In the debates over how to respond to two separate but similar crises—how to make policing less deadly and how to make COVID-19 less deadly—conservatives risk irrelevance by relying on questionable data and blind allegiance to principles. They would do better to tackle each of the problems on its own terms.
In the case of policing, the argument from data goes something like this: The chances of a nonviolent person dying at the hands of police are so small—“you’re more likely to die in a car crash,” e.g.—that the public protests against police violence are an overreaction. While the death of any nonviolent citizen at the hands of law enforcement is unfortunate, this argument goes, its likelihood is so minute as to be unworthy of mass protests or political action.
But this argument assumes that people are fundamentally rational and that statistical analysis ought to dominate political decision-making. Conservatives should know better: People are not rational, and they will seek solutions to their problems. Besides, the civil unrest protesting police violence isn’t arising simply from a concern about death. The concern, rather, is the terror in the hearts and minds of the African-American community, a terror rooted in a history of police abuse, state-sanctioned discrimination, and horrendous injustice dating to the end of the Civil War. As a middle-aged white guy whose few interactions with the police have been friendly and helpful, it’s hard to put myself into the shoes of a man who has been stopped for “driving while black.” But it shouldn’t be hard for anyone to understand fear of arbitrary death at the hands of the state.
When conservative pundits harp on data, as in this piece by John Lott, Jr. in the Federalist, this piece by Heather Mac Donald, or even in Mac Donald’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, they reduce the existential fears of black Americans—undergirded by decades of very real political malfeasance—down to something easy to manage and quantify. While such pieces helpfully lay out the problems posed by defunding the police, as well as the fears of black Americans who live in violent neighborhoods, they fail to address the fears of black Americans by focusing tightly on quantifiable data.
Fears are difficult to dissuade precisely because they are not quantifiable: When our neighbors express a deep and abiding concern, it takes great effort to listen and sympathize with those concerns, instead of trying to wish the problem away as a mere data point on a grid. And when the same pundits ignore counterarguments that are grounded in data—such as those made by Lyman Stone that American deaths at the hands of police violence are disproportionately high for a peaceful democracy—it’s easy to suspect that they’re playing a rhetorical game rather than arguing in good faith about the numbers at hand.
A similar dodge is employed when one argues that deaths at the hands of police don’t matter as much as those at the hands of criminals. Everyday urban violence is a serious problem that will take a long, concentrated effort to correct, even after decades of improvement in violent crime stats. By insisting that these two issues—police violence and inner city violence—are inextricably intertwined or that one must focus on both rather than choosing which is more pressing, conservatives risk failing to understand and address either. Although these problems are related, they need to be understood separately, and they require different solutions.
The selective use of data to make politically convenient arguments—or to sidestep uncomfortable arguments about justice and fear—is not the only weakness in conservative reasoning exposed by recent events. Since the birth of modern American conservatism some six decades ago, conservatives of every stripe have prided themselves on an adherence to first principles, the same ones that informed our Constitution and the wider Anglo-American political tradition. And they are surely cause for celebration! I hope these principles never sit upon a shelf, dusty and unused. But we have also prided ourselves on being clear-eyed—on beholding society and human nature as they really are, rather than as we wish them to be.
Unfortunately, these two commitments—to principles and to seeing the world clearly—are often in tension with one another. And this year, in the case of the pandemic and the raging controversy over race and law enforcement, conservatives have attempted to mold reality to principle in a way that has rendered conservatives largely ineffective.
When last spring’s anti-lockdown protests were caricatured as protests over haircuts and manicures, many conservatives objected. Those haircuts and manicures represented businesses into which many Americans had invested their entire lives, and business owners rightfully desired to go back to work. Conservatives and libertarians were not wrong to be concerned about the plight of these people, and, with hindsight, we will likely find that state-based shutdown orders could have been handled differently. But conservatives made a serious blunder when rushing back to the principle of liberty in the midst of pandemic: as difficult as it was to admit, liberty wasn’t the issue. Stopping the pandemic was the issue. Rarely would anyone insist on such purity in the midst of an emergency; consider the immediate response to the 9/11 attacks, when airplanes were unilaterally grounded for days and new security measures rapidly imposed. The fact that the Coronavirus emergency moved in slow motion does not make the behavior any wiser.
It’s not that liberty should have been abandoned as an operating principle. Conservatives and libertarians were correct to maintain the rights of the individual as part of the political conversation. But when New York City was overrun and there was palpable fear that the virus would spread throughout the country—a fear that has been borne out, sadly—the immediate rush to liberty arguments rang hollow. Worse, these arguments gave credence to the liberal accusation that small-government arguments proved conservatives were not serious about proper governance. Indeed, while conservatives are rightly pointing out that the state of New York appears to have profoundly mismanaged the initial crisis, the political and cultural moves taken by red-state governors have not fared much better as the disease has spread.
Looking ahead, conservatives are on the verge of making the same mistake with education. We all want schools to reopen on time. I know there are many millions of students who desperately need the structure, support, and education instruction that their school can provide. The data is clear that low-income students all over the country are in danger of falling further behind if schools do not reopen in person. As a parent, my own sanity depends on it. No one denies any of this—but what of the virus? What of mitigating infection and death? Conservatives can pound the table in defense of liberty, law and order, and education, but until meaningful solutions come to light, everyone is stuck in the quagmire.
Liberals and progressives have long accused conservatives of not caring about the plight of the poor and downtrodden. That is a crude and unfair generalization. Yet the last few months have made it clear that significant segments of the conservative movement and conservative media are struggling to accept the reality of certain social and political facts. What begins as a commitment to data and empiricism on the one hand, and time-tested principle, on the other, eventually morphs into a stubborn refusal to adjust to the world as it is, which in turn renders conservative policies and ideas unhelpful, at best, and cruel, at worst.
It does not have to be this way. Conservative ideas contain with them the creativity and potency to provide meaningful solutions in this tenuous moment. Doing so will require a deep and clear understanding of the present concerns—both real and imagined—of our fellow citizens. Then, and only then, can conservatism begin to respond in earnest to the doubts and fears that plague their fellow Americans.