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Law and order is a killer problem for Democrats

By Charles Lipson
Real Clear Wire

Polling data shows Democrats are in deep trouble on the issues of domestic safety and unbiased justice. Voters say they want law and order and aren’t getting it. They want enforcement of criminal statutes duly passed by their representatives. They abhor favoritism for some and targeting for others. They want personal safety and basic fairness. They deserve them. And they are angry.

They resent the wide-open border, street shootings, street-corner gangs dealing drugs, carjackings, and unchecked shoplifting. They are stunned that squatters can simply take over houses from their rightful owners. They are troubled by the aggressive prosecution of Donald Trump, while Joe Biden skips away from his family’s extensive grifting operation and a garage full of classified documents.

Although these issues are usually considered separately, they are also important together. The concerns overlap and reinforce each other, harming Biden and his political party. Democrats are seen as weak on crime and feckless on border security, but relentless in prosecuting their principal election opponent and trying to bankrupt him.

Any consideration of law and order as a political issue should begin with the basic obligation of governments at all levels. In liberal democracies, the state should provide that safety with due respect for each citizen’s constitutional rights, without undue force, and without favoritism or political bias. The goal is to let citizens pursue their own private goals in peace, feeling secure in their lives, property, and home life. 

In democracies like ours, that order must be secured by enforcing statutes and rulings by courts. When disputes arise, as they often do, they should be settled by neutral third parties, either courts or arbiters, using well-established laws and procedures. When state prosecutors are involved, their responsibility is to act without bias, partisanship, or favoritism. Remember, they are part of the executive branch. They are not legislative monarchs. They don’t get to make laws themselves or disregard those that have been passed.

When does government fail to meet those obligations? It fails when the executive branch:

Exceeds its discretionary authority to ignore the enforcement of some laws against some people but vigorously enforces them against others; and
Flouts the basic obligation to enforce laws fairly, without partisanship and within constitutional limits.

This failure is particularly noxious when the state targets political enemies or disfavored people, such as African Americans in the segregationist South – or conservative populists and their leaders today.

What Americans feel today is a mounting sense that these violations are piling up and that they harm safety, property, and civil rights of citizens in a democracy.

First, they see an erosion of social order. That’s not a problem caused entirely by government. Local communities are also responsible. Violent crime is concentrated among the poor, particularly in black communities because of a breakdown in family life, the disintegration of social norms, and the lack of decent schooling and job opportunities. They don’t trust the police because of hard experience: decades of brutal mistreatment.

These problems have been amplified because of atrocious public policies that go uncorrected after years of failure. Public schools are dreadful in almost every major U.S. city. They are really employment programs for teachers protected by powerful unions. They don’t prepare students for the modern workforce or instill the knowledge and values needed for citizenship. (That failure is why Republican-controlled states are now moving rapidly to give parents school choice, including the funds to educate their children in private schools.)

Progressive cities and states have been unwilling to enforce laws protecting people and property on the specious grounds that doing so would jail too many minorities and thus undermine “social justice.” But don’t people in impoverished communities have as much right to live in peace and safety as people in middle-class neighborhoods? Shouldn’t they have a chance to shop in local stores, rather than see them closed because of rampant organized shoplifting and strong-armed robberies which go unprosecuted and, hence, undeterred? Shouldn’t they be able to stop at the gas station and fill up their cars without fear of carjacking? Shouldn’t they be able to walk the streets or sit on their front porch, rather than huddle inside, afraid of street-corner drug gangs and random shootings? It’s a perversion of language to call these dysfunctional public policies “progressive.”

The breakdown of civic order was obvious in the rioting and arson that followed the death of George Floyd in 2020. Almost no one was punished. The Democratic National Convention, held that summer, spent far more time genuflecting to the rioters’ grievances than condemning the riots themselves. Many speakers focused their outrage on police forces across the country.

The most “progressive” politicians advocated the outright abolition of local police forces. The effects on public safety were utterly predictable. Surprisingly, it wasn’t butterflies, rainbows, and unicorns. If there was a pot of gold, it was looted.

Second, voters see a president and a party utterly unwilling to enforce border laws. Controlling entry into the country is a basic feature of every country’s sovereignty. Citizens know it. They also know Joe Biden inherited a border that was largely (but not completely) secure. In his first week as president, Biden systematically dismantled the policies that ensured border control.

We are living with the consequences of this president’s catastrophic decisions. Since he took office, between 7 and 10 million people have crossed the border illegally. With them have come vast quantities of illegal drugs, manufactured in Mexico from precursor chemicals sent from China. Those drugs kill some 100,000 Americans each year. No one has any idea how many spies and terrorists have also infiltrated. When the state of Texas, fed up with an open border, erected its own barbed wire barrier (it worked), the Biden administration’s Department of Justice sued to have it removed without offering any substitute.

