analyses have found the electorate to be much more complex in its views than the conventional punitive portrayal suggests (Barker 2009; Cullen et al. 1988; Roberts et al. 2003). And though a robust literature finds that some White punitive attitudes are deeply linked to racial bias against Blacks, a substantial portion of Whites’ views are also malleable when cued with information about racial bias in the justice system (Bobo and Johnson 2004). Exploring a broader range of policies that are part of political agendas when crime is salient, then, is essential; we should not equate outcomes with preferences. That is, the public is typically faced with alternatives that have already been winnowed through political parties, interest groups, or other forms of elite choice and bargaining.9 Without knowing what options were actually available to the public, we can draw few causal inferences about public preferences and policy outcomes on crime.

Finally, this research asks how variations in the institutional design of democratic systems—especially with respect to the accountability and responsiveness of elected government to mass publics—shape the political dynamics of crime and punishment. With few exceptions, the existing literature has largely concluded that crime’s salience is most likely to translate into increases in repressive practices when democratic institutions are highly responsive to public opinion (Jacobs and Kleban 2003; Lacey 2008; Zimring and Johnson 2006). However, the specific causal mechanisms that link the public to these outcomes remain under-theorized. There is a great deal of conceptual ambiguity and slipperiness (p.8) in the term “democratic accountability,” and it leaves us with only vague ideas about how large majorities and political actors might intersect on these issues, or when one system is more or less “responsive” than another.

Following Lacey (2008), my emphasis is on how democratic institutions and political economies shape the political pressures of mass publics and the incentives of elected officials around crime and punishment politics. I complicate the picture by treating both punishment and violence as social risks that operate within larger institutional contexts and political economies. I then assess the impact of institutional responsiveness to public concern on the possibilities of more inclusionary—in addition to or in lieu of exclusionary—political debates about and responses to crime. In short, my aim is to operationalize and observe the causal mechanisms embedded in the dominant theories about politics of crime and punishment, and to use the issue, more broadly, as an opportunity to better understand the accuracy of the mob rule thesis.

These themes are brought together in the book’s central claims: In developed democracies, the politics of crime and punishment are deeply conditioned by rates of serious violence, which are filtered through political institutions that shape the ability of mass publics to hold state actors accountable for protection from a wide range of social risk, including violence. I find that when violent crime is rising rapidly or is relatively high for sustained periods of time, democratic systems are likely to increase punitive rhetoric and policy, at least modestly. However, whether more arrests, prosecutions, imprisonment, longer and harsher sentences, and so on, are the exclusive response depends in part on whether democratic institutions facilitate or hinder the passage of comprehensive social policy in response to public concern. Counterintuitively, the greater a state’s capacity for the enactment of social policies that respond to the collective needs of mass publics, the less crime and less punishment a democratic system is likely to provide.

In other words, the more non-elites can successfully influence government policy over collective securities—the more the mob rules—the more likely the political system will address security from violence as a collective good and will moderate its use of repressive practices. This is rooted in a definition of democratic accountability in which political (p.9) elites have few hindrances to enacting a broad range of policies with the support of political majorities. Where mass publics are disrupted, constrained, and hamstrung in their ability to coerce the state to minimize such risks, both serious violence and punishment are likely to be higher.

Crucially, I argue that the extraordinary levels of incarceration in the United States are deeply intertwined with extraordinary levels of violence. Both are highly racially disproportionate and are tethered to the peculiar institutional dynamics of American politics, which continue to be conditioned by racial hierarchy. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I also argue that the United States is exceptional not because it is overly accountable to the public’s punitive demands about crime and violence, but because its highly fragmented, racialized political system generates a substantial democratic deficit that leaves lawmakers only marginally accountable for producing collective goods, including reductions in violence and a wide range of other social inequities. I characterize this as a limited, racialized form of state failure, and suggest that it sets the United States apart from other rich democracies in policy outcomes that go well beyond imprisonment.

