Law and order (politics)

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In modern politics, "law and order" is an ideological approach focusing on harsher enforcement and penalties as ways to reduce crime.[1] Penalties for perpetrators of disorder may include longer terms of imprisonment, mandatory sentencing, three-strikes laws and even capital punishment in some countries.

Supporters of "law and order" argue that incarceration is the most effective means of crime prevention.[citation needed] Opponents argue that a system of harsh criminal punishment is ultimately ineffective because it self-perpetuates crime and does not address underlying or systemic causes of crime.[citation needed] They furthermore credit it with facilitating greater militarisation of police and contributing to mass incarceration in the United States.[2][3]

Despite the widespread popularity of "law and order" ideas and approaches between the 1960s to the 1980s exemplified by presidential candidates including Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan running successfully on a "tough-on-crime" platform, statistics on crime showed a significant increase of crime throughout the 1970s and 1980s instead, and crime rates only began declining from the 1990s onwards.

To differing extents, crime has also been a prominent issue in Canadian, British, Australian, South African, French, German, and New Zealand politics.

Political issue in the United States[edit]

Both the concept and the exact phrase "law and order" became a powerful political theme in the United States during the late 1960s. The first prominent American politician to use the term in this era was Alabama governor George Wallace, who used the phrase as a political slogan and racial dog whistle in his 1968 presidential campaign.[4] Other leading proponents were two Republicans, the governor of California Ronald Reagan and presidential candidate Richard Nixon. Nixon used the term to appeal to various demographic groups, including working-class white ethnics in northern cities. Nixon attempted to discredit the Democratic Party in the eyes of these voters, blaming it for being soft on crime and rioters.[5]

Previously, other politicians had used the term "law and order", although their use of the term was much less systematic and frequent than that of Wallace, Nixon, or Reagan. Political demand for "law and order" has been made much earlier before, by John Adams in the 1780s and 1790s.[6] It was a political slogan in Kentucky around 1900 after the assassination of Governor William Goebel.[7] The term was once used by Barry Goldwater in his run for president in 1964.

Michael Flamm[full citation needed] argues that liberals were unable to craft a compelling message for anxious voters. Instead, they either ignored the crime crisis, claimed that law and order was a racist ruse, or maintained that social programs would solve the "root causes" of civil disorder, which by 1968 seemed increasingly unlikely and contributed to a loss of faith in the ability of the government to do what it was sworn to do—protect personal security and private property. Conservatives rejected the liberal notions. In 1966, House GOP leader Gerald Ford said "How long are we going to abdicate law and order in favor of a soft social theory that the man who heaves a brick through your window or tosses a firebomb into your car is simply the misunderstood and underprivileged product of a broken home?".

Flamm[full citation needed] documents how conservatives constructed a persuasive message that argued that the Civil Rights Movement had contributed to racial unrest and President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society had rewarded rather than punished the perpetrators of violence. Conservatives demanded that the national government should promote respect for law and order and contempt for those who violated it, regardless of cause. In January 1965, Johnson himself called for a "war on crime",[8] and with congressional approval of the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965 and Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 directed federal funding to local police.

The number of prisoners tripled from 500,000 in 1980 to 1.5 million in 1994. Conservatives at the state level built many more prisons and convicts served much longer terms, with less parole.[9] The paradigm asserts that prisoners serving longer sentences would be much older upon release, thus reducing the probability of subsequent offences.[citation needed]


Although the Civil Rights Act of July 2, 1964 forbade all discrimination on the basis of race, in 1965 police brutality towards a black man during a traffic stop resulted in a major riot among the black community in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, the government's response to which is considered by many to have been a failure.[10] Indeed, every summer from 1964 through 1970 was a "long hot summer", though 1967 is particularly called that since 159 riots occurred that year.[11][12][13][14] Additionally, after the April 4, 1968 murder of Martin Luther King, a new wave of riots broke out in over 100 cities, with nights of violence against police and looting and burning of local white-owned businesses. The inner neighborhoods of many major cities, such as Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark and New York, were burned out. National Guard and Army troops were called out. At one point machine gun units were stationed on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington to prevent rioters from burning it down.