The massive influx of illegal immigrants is crushing city and state budgets. Those jurisdictions simply don’t have the money to provide housing, schooling, food, or medical care for this huge population of indigents. They can’t cope with the violent criminal gangs that have immigrated (some from as far away as Chile), have enriched themselves with drug sales and human trafficking, and have become entrenched across the U.S.

Some financial effects of this influx are currently hidden but will be felt soon. I was privately informed that a major research hospital, far from the southern border, is now losing over $1 billion per year in uncompensated medical care for illegal aliens. Numbers like that will soon break the hospital and others like it across America. If Washington picks up the tab, it will be another massive hit to the deficit.

Democrats have become so entrapped by these problems that they can no longer speak straight. They cannot say the plain words, “illegal immigration.” They faint at the words “illegal alien,” a term used in statutes for decades. Today’s Democrats condemn that language and try to mask the harsh reality with gooey phrases like “asylum seekers” (very few qualify), “irregular immigration,” and even “newcomers.”

Evasive phrases like these may be popular in toney Greenwich, Connecticut, but not in Gary, Indiana. The growing anger in poor, minority communities about crime and illegal immigration is a serious problem for Democrats, who can’t win without overwhelming support and turnout from African Americans. They are none too happy about competing with illegal immigrants for lower-skilled jobs and public resources.

Democrats didn’t expect that problem with their core constituency. Nor did they expect it from Hispanics, who voted overwhelming for Biden in 2020 but are now slipping away. Whether that shift among Hispanics is temporary or permanent will affect elections for years to come. In either case, it will affect the outcome in 2024.

Third, while the federal government and blue states are steadfastly refusing to enforce basic laws on immigration, theft, squatting, and so on, they are simultaneously mounting zealous legal attacks on Biden’s general election opponent. Several states tried to keep him off the 2024 ballot until the Supreme Court stopped them. Prosecutors in New York and Georgia, plus Biden’s Department of Justice, are now trying to imprison Donald Trump, tie him down in court during the campaign season for alleged misdeeds that happened years ago, while also hoping to break him financially, a process led by local prosecutors who campaigned on the promise to “get Trump.” As Letitia James once told a supporter, “We’re definitely gonna sue him, we’re gonna be a real pain in the a--."

In fulfilling that promise, James and fellow partisan prosecutors (and, alas, judges) have trampled on his basic constitutional protections and their own duties as officers of the court. Honest legal systems do not operate under the principle of “Show me the man, and I’ll find you the crime” a dictum popularized behind the Iron Curtain during the reign of terror by Stalin’s secret police. It should be anathema in a democracy, not the best explanation for actions by Letitia James, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, Atlanta prosecutor Fani Willis, or local New York judge Arthur Engoron. Nor should their actions be cheered by rabid partisans, much as they hate Trump. Yet that is exactly what they are saying on social media. They want vengeance.

Independent voters want something else. They want fairness. Many are not in love with Trump’s candidacy, but they still think he is being manhandled by prosecutors and judges. And they think that is fundamentally wrong. It will drive some of them to vote for him, or at least against his opponent.

Our Constitution is supposed to protect citizens against biased, politicized law enforcement. There are explicit constitutional protections against excessive fines, for instance. Those shouldn’t just be meaningless words on paper. Yet Judge Engoron, who oversaw the bench trial concerning Trump’s bank loans, ordered the former president to post a half-billion dollar bond simply to appeal the questionable legal decision. (On the final day to post it, a state appeals court cut the bond in half and eased a few restrictions the trial judge imposed on the Trump Organization’s business.)

Trump has said he will abide by the appellate decision. He has little choice. If he doesn’t post the bond, he loses even the right to appeal. Meanwhile, James blasts out another a taunting tweet each day, gleefully observing that Trump owes another $100,000 in interest. She loves it and says so brazenly.

James and Judge Engoron are attempting to break the former president financially before he can appeal a court decision. Whether Trump wins or loses on appeal, he should have the right to raise his legal arguments without overwhelming financial impediments. The judge could have easily accommodated that appeal, but he refused. He could have easily accepted a lower bond, such as the $100 million proffered by Trump, but he refused. Meanwhile, James was gleefully preparing to seize Trump’s properties and force a fire sale until the state appellate court lowered Trump’s bond and gave him 10 more days to comply.

These were shameful exercises of partisan power, done under the color of law. They may end up helping Trump politically, but that’s not the point here. The crucial point is that they undermine the unbiased, non-partisan rule of law, a foundational principle in any true democracy.

Voters can see the fundamental unfairness. So can investors, who are worried by what looks like the arbitrary loss of Trump’s property rights. When that happens in Manhattan, the capital of world finance, there will be consequences.

Each of these issues – massive illegal immigration, biased law enforcement, the erosion of property rights, and “Get Trump” lawfare – is important in its own right. Together, they are even more important. Taken together, they reinforce Americans’ sense of unease, social division, and betrayal by a justice system tilted against political enemies. They are frustrated by governments at all levels that seem arbitrary, inept, and unwilling to meet their most basic obligations.

If the polls are right, voters will make their frustration felt in November.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics and Security.  

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