The peculiar set of American political institutions makes it easy to decouple crime and violence from other social conditions through what I term “lowest legislative common denominator politics,” producing policies aimed narrowly at punishing offenders rather than reducing the likelihood of victimization and other forms of risk. In contrast, more centralized, unitary political institutions—even those with two-party systems, such as the United Kingdom—have fewer legislative opportunities for broader policy approaches to be stripped of their less punitive provisions and more opportunities for overcoming obstacles to the provision of public goods. In multiparty systems, such as the Netherlands, a wide range of political preferences and ideas is a regular feature of the political landscape, and the resultant coalition governments have both the political capacity of parliamentary systems, as well as built-in cross-party policy alternatives. Notably, I find that the political salience of crime and punishment is actually more closely correlated with real violence in corporatist countries such as the Netherlands than in the allegedly highly politicized contexts of liberal market economies, such as in the United Kingdom or the United States. This suggests that our (p.10) understandings of material risk, political salience, and democratic responsiveness are in need of substantial reconsideration.

In short, this book reverses the dominant claims about democratic responsiveness and crime and argues that minimizing punitiveness requires that democratic political elites respond to mass publics by facilitating, or at least not routinely disrupting, the production of collective goods, including the crucial social good of security from violence. The absence of such capacity (or serious constraints on it) undermines democratic legitimacy and makes wholly punitive policies more appealing. Serious violence is a volatile and destabilizing social condition, and public confidence in the willingness and capacity of the state to ameliorate it forms a crucial backdrop for understanding the politics of punishment.

The Mob Rule Thesis

Chapter 2 provides a more detailed discussion of the current literature on crime, punishment, and democratic politics. Here, I simply offer a brief overview of the main ideas that animate broader concerns about mass democracy.10 First and foremost is the concern that mass publics are simply not very good at risk assessment, relying on most recent occurrences, dramatic events, and cues that skew memory toward the most frightening, if least likely, types of risks (see Robin 2006; Slovic 1987). With respect to crime, many analyses have demonstrated a disjuncture between public perceptions about crime levels and actual levels of victimization (see Gottschalk 2014 for a recent discussion). Several analyses of rising aggregate crime rates across Western countries also conclude that such changes explain little of the variation in punishment practices. Criminal activity, in this view, is not likely to be a primary (p.11) cause of crime’s public or political salience (but see Enns 2014; Weaver 2007 for important exceptions).

Due, in part, to the public’s poor risk-valuation skills, a second core tenet of the mob rule thesis is that highly emotive issues are attractive to political campaigns because mass publics are vulnerable to exaggeration, and politicians find it expedient to exploit fear for electoral gain, particularly as a distraction to pressing economic issues. One variant of this is that both media and politicians regularly provide distorted, exaggerated, and largely inaccurate information about crime risk to bolster their electoral chances. As Katherine Beckett argued in Making Crime Pay (1997), for example, crime generates electoral dividends, particularly in two-party systems where the political incentives push the parties toward the median voter, who is unlikely to want the state to be lenient on suspected criminals.

These themes parallel both older and more contemporary work on moral panics, defined as a reaction “out of proportion to its actual danger or potential harm” (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 2009, 21). While the moral panic literature recognizes that real underlying social conditions may influence public worry over harm, it generally regards such concern as untethered from the actual likelihood of serious harm. Examples abound in the criminological literature (Cohen 2002; Hall et al. 1978; Jenkins 2004). Those that consider how changes to real crime might play a role in public and political salience often proceed to minimize public concern as a form of moral panic because, while perhaps justified on some level, it is far out of proportion to real risk.

A final worry is that when political agendas feature undesirables, such as suspected lawbreakers (especially if they are racial or ethnic minorities), democratic majorities will display wholly vengeful policy preferences (Balvig 2004; Tonry 2010). The mere mention of crime, in this view, provides an electoral opportunity for voters to press politicians to reassert social and racial hierarchies and exclusion (Alexander 2010). The salience of crime, in this view, produces punitiveness. Where the public has more influence over democratic processes, policy will be largely exclusionary and legal reforms more punitive; those systems that place elite institutional buffers between the public and electoral politics will create fewer opportunities for such behavior. The public, from this (p.12) perspective, has little capacity for understanding the origins of criminal violence, let alone any interest in ameliorating them.

The United States—with its many elections and dense, highly fragmented, localized politics wherein punitive publics and politicians eagerly converge—is the veritable poster child for public officials who are overexposed to public sentiment and electoral incentives for punishing. The United Kingdom, with its comparable liberal market economy and two major parties, is a close runner-up in the willingness and ability of political elites to exploit the crime issue for political gain. The corporatist countries (e.g., Netherlands and Germany) and social democracies (e.g., Denmark and Sweden), by contrast, function under more insulated political regimes that are better able to stave off the troubling dynamics of mass public insecurities and the irresistible temptation of electoral actors to capitalize on them (or to whip them up in the first place) (see Lacey 2008).