In the post war period, there was a dramatic rise in violent street crime, including drug-related murders, as well as armed robberies, rapes and violent assaults. Inner city neighborhoods became far more violent and people tried to move out to safer ones. The number of violent crimes more than tripled from 288,000 in 1960 (including 9,110 murders) to 1,040,000 in 1975 (including 20,510 murders). Then the numbers levelled off.[15]

In response to sharply rising rates of crime in the 1960s, treatment of criminal offenders, both accused and convicted, became a highly divisive topic in the 1968 U.S. presidential election. Republican vice presidential candidate Spiro Agnew, then the governor of Maryland, often used the expression; Agnew and Nixon won and were reelected in 1972.[5]

Notorious crimes by released murderers that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s are often credited with influencing politics regarding the concept of "law and order".[16] Most notably, the release of the murderer Willie Horton who committed a rape and a rampage of severe violence when he was released is generally credited with favoring the election of President George H. W. Bush over the man who released him, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. Whatever the cause, Bush beat Dukakis by a margin of both popular and electoral college votes that has not been surpassed since 1988. The release of the murderer Reginald McFadden, who went on a serial murder and rape spree,[17] by the acting governor of Pennsylvania, Mark Singel, may have been a contributing factor in the 1994 election of Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, in which Ridge defeated Singel by a margin of 45% to 39%.


Advocates of stricter policies toward crime and those accused of crime have won many victories since the issue became important. Highlights include stringent laws dealing with the sale and use of illicit drugs. For example, the Rockefeller drug laws passed in New York state in 1973, and later, laws mandating tougher sentences for repeat offenders, such as the three-strikes laws adopted by many U.S. states starting in 1993 and the re-legalization of the death penalty in several states.[5]

Opponents of these and similar laws have often accused advocates of racism. Civil rights groups have steadfastly opposed the trend toward harsher measures generally. The law-and-order issue caused a deep rift within the Democratic Party in the late 1960s and 1970s, and this rift was seen by many political scientists as a major contributing factor in Ronald Reagan's two successful presidential runs in 1980 and 1984. In both elections, millions of registered Democrats voted for Reagan, and they collectively became known as "Reagan Democrats". Many of these voters eventually changed their party registration and became Republicans, especially in the South.[5]

Though violent crimes are the primary focus of law-and-order advocates, quality-of-life crimes are sometimes also included under the law-and-order umbrella, particularly in local elections. A tough stance on this matter greatly helped Rudy Giuliani win two terms as mayor of New York in the 1990s, and was also widely cited as propelling Gavin Newsom to victory over a more liberal opponent in San Francisco's mayoral election of 2003.

Richard Riordan also became Los Angeles' new mayor in 1993 for the first time in 20 years after Tom Bradley retired.

Platt (1995) argues that the intensity of law-and-order campaigns represents a significant shift in criminal justice that involves modernization and increased funding for police technology and personnel, privatization of security services and surveillance, higher rates of incarceration, and greater racial inequality in security and punishment.[18]

The phrase was used repeatedly by Donald Trump in his presidential nomination acceptance speech in 2016, which interpreted as an intentional reference to Nixon's use of the term.[19] Politico Magazine reported that the rhetoric was at odds with the crime rates being at 50-year lows in the country.[20]

International issue[edit]

"Law and order" has been a political rallying call in the United Kingdom, particularly under Margaret Thatcher (Leader of the Conservative Party 1975–1990; Prime Minister 1979–1990).[21][22]

The term was parodied as "Laura Norder",[23] and entered popular culture, for example in the sarcastic song "Law & Order" by the Tom Robinson Band (1979).


Critics of law-and-order politics commonly point to actual and potential abuses of judicial and police powers, including police brutality and misconduct, racial profiling, prison overcrowding, and miscarriages of justice. As an example, they argue that while crime in New York City dropped under Mayor Giuliani, reports of police brutality increased during the same period. This period included the fatal shootings of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell, and the Abner Louima incident.[24][25][26]

In 2009, Pennsylvania juvenile court judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan pleaded guilty in the "kids for cash" scandal of accepting money from private prison industry officials in exchange for sentencing over 1,000 youths to prison terms for minor offenses.[27][28]

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a role model of tougher sentencing campaigners for his hardline corrections policies, was investigated by the FBI – starting in 2009 – for alleged abuses of power and intimidation of dissenting officials, among other controversies.[29][30]

A United States Supreme Court ruling in 2011, Brown v. Plata, ordered the State of California to cut its inmate population, citing prison overcrowding to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment.[31]

Jeremy Mayer, at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, has argued that the term is used as a way to emphasize racial backlash in politics without appearing racist.[32] By 2020, columnists and left-leaning groups in the United States were increasing criticism of the term as hypocritical and a dog whistle in response to the use of the term by Donald Trump and his supporters during the George Floyd protests,[33][34] with one outlet stating "[t]hroughout this nation's history, appeals to law and order have been as much about defending privilege as dealing with crime."[35] In the wake of the 2021 United States Capitol attack, criticism from columnists and outlets mounted on Republican politicians seen as "abandoning" or otherwise being hypocritical of being known as the "law and order party."[36][37][38][39][40]

Order without law[edit]

