We in progressive politics have a public safety problem. So do those in conservative politics, to be clear—a much darker, more insidious problem. But the progressive problem on public safety is one we can solve, one we on the left must solve to meet both the country’s health and safety needs and our movement’s electoral needs.
While Democrats outperformed 2022 midterm election expectations in most of the country, the blue defenses against a red wave fell in New York. Conservatives improved their vote share in every congressional district relative to 2020, and Democrats lost four seats in the national House that would have saved the party from relinquishing control.
There are several reasons for those losses, including complacency at the top of the ticket and ineptitude by the state party. Many races in the New York City area, though, were defined by public safety and perceptions of it, with conservative outlets molding those perceptions by pushing hysterical narratives on crime. Elected officials of both parties were all too eager to accept and advance those narratives.
To be clear: While crime has increased in New York since the start of the pandemic, that is part of a national rise in violence over that period. New York City is still statistically much safer now than it was even 10 years ago, and progressive justice reforms have been shown again and again to not be a cause of this increase in crime, regardless of what tabloids and elected officials have counterfactually insisted. Hyperbolic coverage of crime have spurred voters to align with the party that has long been—erroneously—perceived as better on these issues.
At the same time, it’s not enough for progressives to reject these narratives or refute these falsehoods. Under the overblown rhetoric is a real increase in crime. Under the disingenuous fearmongering is real fear. Under the statements and statistics are real individuals and families facing pain and loss as a result of violence in their neighborhoods.
Too often, progressives are characterized as not caring about that pain, because, too often, progressives are quick to minimize the realities of crime and violence because of the compassion inherent in progressive ideology and policy. Statistics mean nothing to victims of a crime, and unfortunately mean little to people hearing the visceral, emotional stories of those victims.
But I know from experience that there are ways to talk about these issues that convince people of the benefits of progressive public safety policies, ways that recognize and respond to fears rather than dismiss or aggravate them. I’ve seen strategies find success that I believe the movement must adopt.
We can and must do a better job not only speaking to that pain and those fears but presenting an affirmative case for our workable, effective policies on public safety. On mental health, on gun violence, on law enforcement, on housing, and on economic issues, all of which play a role in public safety, our policies are better, but our messaging is worse. Most of my individual conversations on public safety end in agreement, but on a mass scale, our message is being distorted or drowned out in favor of louder, more emotional voices. An overreliance on our long-term ideals is not landing with people who also demand short-term solutions.
This is not a call to step back from our solutions or beliefs on public safety—on the contrary, we have to lean forward. Progressives have a messaging problem; conservatives have a moral and factual problem; but so-called moderates may have the worst electoral problem of all.
Getting voters to support the strategies that we know work—the public safety policies that helped make my city the safest it had been in half a century prior to the pandemic—is a challenge even when crime is down. When crime is rising, it’s even more important to stand by those values, but harder to do so—and so many people prefer to run away from their convictions and toward conservatism.
Scared to stand behind real progressive policies, even ones they purport to believe in, moderate politicians have too often presented as Republican-lite, accepting the narrative framing of conservatives and presenting their own positions as saner and more sensible versions of conservative talking points. But in a fight between real conservatives and moderates feinting toward their arguments, the real Republican wins. They certainly did in New York.
But progressive public safety messages and policies can be an electoral benefit if there is an established level of trust between the movement and the community. In 2021 in New York City, while the prevailing narrative was about the moderate policies at the top of the ticket, progressives won all down the ballot and across the five boroughs. Two of three citywide roles and record seats in the city council were won by candidates on the left. Those candidates, including myself, combined a strong vision for reimagining public safety with the confidence of their constituents that they truly understood both the struggle with crime and the solutions to address it. Speaking to fears, rather than shouting over them, will always be more effective for winning elections and creating change that the community stands behind and participates in.
We can’t cede the framework of this conversation to conservatives, but we also can’t ignore its presence, prominence, or long-term effect on people’s perceptions. Instead, we find success in meeting people where they are, acknowledging their lived experiences, and presenting an affirmative alternative, not merely a defense that is eroded with each new headline sensationalizing the pain of communities.
That kind of narrative is difficult to deconstruct, but I have found success by addressing the issue, responding to and reframing the debate rather than rejecting the validity of the concern.
The strongest strategy, then, is to message from a position of compassion and strength, demonstrating that progressive public safety policies are exactly what is needed for our constituents to both be safe and feel safe. We know what works, and it’s incumbent on us to make sure that the people we serve know that as well, no matter what detractors will say.
Instead of running from the conversation on crime or, worse, fueling the disingenuous narratives Republicans created, Democrats can run on models of public safety proven to build safer communities. We can lead with solutions, not ideology alone, and we can do so fiercely, with equal parts conviction and compassion.
The big picture matters. But so does the small picture of a loved one, surrounded by candles at a makeshift sidewalk memorial. We can look at the vast systems of injustice and oppression that need to be corrected without overlooking the pain of a family or neighborhood reeling from real threats to their safety and security. We can create systems that are safer and more just at the same time. We can call out the lies and manipulations of those on the right, while recognizing and responding to the real fears of those in the middle. We can be right, without conceding the narrative to the right. And we can win on progressive public safety—at the ballot box, and on the safer streets of the communities we serve.