Mass Publics, Crime, and Democratic Politics

Figure 1.1. Conventional wisdom linking the public, crime and politics.

Figure 1.1 illustrates the dominant causal picture that emerges from the literature. In this view, the political salience of crime may vary in positive relation to crime for brief periods, but it primarily operates with its own social and political logic in which mass publics are drawn to the issue, regardless of actual rates of crime, and lawmakers have incentives to draw attention to it and to express singularly punitive responses, particularly those directed at minorities and the poor. Put simply, the conventional framework posits that crime rates do not lead to political salience, but political salience leads inexorably to punitive policies where the electorate has many opportunities to influence political outcomes. Where institutional (p.13) dynamics insulate governing officials from public sentiment, democratic systems will have fewer incentives to turn public attention to crime and more capacity for protecting vulnerable populations.

Reconsidering Mass Publics in Crime and Punishment

There are several important challenges to this framework. I highlight them briefly here, returning to each more systematically in subsequent chapters. Among the most important is that the impact of changes to real violence in the postwar period, and the effect those changes may have had on the political mobilization around crime and punishment, remain largely unexplored. In the next chapter, I explain, in more detail, why scholars interested in state repression, inequality, and political processes should pay more attention to serious violence. Suffice it to say here, a number of scholars have challenged the idea that public concern over crime is merely a function of manipulation by cynical politicians or mass media, an over-reaction to modest increases in crime, or is rooted entirely in race and class hostilities. For David Garland, for example, the high crime era of the late twentieth century was crucial to the cultural, socioeconomic, and political changes of the time (1996, 2001). Henry Ruth and Kevin Reitz (2003) also take note of the dramatically increasing rates of violence in the 1960s and 1970s, and argue that “Americans could be forgiven during the 1960s for thinking that crime was spiraling out of control, and it is understandable throughout the 1970s and 1980s that many people believed serious crimes rates, although no longer spiking as they had in the late 1960s and early 1970s, remained at intolerably high levels” (73). Vesla Weaver (2007) noted the convergence of rising crime and growing White resistance to civil rights and, more recently, Peter Enns (2014) has argued that the public became increasingly punitive over time due, in sizeable part, to the crime wave.

Similarly, studies of Black political activism during the rising rates of violence in the 1970s and again in the 1990s reveal strong and sustained pressure for law enforcement and public policy to respond more effectively to real changes in risk from gangs, drugs, and serious (p.14) violence (Forman 2012; Fortner 2015; Miller 2008). As these scholars note, the literature has largely overlooked real rates of violence and the response of at-risk communities in pressing the state for political responses.

Second, while not engaged with problems of serious crime, Barker (2009) nonetheless offers a cross-cutting challenge to conventional wisdom by illustrating that high levels of democratic participation do not necessarily lead to pressure for more punishment. In her assessment of the intersection of political institutions and democratic traditions across three US states, Barker finds that states with long histories of broadly democratic, participatory politics actually engaged in less punitive lawmaking than those with lower levels of civic engagement. Her work suggests that greater attention to the quality of interactions between the public and government officials can help scholars better assess the impact of mass publics on crime politics.

Similarly, others have argued that assumptions about mass publics and punitiveness are under-theorized and insufficiently attentive to democratic legitimacy and public capacity for rational public discourse and debate. For example, Albert Dzur writes

In broad strokes, they [works critical of mass publics] imply that the American public is unable to self-regulate, unable to own up to a more measured approach to criminal justice, to punish but in a more thoughtful, consistent, and humane fashion, without strict elite guidance: in other words, that the United States requires a guardian state rather than a democracy. (2011, 364)

Indeed, that is what much of the literature argues, not just about the US public, but about publics writ large. Dzur proposes two correctives. One, consistent with Barker (2009), is to call for more empirical work that explores the conditions under which the salience of crime might lead to more comprehensive policy and legal reforms, rather than to harsher punishment alone. In fact, as Dzur points out, the growth of imprisonment and the “penal state” coincided in the United States with declines in public civic engagement, political participation, and trust in government. At a minimum, this raises questions about the appeal of (p.15) crime as a political mobilizing force and as an opportunity for shoring up public trust and political engagement. In a claim that previews one of the main findings of this book, Dzur argues that the problem of punitive states may be a problem of democratic deficits, rather than surplus (see also Green 2009; Johnstone 2002; Miller 2013, 2015).

