Over the last several years, it has become increasingly common for edgy “hot takes” to attract attention in lieu of substantive policy debate. This trend holds in the media, often informs the decisions of voters and can be weaponized by anyone with an ax to grind in our overly partisan political climate. Oftentimes, this focus on “owning” the “other side” leads people to ignore the principles they claim to believe in. Any policy or political compromise is perceived as worthwhile if it “harms” one’s “enemies.”
One recent challenge to this dynamic, however, comes in the form of a piece in The New York Times that notes that progressives and conservatives alike fall victim to this phenomenon, particularly when it comes to free speech. Both sides claim to have “free speech” principles, but many people are eager to forgo this principle for political expediency.
This type of politicking has made its way into the policing debate, and the results aren’t helpful. Although The New York Times piece focuses more on police surveillance, it’s important to look at the policing debate more broadly. Police are government agents, after all, and those of us on the center-right should want to limit government and its spending, hold its agents accountable and ensure that there are no encroachments on constitutional rights.
However, in the vein of ignoring principle for political expediency, as soon as some on the left began to call for “defunding” the police, too many on the right jumped on the bandwagon of reflexively opposing changes to policing to politically oppose the “other side.” All of this is in spite of the fact that, according to their principles, improving the actions of government employees should be at the top of their to-do lists.
Because defunding police departments with no regard for public safety is no doubt reckless policy, many cities and localities who pursued the approach rightly rethought their actions, especially in the wake of a nationwide increase in violent crime. This does not change, though, what the appropriate response should have—or perhaps would have—been from the right absent toxic political dynamics: pursuing reforms to enhance public safety while simultaneously protecting citizens’ constitutional rights.
The bandwagoning has, of course, been subject to the exceptions of some principled lawmakers. Two primary center-right examples include Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who proposed legislation banning no-knock raids after the killing of Breonna Taylor in his home state, and Gov. Bill Lee (R-Tenn.)—who largely ran his campaign on criminal justice reform—pushing for changes to use-of-force policies, information sharing and officer training in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
Another conservative governor who has continually held true to his word on criminal justice through the political turmoil of 2020 is Gov. Kevin Stitt (R-Okla.), who has signed a plethora of reform bills into law throughout his term, including drug and property crime reclassification, incentivizing good behavior for individuals on parole and removing barriers for justice-involved individuals trying to obtain an occupational license. These reforms back up his decision in 2019 to approve the largest single-day commutation in the nation’s history of 527 prisoners, whose recidivism rates have been less than one-tenth of the national average.
Although new issues—such as the contentiousness of police surveillance—are the result of the aforementioned recent increases in violent crime, a silver lining has emerged. Specifically, honest policymakers across the political spectrum have increasingly engaged in new discussions on ways to ensure that long-lasting arguments around certain typically politicized issues have integrity and hold on principle—even under political fire.
Whether it’s the unlikely bipartisan push for congressional reassertion of war powers; the cross-spectrum opposition to modifying Section 230 to increase government control over online content moderation; or the debate surrounding the line between government surveillance and public or even national safety, our public discourse is always better when it is based on principle.
No matter how tempting it may be to cash in on easy clicks and short-term “wins,” those who truly believe in the causes they promote must be careful to defend them on principle. Constitutionality does not depend on outcomes or on what led to public discussions; it exists regardless of these factors—even if they run counter to one’s political or immediate preference. Our liberties depend on this being the case.