Conservatives should champion the criminal justice movement
It has always been a curious phenomenon that progressives—not conservatives—are the most vociferous skeptics of law enforcement.
To a certain extent, the fealty conservative Republicans feign to law enforcement is likely driven by the absurd reductionist politics of our hyperpartisan era. As progressives on the far-left demand we defund or abolish the police, it’s unsurprising that Republicans would overcorrect by pledging blind support for the boys (and girls) in blue.
During last week’s GOP gubernatorial debate, for example, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee bragged about having increased funding for the police by $10 million—as if merely throwing more money at law enforcement was the answer to our current felonious woes. Of course, to be fair to Lee, crime in North Las Vegas has actually dropped—which is worth bragging about, given news about violent crime waves across the nation. However, just as with education spending, the way such money is allocated is far more worthy of discussion than merely inflating budgets.
Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore took the rhetoric to a predictable excess, by suggesting “defund the police” should be greeted with armed resistance of some sort. Indeed, while others stopped short of such theatrical bombasity, pretty much everyone on stage was still sure to cater to the pro-police constituency of primary Republican voters. Many even took proverbial shots at Sheriff Joe Lombardo (who was not in attendance) for being too progressive or soft in his approach to policing.
The lack of support for criminal justice reforms in a Republican primary, however, isn’t surprising. Nonetheless, this particular blind spot among “conservative” Republicans is notable for the mere fact that most criminal justice reforms comport well with an overall desire to limit government’s largesse.
It’s always been curious to see, for example, the number of conservatives who place a “Blue Lives Matter” bumper sticker right next to stickers daring government to “come and take” their guns—as if it never occurred to them those same “Blue Lives” would be the ones responsible for knocking on their doors and confiscating their AR-15s. Likewise, while the conservative movement enjoys near unanimous opposition to mask mandates, economic shutdowns and vaccine requirements, there seems little concern regarding the fact that such overzealous regulatory restraints on our personal lives are only made possible by an empowered law enforcement apparatus.
This isn’t to suggest that conservatives should begin lobbying for law enforcement to cease its role of actually enforcing laws—after all, providing citizens with a reasonable level of security requires a police force willing to execute its duties. However, it’s not outrageous to expect those opposed to excessive government overreach to be more critical than they are of the government agencies actually responsible for enforcing such overreach.
After all, if one believes government should be limited in its ability to tax and regulate citizens, surely it should also be limited in its ability to send armed agents into private homes… or violate civil liberties with impunity.
Like most things in politics, however, there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around—and it’s not just conservatives who suffer from ideological blind spots. While progressives wax poetically about the injustices of policing drugs, for example, they have been more than willing to police firearm ownership in ways that generate similar injustices among marginalized communities. Likewise, the Democratic Party—which has long been embraced by criminal justice activists—has its own long history of pandering to those who demand we get “tough on crime.”
President Joe Biden, for example, has authored numerous “tough-on-crime” policies throughout his tenure, and Kamala Harris once laughed about threatening parents with possible jail time for letting their children skip school. And let’s not forget that Nevada’s Democratic Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro repeatedly killed progressive justice reforms during her tenure in the Legislature—much to the frustration of progressive activists within her own party.
It’s easy to see that such ideological inconsistencies are plentiful throughout both of America’s major political tribes. Unfortunately, like other government special-interests, the law enforcement community has been highly successful in using such inconsistencies to kill or water down much needed changes to American policing.
Despite this, support for reform has been growing in recent years—especially on the political right. The left’s favorite boogeymen, Charles and David Koch, have spent considerable resources partnering with leftist political funders, such as George Soros, to advance criminal justice legislation. United States Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) joined an (unsuccessful) effort to end qualified immunity, and Republican Senator Rand Paul sponsored the “Justice for Breonna Taylor” bill to end no-knock raids. A smattering of local Nevada Republicans even voted in favor of numerous Democrat-sponsored justice reforms in the last legislative session.
And yet, nobody expects Sheriff Joe Lombardo to stand on a campaign stage and announce plans to limit the tools or immunities available to police officers—nor does any seasoned political observer expect criminal justice reform to be a major campaign platform among GOP candidates looking to throw red meat to primary voters. Unfortunately, many of those primary voters for team red have been historically reluctant to entertain police reforms—if not outright hostile to the idea.
It’s an odd stance for supposed conservatives, given their natural inclination to reduce the size, scope and duties of government in almost every other regard. Reducing the ability for police to abuse their power, by reducing the scope of the power afforded to them, should be one of those rare issues where both the left and right overlap on a political Venn diagram.
Unfortunately, that’s probably part of the problem: Much of modern politics isn’t about broad consensus, it’s about partisan theater—a political need to capitalize on differences rather than find areas of consensus. In regard to criminal justice, this has left us with an ineffective and hypocritical Democrat Party that pays lip service to even the most extreme proposals, and a Republican Party that is more than eager to willingly violate its supposed vision of a limited and accountable government.
And that’s a pretty hostile environment for those of us who actually care about policy outcomes more than elections.
Michael Schaus is a communications and branding consultant based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and founder of Schaus Creative LLC — an agency dedicated to helping organizations, businesses and activists tell their story and motivate change. He is the former communications director for Nevada Policy Research Institute and has more than a decade of experience in public affairs commentary as a columnist, political humorist, and radio talk show host. Follow him at SchausCreative.com or on Twitter at @schausmichael.