In a limited number of cases, it can be argued that order can be maintained without law. Robert Ellickson, in his book Order without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes, concluded that it is sometimes possible for order to be maintained without law in small groups. Ellickson examined rural Shasta County, California, in which cattle openly roam and sometimes destroy crops. He found that since social norms call for the cattle owner to pay for the damaged crops, the disputes are settled without law. According to Ellickson, not only is the law not necessary to maintain order in this case, but it is more efficient for social norms to govern the settling of disputes.[41]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Campbell, Michael C. (2011). "Politics, Prisons, and Law Enforcement: An Examination of the Emergence of "Law and Order" Politics in Texas: Politics, Prisons, and Law Enforcement". Law & Society Review. 45 (3): 631–665. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5893.2011.00446.x.
  2. ^ Lepore, Jill. "The Invention of the Police". The New Yorker. Archived from the original on July 17, 2020. Retrieved July 13, 2020.
  3. ^ Hinton, Elizabeth (May 9, 2016). From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: the Making of Mass Incarceration in America. ISBN 978-0-674-96922-3. OCLC 984643598.
  4. ^ "From Wallace to Trump, the Evolution of "Law and Order"". March 13, 2016. Archived from the original on June 3, 2020. Retrieved June 1, 2020.
  5. ^ a b c d Michael W. Flamm, Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s (2005).
  6. ^ John Adams (1856). The works of John Adams, second President of the United States. Volume 1. Best Books on. p. 439. ISBN 9781623764623. Archived from the original on April 27, 2017. Retrieved April 27, 2017.
  7. ^ Tribune Almanac and Political Register: 1901. 1901. pp. 92–93. Archived from the original on April 27, 2017. Retrieved April 27, 2017.
  8. ^ "Why We Should Reconsider the War on Crime". Time. Archived from the original on March 9, 2021. Retrieved April 10, 2021.
  9. ^ FBI, Uniform Crime Reports (2009)
  10. ^ "A 1965 failure that still haunts America". CNN. January 19, 2015. Archived from the original on February 8, 2018. Retrieved February 8, 2018.
  11. ^ Ann K. Johnson, Urban Ghetto Riots, 1965-1968 (1996)
  12. ^ Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles (2007)
  13. ^ Robert M. Fogelson, Violence as Protest: A Study of Riots and Ghettos (1971)
  14. ^ National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Report on Civil Disorders (1968), the famous the Kerner Commission Report
  15. ^ FBI Uniform Crime Reports. Violent crimes included murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. Source: Table Ec1-10 - Estimated crimes known to police, by type of offense: 1960-1997, in Susan Carter, ed. Historical Statistics of the United States Millennial Edition Online (2009)
  16. ^ MacDonald, John A. (October 15, 1994). "Specter Of Willy Horton Hovers Over Pennsylvania Race". Hartford Courant. Archived from the original on February 8, 2018. Retrieved February 12, 2022.
  17. ^ Berger, Joseph (April 4, 1995). "Accused Serial Killer And 92 Days of Freedom". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on March 23, 2018. Retrieved April 10, 2021.
  18. ^ Anthony M. Platt, "Crime Rave", Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine, June 1995, Vol. 47#2 pp 35-46
  19. ^ Amanda Marcotte (March 3, 2017). "Trump's racist hypocrisy: Sessions scandal exposes double standard behind dog-whistle calls for "law and order"". Archived from the original on May 31, 2020. Retrieved June 1, 2020.
  20. ^ Josh Zeitz (July 18, 2016). "How Trump Is Recycling Nixon's 'Law and Order' Playbook". Politico Magazine. Archived from the original on October 29, 2019. Retrieved June 1, 2020.
  21. ^ Terrill, Richard J. (1989). "Margaret Thatcher's Law and Order Agenda". American Journal of Comparative Law. 37 (3): 429–456. doi:10.2307/840088. JSTOR 840088.
  22. ^ Farrall, Stephen; Burke, Naomi; Hay, Colin (2016). "Revisiting Margaret Thatcher's law and order agenda: The slow-burning fuse of punitiveness" (PDF). British Politics. 11 (2): 205–231. doi:10.1057/bp.2015.36. S2CID 153991764. Archived (PDF) from the original on March 5, 2021. Retrieved December 25, 2020.
  23. ^ Engel, Matthew (October 7, 2009). "Whatever happened to Laura Norder?". Financial Times. Archived from the original on November 30, 2020. Retrieved November 23, 2020.
  24. ^ "Rudy Giuliani on Crime". Archived from the original on July 31, 2009. Retrieved July 29, 2016.
  25. ^ "Giuliani and Violence in Pre-9/11 New York". May 25, 2011. Archived from the original on October 29, 2016. Retrieved July 29, 2016.
  26. ^ "Trial Puts Giuliani, NYPD on Defensive". March 30, 1999. Archived from the original on May 25, 2016. Retrieved July 29, 2016.
