To the casual observer, the period from November 2015 to July 2016 reads like a particularly bleak version of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire. In this time, we have seen shootings or bombings in Paris, Brussels, Lahore, Istanbul and Baghdad, more recently the shocking attack in Nice and a failed coup attempt in Turkey in which civilians have been killed and soldiers lynched. We have seen North Korea launching a rocket into space, the outbreak of the Zika virus and the ongoing impeachment of impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, not to mention the deaths of countless celebrities from David Bowie to Alan Rickman.
These violent events have contributed heavily to what has been described in some quarters as a politics of fear. The term isn’t new, and as one of the subjects of Joel’s lyrical time capsule, Richard Nixon, once told an aide, “people react to fear, not love”. This certainly appears to have been a contributing factor to two of the biggest political stories of 2016; the UK’s decision to leave the European Union and the rise of Donald Trump, who was confirmed this week as the Republican Party’s nominee for President.
At Trajectory we strive for a world in which the future is better understood, better planned, and less feared, and with the Republican National Convention ongoing it feels appropriate to apply our slogan to Trump’s new mantra; not content with making America great again, Trump is going to “make America safe again”.
You could be forgiven for assuming – based on these slogans – that America was no longer great or safe, and while it is difficult to quantify America’s greatness, an exploration of crime statistics allows us to probe Trump’s narrative of fear quite easily.
The above chart details the trend in crime rates in the United States from 1990 to 2014 and the most troubling thing about it is the breadth of the brushstrokes used in categorising crime in a country which incarcerates more people per 100,000 inhabitants than every country on earth but the Seychelles.
Crime in the United States is indexed in two broad categories; violent crime and property crime. Property crime – made up of arson, burglary, larceny-theft and motor vehicle theft – has fallen staggeringly in the last 15 years, from over 5000 property crimes per 100,000 people in 1990 to just over 2500. Violent crime – the collective term for aggravated assault, forcible rape, murder and robbery – has halved between 1990 and 2014, falling from 758 violent crimes per 100,000 people to 365. Of course, as times change so must measurement, and while an inspection of ‘new’ crimes – cybercrime or revenge porn for example – is certainly merited, that is another blogpost.
While it is unfortunate that more recent data is not available – particularly given the prominence of the events that have led to the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2012 and the attacks on police officers in Baton Rouge and Dallas – data from Gallup shows us we have an inherent tendency to overestimate the growth of crime; similar data for the UK shows that we are just as vulnerable to this phenomenon. In every year but 2001, Americans perceived crime to have been worse than in the previous year, and from 2005 to 2015, an average of 68% of Americans believed that crime had increased. While these estimates are not unrelated to trends in crime – as crime fell drastically from 1990 to 2000 the proportion who felt crime increased also fell – it becomes clear that there is a tendency to feel that things are getting worse, getting less safe.
It is clear that we are, by our nature, vulnerable to fearmongering, and we have been for some time but why has it taken until now for a politician such as Trump to so brazenly exploit this vulnerability?
Theories abound – Branko Milanovic’s recent work in the Harvard Business Review on stagnating incomes in the Western middle classes as a result of globalisation shows one possible reason for greater receptiveness to an insular, wall-building, politics – but one thing is certain, while conventional wisdom would leave you fearful of a society in which crime increases every year, the hopemongers at Trajectory would like to tell you that there is nothing to fear but fear itself.