Here in Indianapolis, where the candidates for Mayor in this November’s election are spending unbelievable amounts of money on political advertisements (and not just television–You Tube, FaceBook, etc. etc.), there has been an overwhelming messaging focus on crime from the Republican candidate.
In a line that reminds this old-timer of Nixon, the Republican candidate–one Jefferson Shreve– assures us that he “has a plan.” Meanwhile, the effectiveness of his message depends upon voters agreeing that Indianapolis is a dystopian hellhole, where criminals roam the streets murdering people with abandon.
I live in the urban core of this “hellhole,” and I feel quite safe–a feeling backed up by local crime data– so I welcomed this explanation of mis-matches between perception and reality in a recent op-ed by Paul Krugman.
Remember “American carnage?” Donald Trump’s 2017 inaugural address was peculiar in many ways, but one of the most striking oddities was his obsession with a problem — urban crime — that had greatly diminished over the past generation. For reasons we still don’t fully understand, violent crime in America fell rapidly from around 1990 to the mid-2010s:
True, there was a crime surge after the pandemic, which now seems to be ebbing. But that lay in the future. Trump talked as if crime was running rampant as he spoke.
Yet if Trump had false beliefs about trends in crime, he had plenty of company. Gallup polls Americans about crime every year, and all through the great decline in violent crime a majority of Americans said that crime was increasing:
Contrary to the widespread belief that criminal behavior was on the rise, Krugman pointed to the reams of evidence showing that even people who responded–and evidently believed– that crime was rising were behaving as if it was falling. That was especially true when considering the wave of gentrification–the movement of large numbers of affluent Americans into those presumably scary central cities.
Krugman compared that mismatch of perception and reality to another current example–the disconnect between Americans’ attitudes about the economy and their own situations. The data shows that we Americans are relatively upbeat about our own financial circumstances; but we’re certain that a bad economy is harming other people–perhaps not locally, but nationally.
I thought it might be useful to draw parallels with the discourse on crime, where there is a similar disconnect between what people tell pollsters they believe is happening and what the available facts say. In fact, the resemblance between how people talk about crime and how they talk about the economy is eerily strong.
I know his next observation will shock you, but it turns out that both of these “mismatches” are grounded in partisanship. As Krugman notes, perceptions of crime, like perceptions about the economy, have become strongly partisan.
People become more pessimistic when the party they don’t support holds the White House, and that same partisanship undoubtedly explains the disconnect between perception and reality of crime in cities–both one’s own city, and urban America in general.
As it happens, the Republican perception of Los Angeles and New York as unsafe compared with southern cities is wildly off base. Both have low homicide rates — half as high as Miami’s — and New York City is overall one of the safest places in America.
What does all this tell us, besides the fact that Americans are very confused about crime? It shows that on an important public issue, people can hold beliefs about what is happening to other people — people who live in other places, or in the nation as a whole — that are not just false but also at odds with their personal experience.
It isn’t just beliefs about people who live elsewhere. If those interminable campaign spots tell us anything, it’s that at least some inhabitants of my city feel considerably less safe than I do.
It will be interesting to see how our local campaign for Mayor plays out, and whether the Republican candidate’s effort to focus on fear of and belief in rampant crime–to the exclusion of the multiple other issues of municipal governance he might be discussing–succeeds in ousting the incumbent.
If it does (count me a doubter–among other things, in his ads, Shreve comes across as rather creepy), it will be really interesting to see whether his vague, much touted “plan” suddenly becomes concrete (not to mention municipally affordable), and whether it makes residents believe that Indianapolis has become less dangerous.
In all fairness, Nixon’s “plan” did eventually get the U.S. out of Viet Nam….