Second, Dzur makes a powerful argument for the problem of democratic legitimacy when a crucial state function, such as security from violence, becomes too far removed from public pressure. After all, malum prohibitum—what we collectively see as harmful—is rooted in public sentiment. By definition, establishing such norms requires public input (Dzur 2011, 365; see also Lacey 2008; Loader and Walker 2007). But even malum in se, an act seen as inherently harmful or wrong, is deeply conditioned by shifting public norms. Domestic violence, now legally recognized as assault and understood as a moral and criminal wrong, was long tolerated and even sanctioned, as was infanticide (see Roth 2009). At a minimum, then, any theory of democratic politics, crime, and punishment requires some attention to the mechanisms through which the public can provide pressure and influence on the criminal law.

The empirical focus of this book primarily addresses the first challenge, seeking to tease out the relationship between serious violent crime and its salience, and to observe the consequences. The thrust of the empirical project supports the claim that aggregate public attention to crime is more in line with actual violent crime than researchers assume and that highly punitive responses reflect a narrower form of democratic accountability. The larger theoretical project, however, aims to contribute to Dzur’s second observation by beginning to articulate a theoretical frame for how political institutions can maximize collective political influence on matters of public safety and can hold governments accountable for security, without doing additional violence to the very populations that already suffer substantial risk of violence, as well as economic, political, and other social risks.

The heavy emphasis in the punishment literature on limiting the capacity of ordinary people to influence political responses to crime mirrors a larger pattern in the legal literature that seeks to understand how democratic forms can constrain mass publics (see Colon-Rios (p.16) 2011 and Bellamy 2006 for useful summaries).11 In this view, the passion, irrationality, political ignorance, and base interests of mass publics threaten stability and good governance, and thus, mass democratic politics requires a sanitizing institutional process. In contrast, this book contributes to a growing literature that seeks to understand how political institutions can enable the capacity of mass publics to self-govern.12 As many democratic theorists have observed, democracy is the only political form that gives the powerless the potential to engage on a more even playing field with elites (see McCormick 2006). Moreover, collective wisdom with respect to understanding and ameliorating social problems may be far more reliable than we imagine. I will pick up this theme in the conclusion, but here I must restate: security from violence is a core protection that is routinely less available to the least powerful. Citizens deserve a more thorough account of the relationship between democratic participation and accountability (and their institutional antecedents) and the politics of security from violence.

Research Design and Data Sources

This is a comparative, historical case study aimed at understanding the causal mechanisms that drive crime onto political agendas and that shape the political consequences of crime’s public and political salience. The focus is on two potential causes: violent crime and democratic institutional arrangements. I draw on three primary cases, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Netherlands, and engage in within-case analysis over time, as well as cross-case comparisons. I chose these countries because each has experienced substantial increases in violent crime over the past 50 years, though the slope and timing of the increases vary. This provides an opportunity to trace the relationship (p.17) between crime variations and issue salience in each country. Moreover, though the countries are all Western, postindustrial, wealthy democracies, each represents a different set of institutional forms that should shape the political dynamics of crime’s salience: the fragmented federal system (US), the classic Westminster style (UK), and the multiparty proportional representation, parliamentary system (Netherlands). I use these cases for intensive analysis, exploring several additional democratic countries for more general analysis in Chapters 2 and 5. Table 1.1 illustrates the variation in the key explanatory variables across the three case studies.