  27. ^ "Americas | US judges admit taking kickbacks". BBC News. February 13, 2009. Archived from the original on February 16, 2009. Retrieved July 29, 2016.
  28. ^ "US judges admit to jailing children for money". Reuters. February 22, 2009. Archived from the original on April 18, 2009. Retrieved October 14, 2011.
  29. ^ Wingett, Yvonne (May 22, 2009). "Sources: FBI asking questions on Arpaio". Archived from the original on February 25, 2022. Retrieved July 29, 2016.
  30. ^ Wingett, Yvonne (March 5, 2010). "FBI expands Joe Arpaio probe to Maricopa County Attorney". Archived from the original on February 25, 2022. Retrieved July 29, 2016.
  31. ^ Liptak, Adam (May 23, 2011). "Justices, 5-4, Tell California to Cut Prisoner Population". The New York Times. Archived from the original on March 5, 2015. Retrieved May 31, 2011.
  32. ^ Mayer, Jeremy D. (2002). "Nixon Rides the Backlash to Victory: Racial Politics in the 1968 Presidential Campaign". The Historian. 64 (2): 351–366. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6563.2002.tb01487.x. JSTOR 24450414. S2CID 143272460. Archived from the original on July 9, 2021. Retrieved July 7, 2021.
  33. ^ Schwartzapfel, Beth (October 7, 2020). "What Trump Really Means When He Tweets "LAW & ORDER!!!"". The Marshall Project. Archived from the original on August 4, 2021. Retrieved July 7, 2021.
  34. ^ Smith, Erica D. (July 26, 2020). "Column: They're fed up with the 'tyranny' of face masks. But Portland? That's about 'law and order'". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on July 9, 2021. Retrieved July 6, 2021. Whether they know it or not, many people are parroting Trump. Badly lagging in the polls and trailing Joe Biden as the election nears, the president has been desperate to create a distraction from his administration's abysmal handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. So he has doubled down on selling himself as the "law and order" commander in chief, arguing that a crackdown of the sort that's happening in Portland is needed in "out of control" Democrat-led cities — at any cost.
  35. ^ Sarat, Austin (September 8, 2020). "Trump's law-and-order campaign relies on a historic American tradition of racist and anti-immigrant politics". The Conversation. Archived from the original on July 9, 2021. Retrieved July 6, 2021.
  36. ^ Bort, Ryan (June 16, 2021). "Here Are the Excuses Republicans Are Giving for Voting Against Honoring Capitol Police Officers". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on June 17, 2021. Retrieved July 6, 2021. Voting against honoring the police officers who responded to the riot that resulted in five deaths, including that of an officer, is hard to understand, especially from members of the party that prides itself on upholding law and order and backing the blue.
  37. ^ Plott, Elaina (January 16, 2021). "Trump's 'Law and Order': One More Deceptive Tactic Is Exposed". The New York Times. Archived from the original on July 16, 2021. Retrieved July 6, 2021. But this month, it was a largely white mob trawling the Capitol grounds with Trump banners and zip ties, and killing a police officer. And yet the president did not preside over a tear-gas-fogged show of force, as he had during a protest for racial justice before the White House last summer. Instead, he praised these supporters on the evening of the riot — "you're very special," he assured them, "we love you" — before trotting out the "law and order" comment the next day under pressure from advisers.If Mr. Trump spent much of his presidency casting the G.O.P. as the party of law and order, he is concluding it by clarifying just who, in his view — and in his base's view — the law was designed to order. It's the Black Lives Matter protesters who are confronted and arrested by the police in Mr. Trump's law-and-order America; the white mob, on the other hand, can expect officers who pause for selfies.
  38. ^ Rubin, Jennfier (June 28, 2021). "Opinion: The GOP should be held accountable for deserting law and order". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on July 2, 2021. Retrieved July 6, 2021.
  39. ^ "Editorial: The Republican Party's 'law and order' mantra has lost all credibility". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. June 20, 2021. Archived from the original on July 9, 2021. Retrieved July 6, 2021.
  40. ^ Bierschbach, Briana (January 9, 2021). "Republicans' law-and-order message tarnished by U.S. Capitol breach". The Star Tribune. Archived from the original on February 25, 2022. Retrieved July 6, 2021.
  41. ^ C. Ellickson, Robert; A. Fischel, William (January 1, 1993). "Review of Order without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes". Land Economics. 69 (1): 113–115. doi:10.2307/3146284. ISBN 9780674641693. JSTOR 3146284. OCLC 22888941.

Further reading[edit]