Second of a Series
In Part One of this series, we considered the changing politics of the blue-collar suburb of Macomb County, Michigan, just outside of Detroit. In recent decades, Macomb has switched from New Deal Democrat to Trump Republican. And one of the catalysts for that switch was the issue of crime.
In fact, this recent move to the right was predictable, because we’ve seen it before; in an earlier era of rising criminality, working people—which is to say, most Americans—embraced anti-crime icons in the popular culture, as well as anti-crime figures in politics. In this installment, we’ll take a look back; after that, we’ll return to the present day, to see how the crime issue is yet again affecting America.
In the decade of the 1960s, violent crime rose 129 percent, as a string of judicial decisions, including Supreme Court cases, dramatically undercut law enforcement.
In addition, liberal-left government policies were making the problem worse, because they were actually subsidizing street anger. In the eyes of many “revolution”-minded bureaucrats, the liberal black civil-rights reformers of that era, including Martin Luther King, Jr., were too moderate; the authentic voices of “the community,” these leftists decided, were radicals and even criminals, operating under the clenched-fist banner of “Black Power.”
Indeed, those bureaucratic radicals put their money—actually, our money—where their mouths were: The federal Office of Economic Opportunity gave a grant of nearly a million dollars (a lot of money in 1967) to a Chicago street gang, the Blackstone Rangers. And plenty of other entities, public and private, gave richly as well: The famed New York City composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein even held a fundraiser for the Black Panthers at his 13-room Park Avenue apartment.
Fortunately, amidst this madness, the country as a whole was horrified, and so the voters took action against the then-dominant party, the Democrats. We might note, with a twinge of melancholy for a lost era, that most older Democratic officials in those days—including President Lyndon B. Johnson and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley—were themselves centrist, even culturally conservative; they were, after all, products of the New Deal and World War Two. So their natural instinct was to support the police and other pillars of civilization, because it was their civilization; in those days, the Democrats were still the party of the blue collars, including the cops.
However, these elder Democrats found themselves helpless to control the younger rage in their own government; the Great Society spun out of control, as Deep State bureaucrats funded anarchy. In fact, those white-collar anarchists were avidly cheered on by like-minded professors, strident reporters, post-Christian ministers, and guilt-stricken do-gooders. So in addition to the spiking crime rate, riots with a distinctly political edge—joined, of course, by simple wickedness and bloodlust—erupted all over urban America.
Confronted with these multiple disasters, the voters had to make a choice: If the party they had trusted to run the country for the previous three decades could be trusted no longer, they would make a change—they would vote Republican.
As a result, the GOP scored a massive victory in the 1966 midterm elections. In California, for example, an untested newbie candidate won the governorship—that would be Ronald Reagan. Indeed, Republicans won five of six statewide offices that year; the only Democrat who survived the GOP tidal wave was the attorney general, one Thomas C. Lynch. And two years later, in 1968, Richard Nixon and still more Republicans were elected on a strong “law and order” platform.
Then, in 1970, Reagan was re-elected governor of California, and the following year, Frank Rizzo, the police commissioner of Philadelphia, was elected mayor of that city on a ferocious anti-crime platform. Rizzo’s most famous quote reads like a parody of compounded political incorrectnesses that could never be uttered today; he would be so tough on crime, he vowed, that he would “Make Attila the Hun look like a f**got.”
And of course, in 1972, Richard Nixon won a thunderous re-election victory, winning by more than 23 percentage points, carrying 49 of 50 states. As an aside, we might note that the politics of Macomb County changed drastically during these years. In 1968, the Democratic presidential nominee, the old-style Hubert Humphrey, had won the county by 25 points; by contrast, four years later, a new-style Democrat, George McGovern, lost it by 28 points. So we can see: It was a more than 50-point swing; unchecked violence and lunacy can have that effect on self-defense-minded voters.
During those same years, the culture, too, was reacting—or, as some would prefer to say, backlashing. In 1969, country singer Merle Haggard released “Okie from Muskogee,” a song capturing the heartland’s revulsion against what was happening in the cities and on campuses. As Haggard put it in his tune, “We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse.” The song became a defiant mega-hit in the territory that would one day be known as red-state America; the ballad still resonates today.
