Watson: Law-and-order Conservatives Should Remember Their Heritage

Christian Watson is a political writer based out of Georgia and a Young Voices Advocate. He can be found on Twitter at @OfficialCWatson. He also hosts a podcast titled, “Pensive Politics.”

As the mass outrage over George Floyd’s unjust death continues, the decades-old mentality of “law-and-order” has re-emerged in American political discourse, and unfortunately, many

conservatives have jumped on the bandwagon. But that line of thinking does nothing to fix the problems at hand—because less punitive crime prevention methods are both ethical and more effective. That’s why conservatives should pursue alternatives to strict law-and-order that better reflect their ethics—namely rehabilitation and community policing.

In a speech on June 1, President Trump declared himself the “President of Law and Order,” and since then, he’s regularly harped on that theme. Meanwhile, one writer for the Federalist even called for conservatives to embrace the Nixonian War on Drugs-era law-and-order. But, for anyone interested in genuine reform, this a terrifying prospect. 

Law-and-order rhetoric doesn’t even reflect true American conservative principles, anyway. True conservatives revere America’s founders, who rebelled against a legal order established by a foreign king they deemed anathema to their own self-determination. And while a law-and-order mindset reserves problem solving for pressing issues like crime prevention and community stewardship solely for government agents, many conservatives support community solutions to these matters. 

The conservative ethic is expressed by philosopher Russell Kirk in his essay “Ten Conservative Principles,” in which Kirk advocates adherence to “custom, convention, and continuity” — in other words, tradition. 

The American conservative tradition is one of defiance against injustice. Founding events like Patrick Henry’s rebellion-inciting “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, or the Boston Tea Party’s then-illegal anti-tax protest—from which the modern-day conservative Tea Party took its name—gave shape to this tradition. Unlike law-and-order supporters, the Founders, who conservative pundits praise continuously, abhorred laws that harmed their rights. In The Declaration of Independence, the Founders even encouraged the people to “alter or abolish” the government if it became corrupt. 

I’m not advocating for a revolution, but like the Founders, American conservatives should hold government powers to a high standard. And by endorsing practices like community policing and rehabilitation, conservatives do just that in a manner consistent with their beliefs. 

During his first inaugural address, beloved conservative figure President Ronald Reagan famously said that “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

Though conservatives in general honor Reagan’s legacy, holding every other presidential contender to his example, and while most conservatives want less intervention from the government on most social issues, still many see the government as the solution to lawlessness.

In conservative circles, issues of education, religious freedom, gun rights and welfare are all met with a similar refrain: Keep the government away!

So why in the world don’t conservatives treat criminal justice the same way? Instead of law-and-order, which is punitive and diminishes the community’s power to address the causes of crime, conservatives should advocate for methods that empower individuals within their own community. 

Trying to improve communities by locking up threats doesn’t work, and is not conservative. If conservatism pushes for small government, then community-oriented solutions are the only alternative. Also, community approaches to criminal justice trump punishment-based ones. In Ohio, for example, in 2011 Republican Governor John Kasich implemented a criminal divergence program, which shrunk the state’s recidivism rate to 31.2 percent over the course of a year — the lowest “since Ohio began tracking the figure using current methods in 1991.” This program involved classic community-oriented strategies, such as “diverting first-time, non-violent offenders to intensive community programming and away from the corruptive influence of career criminals in Ohio’s prison system.” More generally, the results of rehabilitation and community-based practices are in step with Ohio’s sterling success. Less crime means less law-and-order, and more consistent conservatism. 

Ultimately, conservatives already have the answer to criminal justice reform deep within their ideological precepts. As Ronald Reagan once wagered during a speech on Aug. 12, 1986, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” 

The question remains: Will conservatives remember their roots, or buckle to the throes of passion? 

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