Law and Order

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Michael W. Flamm. Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s. Columbia University Press. 2005. Pp.312. $38.50. Cloth: ISBN 9780231115124


Summary

Lisa Harry, Spring 2007


With this book Flamm looks at “law and order,” an issue that “emerged at the forefront of political discourse during the 1960s”(1) He asserts that this issue was “never as simple as either its proponents or its detractors tried to make it.”(2) Republicans claimed that Democrats “encouraged lawlessness and mollycoddled criminals: liberal answered that the conservatives were racists who undermined civil liberties.”(2) Acknowledging the role racism played in the formation of the issue, Flamm argues that the “origins and uses of the law and order mantra were much mire subtle.”(3) He explains that it was both a reaction to a real increase in fear and a “conscious manipulation of the American public by conservative Republicans searching for an issue.”(4)

Flamm asserts that the issue first moved from the “margins to the mainstream of national politics” in 1964, when Barry Goldwater made it a central theme in his challenge to Lyndon Johnson.(31) As street crime, urban riots, and political demonstrations grew over the next four years it grew in intensity despite the efforts of the Johnson administration to contain it. By 1968 “law and order” was the most important domestic issue in the presidential election and arguably the decisive factor in Nixon’s narrow triumph over Hubert Humphrey.”(174)

Flamm begins by highlighting the impact the combination of “shifting demographic patterns with increasingly vocal and visible civil rights and protest movements and the economic downturn of the manufacturing sector” had on American society.(14) He argues that these changes “sensitized many white and black Americans to the instability of their society.”(17) Moreover, according to Flamm, “Americans believed that the crime rate was going up and as a result they were afraid. This fear led many Americans to look to those that “acknowledged their concerns and offered them hope: conservative Republicans. Flam asserts that “anxious whites received little solace from liberals, who failed to take the matter seriously until it was too late.”(2) Liberals “routinely and consistently defined crime control as a local problem.”(122) This definition seemed rather “convenient when liberals had already classified virtually every other social ill as a national imperative.”(122) The loss of law and order “eroded faith in the government, leaving liberals unable to find a compelling moral voice on the issue.”(3) By contrast, “conservatives spoke with a cogent moral voice” on the issue and it helped to unify them after Goldwater.(3) According to Flamm, conservatives maintained that “the breakdown in public order was the result of three developments aided and abetted by liberals.” First the civil rights movement had popularized the doctrine of civil disobedience, which promoted disrespect for law and authority. To make matters worse, according to Flamm, President Johnson, “in a crass and cynical bid for African-American votes, had condoned and even applauded demonstrators when they violated what they viewed as unjust and immoral laws.”(3) Second, the Supreme Court “enhanced the rights of criminal defendants at the expense of law enforcement through a series of decisions. Finally, “the Great Society trumpeted by the White House had directly or indirectly rewarded undeserving minorities for their criminal behavior during urban riots.”(3)

Flamm argues that by introducing the issue during the Goldwater campaign, Republicans “honed their technique and took advantage of the escalating violence of subsequent years to turn the public’s anxiety into votes.”(147) Liberals misunderstood the depth of the American public’s fears. They “willingly wrote off the anxiety as racism in their eagerness to continue their fight for civil rights and against poverty.” Flamm believes that “right wingers simplified the issue and criticized Democrats’ handling of the situation.”(159) Liberals were to try to “play catch-up with an issue that they could never seem to address effectively.” Nothing the liberals attempted seemed to work. Flamm analyzes the effect law and order had on partisanship and concludes that “the issue worked well for conservative Republicans” because it brought them together while “dividing liberals who could not figure out how to attack the problem.”

Kirk Johnson, Spring 2013

Flamm has written a top-down account of how the political issue of "law and order" served to destroy the fragile liberal coalition of the 1960s and defeated the period of liberal ascendancy which culminated in the Great Society. Law and Order was an effective rhetorical tool largely because it was so amorphous (4), offering clarity and certainty to a wide swath of mostly white voters who had lost faith with liberal social programs and felt uncertainty in the face of rising street crime and social instability. A product of both the post-Civil Rights era and the Vietnam War, Law and Order offered a facile but compelling critique of the seeming failure of ambitious, hopeful social projects to guarantee prosperity and stability. By conflating civil unrest with street crime, and domestic discord with anxiety over the war in Vietnam, Law and Order seemed to address the primary concerns of voters and presented them with a clear critique of the ruling liberal orthodoxy.

Flamm's book is about political culture (5) and therefore is not concerned with social or cultural history. He explains that his books seeks to supplement existing literature, not supplant it (5), and also that he wants to bring the conservative viewpoint of the time back into the historiography. (6) While he does not deny that there were many currents of public opinion and social trends at play, he argues that the deliberate actions and rhetoric of political leaders during the period were crucial in shaping and even directing public opinion on the subject. This is not to say that public sentiment was manufactured or phony--indeed, Flamm argues repeatedly that liberals routinely failed to grasp how important public fears about street crime were. Those fears, while often flamed by sensationalist media and exploited by conservative politicians, were not groundless. Crime rates did rise through the period. One shortcoming of this book is that while Flamm briefly discusses the problematic nature of crime statistics, he never clearly states to what degree the rise in crime rates during the 60s was real. He certainly argues that it wasn't a figment of the public's imagination, but some hard numbers and comparative statistics would have been helpful. This omission from the main text is puzzling, because this is an exhaustively-researched book. There are 72 pages of footnotes for 185 pages of text; but not a single graph or chart.

One of the most fascinating facets of the study is how often the conservative and radical-left critiques of the liberal orthodoxy on the body of of concerns and positions which were discussed under the banner "law and order" found common ground. Not in actual positions or goals, but in their interpretive framework of the failings of the liberal state. For example, both argued that urban riots were political in nature--the right in order to prove Communist or black radical subversion of order thanks to liberal softness; the left in order to prove that liberal reforms were inadequate and designed to salvage the status quo through token efforts. Liberals were left, as they often were, to try and make a more nuanced argument while at the same time trying to manage the political balancing act of not offending their African-American base while also not alienating white voters by seeming to coddle rioters. This dynamic happened again and again through the era; liberals failed to find a coherent, compelling narrative that would refute the clean, straightforward law and order narrative without betraying liberal commitments to civil rights and ambitious social programs.

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