Table 1.1. Institutional variation in three case studies and homicide rates (united kingdom, united states, and netherlands)

United Kingdom(England and Wales)

United States














Party system

Strong (two-party)

Weak (two-party)

Strong (multiparty)

Popular referenda




Homicide rate (1965)




Homicide rate (1995)




The comparative case study design is ideal for this project because it provides an opportunity to closely observe potentially influential factors that are largely obscured by large-n analyses and single case studies.13 Much of the literature in the United States, for example, focuses on a specific time period—the rapid politicization of crime in the 1960s–1970s (e.g., Gottschalk 2006; Provine 2007; Weaver 2007) or the period of dramatically increasing incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s (e.g., Campbell 2012; Ewald 2012). Other analyses bypass mechanisms altogether and draw causal inferences using statistical analyses that estimate the average effects of multiple factors on imprisonment across states or cross-nationally (Jacobs and Kleban 2003; Yates and Fording 2006). Such analyses, while instructive in many respects, do not afford the opportunity to treat generally high or low violence as an underlying, societal condition, nor do they provide insight into the causal mechanisms that drive these relationships. In addition, the temporal dimension in many of these analyses is insufficiently long to observe a full range of variation in the potential explanatory variable of serious crime, particularly its decline in the early twenty-first century.

As most existing research is more concerned with punishment than with violence, these studies tend to presuppose that the politicization (p.18) of crime—its public and political salience—leads almost exclusively to punishment. The result is what historians refer to as a telescoping of history, whereby outcomes in the contemporary period are treated as inescapable and researchers seek evidence of their inevitability in earlier time periods.14 By contrast, in this book I triangulate data from multiple and varied sources over 50 or more years to trace the relationship between violence and salience, and between salience and the full range of policy alternatives. Doing so provides the opportunity to offer specific explanations for the three individual cases, as well as to identify (p.19) and observe the causal processes that link the general public to political agendas, and political agendas to policy alternatives.15

Limitations of the Current Study

This analysis does not offer a general explanation for cross-national or temporal variation in rates of imprisonment. While I believe the main conclusions of the book can offer some reasons for such variation, my primary interest here is not with imprisonment, but with salience and policy responses. I only rarely reference rates of incarceration. In addition, while I make use of public opinion data and explore both public and political salience over time, the study is not primarily an analysis of public attitudes toward crime, nor does it provide detailed contextual analysis of public attitudes during various eras. Instead, the book operationalizes the causal mechanisms that are implicit in the literature and explores the extent to which they confirm or disconfirm the extant causal stories; that is, whether increases in or exceptionally high rates of real crime are unrelated to public and political attention to crime; whether crime colonizes political agendas, crowding out economic and social welfare concerns; and whether political institutions that provide for many sites of political accountability generate more punitive policies.

(p.20) Clarifying the Conventional Causal Narrative

This project is both theory building (with respect to the relationship between democratic politics, violence, mass publics, and punishment), as well as theory testing, in the search for evidence of the causal mechanisms that the literature asserts connect the public, politics, and crime policy (e.g., does violence matter for politicization? does politicization always lead to more punitiveness?).

The first step is to disentangle serious crime, public and political salience, and the policies that emerge when salience occurs. The current literature tends to dismiss the first, assume the second, and focus largely on the third. But there are at least two causal stories to understand here: whether serious crime is related to salience, and whether salience leads to singularly punitive policies. To begin, I simply explore the presence of, and dramatic change in, a potentially important and largely overlooked social condition—serious violent crime. I observe whether, as the literature would predict, the public and political salience of crime wax and wane largely independent of—or even in negative relation to—rates of criminal violence. One of the core functions of case study research is to explore overlooked independent variables and/or to identify necessary conditions for the outcome of interest.16 If the extant literature is correct, we should observe very few periods where rates of serious violence and public and political attention to crime are positively correlated, and virtually none that is robust and sustained.17 If, by contrast, relatively high rates of violent crime are a consistent feature of high salience, we might conclude that dramatically rising or high rates of violence are an important—perhaps even necessary—underlying condition for the salience of crime.

(p.21) Next, I define and operationalize key concepts that we should observe if, once crime has begun to occupy public and political attention, it colonizes political agendas and leads to almost entirely punitive responses. Scholarly work on political agenda setting is largely unexploited in the politics of crime and punishment literature, but it is exceptionally useful here. While much has been made of the link between the growth of neoliberal economic systems, the marginalization of minority and new immigrant populations, and punitive policies, there is a large gap in our understanding of the causal mechanisms that might connect these conditions. If crime colonizes political agendas in this fashion, we should observe crime consuming more political attention over time, and other issues—such as economic concerns, health, education, family welfare, and so on—in decline. Concepts such as political salience or “colonization” of agendas are not easily quantified, except in relative terms, and the limited attention to the meaning and measurement of these concepts can lead researchers to compare apples to oranges and to the mis-specification of causes of effects. The approach here thus offers the opportunity to more clearly identify the attributes of such terms and to more thoroughly inform our understanding of their causes and consequences. I use the larger data sets and the three case studies to understand whether the politicization of crime is necessarily coupled with exclusively punitive law and the crowding out of social welfare or other “root causes” approaches, as the literature would predict.