Then in 1971 came a landmark novel, The New Centurions, a sympathetic look at the police and policing. The book, by Joseph Wambaugh, at the time an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department, became a huge best-seller.
We might note that Wambaugh had the stereotypical background of a cop; born in the gritty town of East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he was the son of a policeman. Having joined the Marines at 17, having married at 18, Wambaugh then signed on with the LAPD in 1960, where he was a close-up eyewitness to the storm of street crime and rioting that afflicted urban America in the coming decade. The dramatic heart of The New Centurions was a fictionalized look at the actual 1965 riot in the Watts neighborhood of LA, which left 34 dead.
We might add that in that same year of 1971, other elements of the popular culture were sounding the same notes. The movie The French Connection, for instance, was the tough and violent tale of NYPD foot soldiers fighting an international heroin ring; the film won five Oscars, including for best picture and for best actor, Gene Hackman.
Also in ’71, came another cop movie, less rewarded but more remembered: Dirty Harry. In that film, Clint Eastwood starred as an even tougher cop; in one scene, he points his .44 Magnum at a criminal who is about to reach for his gun, thinking that Harry/Eastwood might have run out of ammunition. The cop snarls in his raspy voice: “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” Then and now, legions of film fans have memorized Eastwood’s taunt, which seems destined to live forever on YouTube.
At the time, movie critics were mortified by the film’s fierce message; Pauline Kael, writing for The New Yorker, called it “fascist.” Yet decades later, another film critic put Dirty Harry into the larger cultural context of the 70s:
The language, attitude, and spectacular violence of that scene soon crept into the likes of [TV shows such as] Kojak, Baretta, and Starsky and Hutch, and into movies like Walking Tall and Death Wish.
We might add that The New Centurions was made into a movie in 1972, starring no less than George C. Scott, the great actor who had played Gen. George S. Patton a few years earlier.
In 1973, Joseph Wambaugh published his second novel, The Blue Knight, also about the police; as the title suggests, the cops are again the heroes. That novel, too, was made into a movie, and it starred yet another Hollywood legend, William Holden; shortly after that, it became a TV series as well.
What was unmistakable about these and other shows was that the cops—at least those on the beat, in their patrol cars, the ones risking their lives—were depicted as heroes. They weren’t perfect, that’s for sure, and yet nonetheless they were the good guys, protecting the rest of us from the creatures of the social abyss.
Indeed, if Virgil might be permitted an ancient reminiscence, he can’t help but equate these Centurions and Knights to their Roman and Arthurian predecessors. After all, someone has to be strong enough to keep out the barbarians. In particular, Virgil gets misty-eyed at the memory of Flavius Aetius, the noble general who fought so effectively to defend the by-then Christian Roman Empire against the pagan hordes.
Many centuries later, in this American republic, much of the elite has abandoned its national duty. So it’s been the commoners, with no higher title than citizen—although come to think of it, what higher title could there be?—who have undertaken the hard work of defending. Indeed, the American elites, as we have seen, have often been on the side of politically correct barbarism.
Yes, the cops have been the steady heroes—blue-collar heroes—coming from places such as Macomb County. In fact, a 1971 study found that they had overwhelmingly blue-collar backgrounds; the fathers of 80 percent of NYPD recruits in that era were laborers or service workers.
Today, too, the job of a cop is a humble one; departments don’t gain many recruits from the Hamptons or Palo Alto. Indeed, in 2017, the national median salary for a police officer is $53,229, which is slightly below the national median salary.
So it goes: These New Centurions, these Blue Knights, do their job—risking their lives each and every day—without much in the way of compensation. Indeed, it’s staggering to think of some of the professions that pay a hundred times more, or a thousand times more.
And yet if the police aren’t well paid, they are nevertheless influential, because, frankly, we need them more than we need Wall Street arbitrageurs. Virgil will even predict that the police are likely to gain in influence, just as they did in the late 60s and into the 70s, when a nation reeling from crime and tumult turned its anxious eyes to that Thin Blue Line.
So the past seems destined to be prologue—as the ideas of law, order, and the defense of civilization make their inevitable return back to the center of our politics. We’ll examine that likely progression in the next installment.