Progressives and conservatives traditionally have exhibited different attitudes to the lessons of history. While conservatives have tended to take cues from the past as they build measured hopes for the future, progressives have urged that we break free from tradition in order to create bold and ambitious blueprints for a society they consider to be more just. In the United States, however, this pattern appears to be breaking down, as it is now progressives who tend to embrace a more rigid, backward-looking approach, especially on issues tied to identity. Unlike conservatives, progressives aren’t looking to revive a better, sometimes idealized version of their country. But they have become bogged down in the politics of historical redress, at the expense of forward-looking policies that would actually improve people’s lives.
A microcosm of this larger tendency was put on display during last month’s Democratic primary debates, which touched on the issue of urban gun violence. No Democratic presidential candidate expressed a sense of responsibility for the plague of violent crime in America’s cities, even though the largest urban areas are almost all controlled by Democratic politicians.
The issue first came up during questions posed to Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. NBC’s moderators challenged Buttigieg by bringing up a recent incident in which a white police officer killed a 54-year-old black man. While that episode nominally relates to the issue of urban gun violence, it also allows Democrats to dwell in ideologically comfortable territory, since progressives have been drawing attention to police-involved shootings for years. (Indeed, it would be far more useful—and revealing—if it were instead conservative Republicans who were being pressed on this problem). Moreover, the preferred Democrat approach—tracing the problem to the country’s original sin of racism—isn’t especially helpful.
In answer to the question, Buttigieg dutifully offered a look back to history, noting “there’s a wall of mistrust put up one racist act at a time.” A question about the other shootings in South Bend—the vast majority of which are not committed by police officers—would have been far more illuminating. South Bend is one of the 30 most dangerous cities in America, with a per-capita homicide rate (16.8 per 100,000) comparable to that of Chicago (17.5 per 100,000). And this rate has remained virtually unchanged since Buttigieg became mayor in 2012, despite the seven years he’s had to address the problem.
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