The “Law and Order” Backlash Against Biden Was a MirageBreaking News
tags: 1968, Joe Biden, riots, Donald Trump, 2020 Election, Law and Order
For all the effort expended over the past 15 years to bring punditry a step or two closer to the social sciences and into communion with statistics, the art of the political take is still, for the most part, the art of the quick draw. Our discourses and the technologies that now sustain them aren’t built to reward patience; as ever, the loudest and most important voices are those that can mold their predictions out of raw, uncomplicated intuition with speed and ease. Other, more careful and more interesting voices root their arguments at least partially in scholarship about our political past. But even they might be led astray by historical determinism: the presupposition of outcomes that representative data in the present has yet to reveal. As ever, the very best way to suss out what’s going to happen in American politics is to wait and see what happens. It’s not really foolproof—those who are loud and wrong about what will happen are often as loud and wrong about what’s happened already—but compared to the other methods, it really cannot be beat.
We’re a little under two months out from the election and a little over three months into a season of protests against racism and police violence that, despite what their critics have said, really have been mostly peaceful. A series of polls taken in June suggested between 15 and 26 million Americans demonstrated against the killing of George Floyd that month—if most had been committed to or engaged in violence, the president and the right would probably have more to fear now than a mere loss at the polls in November. Of course, there genuinely has been looting and rioting in cities across the country. For several nights in late May, the nation watched sections of Minneapolis go up in flames. And as it was happening, we heard a lot about 1968.
Our understanding of the impact the King assassination riots had on racial politics and that year’s election has been capsulized into a tidy piece of received wisdom, one invoked so solemnly and so often this summer it might have been thought a law of physics: Riots and disorder hurt Democratic candidates and help Republicans. But Biden’s continued rise in the polls after Minneapolis suggested strongly that this particular election, with these particular candidates, might play out differently. And now, after another round of high-profile protests, a Republican National Convention heavy with “law and order” rhetoric, and a wave of quality national and state data, we can say with some confidence that those who raised the alarm about the demonstrations have, so far, been comprehensively wrong.
The limits of the ’68 comparisons should have been obvious from the beginning. In the first place, the racial attitudes of the American public and the disposition of the mainstream press toward racial protest have changed dramatically over the last half-century. Our basic political geography has also changed, as has the composition and partisan sort of the electorate. And the “law and order” candidate this time around is a historically unpopular incumbent who has deepened the lawlessness and disorder he decries—an incumbent who, incidentally, has also bungled the response to a pandemic that remains at the top of mind for most voters and has killed nearly 190,000 Americans.
The Trump campaign’s decision to elide this last fact and lean fully into messaging about urban disorder during the RNC should have been seen universally as an act of desperation. Instead, a slew of pundits—spooked by the unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, following the shooting of Jacob Blake, not chastened in the slightest by Biden’s numbers post-Minneapolis—insisted that Trump had settled on a strategy sure to succeed absent a dramatic change in strategy from Biden who, just to shut people up, delivered his millionth denunciation of rioting in Pittsburgh and Kenosha this week. “It’s no use dismissing their words as partisan talking points,” The Atlantic’s George Packer wrote of the RNC last Friday. “They are effective ones, backed up by certain facts. Trump will bang this loud, ugly drum until Election Day. He knows that Kenosha has placed Democrats in a trap.”
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