Finally, in order to assess the relationship between democratic accountability to mass publics and the politicization of crime, I identify additional dynamics that should be observable if the major worries about mass publics are accurate. Again, there is limited conceptual clarity on terms such as “public influence” on crime politics (Jacobs and Kleban 2003, 748), “unmediated responsiveness” of politics to the public (Lacey 2010, 105), or “political manipulation” of the crime issue (Gottschalk 2010, 63). If mass publics are drawn to the symbolic dimensions of the crime issue, regardless of actual crime, and more democratic participation means more punishing, the political process should leave behind markers of these processes. These might include relatively high levels of public concern over crime in the absence of high rates of violence; low levels of non-punitive policy proposals in the wake of crime’s salience; rapid temporal congruity between (p.22) public concern about crime, political rhetoric, and punitive action; limited electoral success of parties and platforms that are relatively less punitive; high voter turnout and other forms of participation in response to the politicization of crime. Given extant literature, we should find that more “insulated” political systems, such as the Netherlands, have lower levels of crime salience in general, looser coupling of public concern about crime to its political salience, and less crowding out of other social agendas when crime is salient. Conversely, where lawmakers are more exposed to public demand, we should observe higher levels of political salience, independent of real crime, tight coupling of public concern about crime and political salience, and a colonization of political agendas by the crime issue.

I draw on three key types of sources. The Methodological Appendices provide detail on the origins of the data, their uses, and any coding and recoding that were done for various analyses in the book.

  • •. Homicide and violent crime rates (1950–2010) culled from the World Health Organization mortality database; country-specific sources, such as government reports (1980–2010); and government reports on violent crime that include racial/ethnic and class dimensions of violence.

  • •. Public and political agendas (1950–2010), drawing on the US Policy Agendas Project and Comparative Policy Agendas Project (CAP) data on political salience (includes governing party speeches, legislative hearings, bills introduced, acts passed); US and CAP data on media coverage and public opinion on crime and other issues; Comparative Manifesto Project, US and UK Party Platforms; and additional data from country-specific sources.

  • •. Government reports, archival documents, and interviews with and from government officials, community groups, and NGOs; and archival documents on crime, riots, and violence. I further supplement these data with measures of political participation (voter turnout, minority incorporation) and inequality.

(p.23) Chapter Previews

Chapter 2, “Security from Violence as a Collective Good,” details the importance of reconsidering the role of violence in the politics of crime and punishment. Violence is a serious social problem with corrosive consequences, both individually and collaterally, and protection from random violence is a core promise of government. This chapter illustrates how the lack of attention to violence has led to several problems in the literature, including an overreliance on the US case for generalizing about the politics of crime and punishment and a limited recognition of its outlier status with respect to lethal violence; problems of endogeneity with respect to the relationship between low rates of punishing and low rates of violence within particular democratic systems; and the neglect of the political interests of populations most exposed to rising rates of crime and insecurity over the last 50 years. The chapter offers a matrix for evaluating existing claims about the relationship between crime and salience and then illustrates homicide and violence rates across eight countries between 1950 and 2010, as well as basic measures of public and political attention in five countries. Relationships between violence and salience are surprisingly consistent across time and place.

Chapter 3, “The Non-Politics of Crime in Postwar Britain,” presents a detailed analysis of the United Kingdom (primarily England and Wales) and takes a broader view than current analyses in three respects by: drawing on rates of violent crime and homicide over a longer period of time; assessing the politicization of crime alongside other social welfare issues; and exploring the relevance of the crime issue to low-income and minority populations and the relative responsiveness of political dynamics to these problems. The analysis reveals that violence was a serious social problem for some time before it became politically salient for Britain’s two major political parties, and that the Labour Party’s political move into the law-and-order terrain was at least partially rooted in long-term rises in serious violence and non-responsiveness on the issue by Labour. The analysis also reveals that the politicization of crime did not necessarily crowd out other social policy reforms, even under Conservative governments, though it was Labour that enacted (p.24) more policies during periods of high salience to aid the most vulnerable communities. The chapter illustrates how violent crime rates can be high without high political salience, as well as how law-and-order messaging and policy can coexist with other strategic responses to crime, particularly in a unified parliamentary system where the winning party controls the full government agenda.

