Updated: Aug 30
Journalist and political commentator E.J. Dionne Jr. began his Washington Post Op-Ed of June 15, 1993 by chronicling the recent success of then-elect mayor of Los Angeles, Richard Riordan. Elected on the promise that he was “tough enough to turn L.A. around,” Riordan talked an awful lot about crime and business confidence. Despite his Republican status, Dionne haled Riordan for his “back to basics” approach to crime control and urban policy, suggesting that Democrats would do well to follow suite. “Democrats and liberals who want to maintain their power in urban areas” wrote Dionne, needed to respond with a similar program of their own. What the cities needed quipped Dionne, were “Kojak Liberals”. Liberals that could think, talk, and act “tough as nails” all while maintaining a “heart of gold”—much in the model of Kojak, the quintessential TV cop played by Telly Savalas (and soon, Vin Diesel in a theatre near you).
“Who Loves Ya Baby?”
In the future, Kojak Liberals would be wise to return to “the things government knows how to do,” such as, “putting cops on the street” and “keeping the parks clean,” all the while cutting spending on the “things it doesn’t know so much about”—namely, “a range of social service programs.” After all, according to Dionne, “Social service spending has mostly benefited the urban poor and—perhaps at least importantly—the providers (social workers, health administrators and the like) who served them. In the cities, the poor are disproportionately African American and Latino.” Following the desperately needed demographics lesson, Dionne speculated that more efficient, equitable spending on “basic services” (like enforcement and incarceration) “help all classes,” because “rich and poor alike benefit from more cops on the beat and safer public parks.”
Sounding increasingly like Oscar Lewis, Richard Nixon, or perhaps, Mitt Romney, Dionne railed on: “for now, the biggest problems confronted by the inner city poor are created by rising violence and lawlessness.” All other problems were secondary. First, these dangerous districts needed to be controlled in an effort to “take back the streets” as high crime rates had made “life miserable for the law-abiding majority among the poor.” Lest there be any confusion, Dionne made the future priorities of Kojak Liberalism very clear: “Kojak Liberals are unabashed in saying when it comes to priorities, law-enforcement and crime prevention get top billing.” Unfortunately, somewhere along the way law enforcement learned that high-volume arrests created the illusion of progress and sound police work in the Drug War. As such, this quickly became the standard practice, crime prevention receded from view. By 1990, Drug Czar William Bennett happily gloated that “a massive wave of arrests” was now “top priority for the War on Drugs.” Indeed.
Most troubling, instead of treating the vulnerable civil rights of drug users, drug sellers, and otherwise law-abiding urban poor under the modern War on Drugs, Dionne laid claim to a new “basic civil rights issue”: that is, the right to enjoy the streets free from crime and drug use. The time had come for urban children to stop “having their playtime interrupted with gun fights between rival gangs.” Despite being an avowed liberal and a well-educated Rhodes Scholar, Dionne failed to think critically regarding the causes of gun fights between rival gangs—that of Drug War policing. By constantly de-stabilizing corners through the arrest of corner boys, or what law enforcement calls, “low hanging fruit,” the modern War on Drugs begets future violence. Frequent arrests of corner boys ensures that corners will be fought over by rival gangs regardless of our commitment to law enforcement. Moreover, it ensures that innocent children, the real victims of what Epidemiologist Ernest Drucker calls the “long tail of mass incarceration” will continue to, as Dionne suggests, to have their “playtime interrupted with gun fights.”
Dionne concluded his call to arms for Kojak Liberalism by suggesting that all decent urban dwellers now felt the same: “free us from the fear of crime and give us better schools or we will join the exodus to the suburbs as soon as we can muster the resources.” The only way to prevent a continued exodus would be through a new path forged by Democrats. A path to be chartered by self-styled “New Democrats” like Bill Clinton whom Dionne lauded for his use of federal money to put 100,000 more cops on the street.
While most politicians agreed with Dionne, some private citizens remained dubious. One such citizen responded to Dionne in an Op-Ed of his own, also in the pages of the Washington Post. Just nine days later, John Canham assessed Kojak Liberalism and the War on Drugs quite well, calling it “a system of logical reasoning based on a set of irrational assumptions.” Case in point, Dionne’s wrongheaded claim that “social service spending has mostly benefited the urban poor” and their “providers.” With considerable verve, Canham fired back: “It’s always great op-ed fun to bash social workers. But beyond question, a landslide majority of federal social service spending goes to middle-class people, not the poor.” Canham continued, highlighting Medicare and Social Security as “overwhelmingly middle class program(s).” Moreover, Canham argued, “the lion’s share of housing subsidies go to middle-class families as well.” Throw in the mortgage-interest deduction, and suddenly Dionne’s case is hard to argue. Each of these programs, “above all,” were designed as “middle-class social policy.”
Turning away from the Kojak Liberals embrace of punitive logic, Canham reminded readers: “All the Kojak Liberalism in the world isn’t going to help cities unless urban residents have access to jobs, are trained in job skills, have the ability to earn wages high enough to take care of their families and get the services (like day care) necessary to enable them to take jobs.” While acknowledging that cops are “part of the solution,” Canham warned: “Clinton can put 10 million cops on the street and it won’t restore order unless viable economies are built in our cities.” Unfortunately, like law enforcement and mass incarceration, social programs geared towards social and economic mobility “take money—money suburbanites don’t want to pay.” More comfortable paying healthy sums per year to incarcerate non-violent offenders, suburbanites shunned old style liberalism, instead rewarding punitive “New Democrats”. Indeed, Newt Gingrich proved correct when he observed “most Americans” no longer “hated rich people”. Instead, they hated “funding poor people”.
Crime it turns out is not just a matter for criminal justice. “Crime is a social problem, one that affects us all,” wrote Canham. “The underlying causes are as much economic as they are the moral failures of individuals.” But make no mistake, the pathology did not rest solely with the poor, but rather, “the pathology resides as much among stingy, bitter suburbanites as among violent urbanites.” Despite a frighteningly muscular, draconian criminal justice response in the late 1980s and early 1990s, popular perceptions held that “anyone can wiggle his or her way to freedom with a sad story and slick attorneys.” High-profile acquittals of Larry Davis, the Menendez brothers, the trials resulting from the L.A. riots, and perhaps most notably, the O.J. Simpson trial all obscured the slow march of mass incarceration.
Rather than foam at the mouth and demand more police and harsher sentencing, citizens would be wise to consume popular media and political stump speeches with a grain of salt and some healthy independent thought. Next time, advised Wooster of Reason Magazine, “the proper response to any Washington-based solon’s speech” on crime, drugs or the urban underclass, “is to take the cynicism one normally has for politicians—and double it.”