Chapter 4, “Violence, Racialized Risk, and US Exceptionalism,” reconsiders the United States in light of the findings of Chapters 2 and 3 and explores the politicization of crime at the national and state levels. The chapter details the long, persistent, and expansive rise in violence in the United States between 1965 and 1995 and illustrates the dramatic differences in violence rates in the United States, compared to other democratic countries, as well as between groups within the United States. The chapter then explores the dense and fragmented American political institutions that have three important effects on the politicization of crime and the racial disparities that accompany it. First, violent crime is easily decoupled from other social policy problems that are deeply intertwined with crime, as well as from more inclusionary policy responses that are supported by political majorities through a process I refer to as lowest legislative common denominator politics; second, fragmentation obscures political responsibility for social problems in ways that inhibit capacity for reform and the range of politically possible policies; and finally, political institutions exacerbate racially stratified access to political power, in part by facilitating lowest legislative common denominator politics, which further erodes the likelihood of comprehensive social policy that could ameliorate criminogenic conditions. The consequence is that the high rates of victimization and other forms of insecurity, especially among minority communities and the poor, are largely hidden in the labyrinthine network of policymaking resulting in the failure of the state to ameliorate such risks. This facilitates the agendas of policy entrepreneurs motivated by narrow policy ends (e.g., increasing police or prison budgets), veto politics (e.g., gun advocates), or racial bias (stymying social welfare provision) and leads to short-term, almost entirely punitive political responses to rising rates of serious violence.

(p.25) Chapter 5, “Collective Security in the Netherlands,” again highlights growing rates of violence over time in the Netherlands and traces the development of political attention to crime. In direct contrast to predictions in the literature, violence and salience in the Netherlands are more tightly coupled than in any of the other cases. Here, the exceptionally low rates of violence provide a social context that conditions the political response to crime, and the proportional, parliamentary system promotes coalition governments that can, and do, enact universal social policies. Such a context results in some surprising outcomes, such as less varied policy responses across political parties during dramatic rises in criminal violence.

This chapter then turns to comparisons between the salience of crime across the three case studies and, more generally, across the three types of democratic systems. This analysis results in some additional surprising findings, most notably that the linkage between violence and salience is greater in the Netherlands than in the United States or United Kingdom. The chapter shows how robust social policy generally, and low rates of violence specifically, might contribute to a more secure polity, broadly speaking, and that multiparty, proportional parliamentary systems may be better situated to produce collective goods that limit exposure to both violence and repressive practices. A further exploration of party manifestos in additional democratic countries finds consistent results with respect to the coexistence of law-and-order agendas with wider social policy issues. The racial/ethnic homogeneity of Dutch society, relative to the United States and the United Kingdom, is also discussed.

In Chapter 6, “Two Cheers for Mob Rule,” I summarize my findings and return to the questions of the ability of mass publics to influence law and policy effectively and fairly on issues such as crime and whether the politicization of crime necessarily harms the worst off. I argue that political scientists and legal scholars need to focus more attention on non-state, predatory violence and its implications for democratic politics and legitimacy. This stems from the analyses that consistently show mass publics to be better risk assessors than they are generally given credit for. Their concerns about serious violence, especially among those most exposed to it, require greater scholarly engagement and analysis if (p.26) we are to understand the conditions under which communities can be made safer through more democratic and emancipatory means. Crime is an emotionally charged issue precisely because it is a real and serious threat to individuals and communities.

I conclude with six main findings and a discussion of how they can reshape our thinking about the capacity of mass publics to respond to crucial social risks in ways that confront the public need for security without further marginalizing and inflicting harm on already disadvantaged populations. The peculiar historical institutional framework of the United States has excluded many Americans, but African Americans in particular, from social and economic security, not least through restricting access to the mechanisms through which power is accrued and wielded, resulting in too little democratic accountability, rather than too much.


(2.) Most explicitly, per the quote at the beginning of this chapter, see Jacobs and Kleban (2003). But see also Lacey (2008); Zimring et al. (2001); Tonry (2010); Lancaster (2011); Bottoms (1995).

(3.) There, of course, notable, and noteworthy, exceptions, e.g., Fortner (2015); Gottschalk (2006, 2014); Weaver and Lerman (2010, 2014); Murawaka (2014); Weaver (2007). See also Simon (2007, 2014); Ewald (2012); Dilts (2014); Burch (2013).

(4.) Within the field of comparative politics, where analysis of the impact of political systems on policy outcomes is robust, scholars have largely ignored crime and punishment (but see Smith 2010; Seeberg 2013). This is a puzzling gap given that a substantial body of the comparative politics literature explores the welfare state, and welfare and criminal justice are both aimed at maintaining the legitimacy of the state and the security of the citizenry.

(6.) The growing devolution of powers to Scotland, as well as increasing pressure for greater autonomy in Wales, raise important questions about the nature of governance in the United Kingdom, many of which are beyond the scope of this book. Because Scotland has long had separate governance for crime and education policies, the focus of Chapter 3 is primarily England and Wales. The changing political landscape of the United Kingdom, however, may have crucial implications for crime politics because, as illustrated in the empirical chapters in this book, fragmentation, veto points, and uneven resource allocation can make more comprehensive (less singularly punitive) policies more difficult.

(8.) Recent work has also highlighted the non-monolithic nature of criminal justice policy, such as de-carceration, alternatives to imprisonment, and so on (Bosworth 2011).

(9.) See Bachrach and Baratz (1962) for a classic articulation of this problem.

(10.) This section draws of the large body of work on the politics of punishment, such as Tonry (2007, 2010); Wacquant (2010); Balvig (2004); Estrada (2004); Harcourt (2010); see also Quinney (1977); Chambliss (1964); Scheingold (1984); Tham (2001); Sutton (2004); Savelsburg (2006). On public responsiveness to emotional issues, see the preceding and also Hall et al. (1978); Garland (1996, 2001). On minimizing real risk of crime to the public, see Downes (2011, especially p. 116); Jenkins (1992); Hall et al. (1978); Cohen (1973).

(12.) Landemore (2012); Schwartzberg (2007); McCormick (2012); Shapiro (1990); Hacker and Pierson (2010).

(13.) I use John Gerring’s definition of case study approaches: “The intensive study of a single unit for purposes of understanding a larger set of (similar) units” (2004, 342). The unit under analysis here is the politicization of crime, a phrase that I use interchangeably with political salience.

(14.) I am grateful to Eric Schneider for offering this critique of my 2008 book, The Perils of Federalism: Race, Poverty and the Politics of Crime Control, which has made me more attentive to this problem.

(15.) There is an additional value to the comparative case study approach taken here. Though not stated explicitly, the causal stories embedded in the dominant literature assume a set of hypotheses that involve necessary and sufficient conditions (see Ragin 1987; Goerz and Mahoney 2012 for more discussion of necessary and sufficient conditions). If the politics of punishment has its own logic, independent of crime rates, as many scholars agree, serious crime is not a necessary condition for its political salience, and we would expect to see high political salience when serious crime is low. Similarly, if the topic of crime is an irresistible political opportunity, real rising crime rates are a political opening that few politicians would not wish to exploit. Thus, while not a necessary condition for salience, rising crime could certainly be a sufficient one. Sufficient conditions always lead to the outcome under observation, whereas necessary conditions are required for the outcome, but do not always lead to it. It is fair to say that the dominant literature on crime and punishment politics sees actual crime as a (potentially) sufficient but not necessary condition for public and political attention to the issue. Such hypotheses are much better suited to small-n case analyses using multiple data sources and in-depth, within-case, as well as cross-case comparisons, than to probabilistic, statistical methods, single-case studies, or ethnographies, which cannot isolate such conditions.

(16.) Goertz and Mahoney (2012) argue that the qualitative researcher translates the general “what causes Y?” question into “what Xs explain Y for one or more specific cases?” and/or “did X cause Y for one or more specific cases?” This is useful for understanding the research design deployed here. Violent crime and democratic institutions serve as x variables, and I observe the extent to which they are related to y outcomes, which are both the public and political salience of crime, as well as the range of policy alternatives available when crime is salient.

(17.) This exploration of a single variable causal process has utility in a number of respects, not the least of which is that it has the potential to demonstrate the existence of a potential cause that has been largely overlooked (Mahoney 2010).