On 4 February 2016, Lisa Miller, who is an associate professor at Rutgers University and currently a visiting professor at the Rothermere American Institute in Oxford, gave a seminar at All Souls College on ‘The Myth of Mob Rule: Violent Crime and Democratic Politics’―the second event as part of the Centre for Criminology’s 50th anniversary celebrations. In it, she gave us an overview of some of the arguments in her forthcoming book of the same title. Prof Miller addressed two key questions in her talk. First, when does crime become a good issue for politicians to gain votes with―what she calls ‘political salience’? And second, when it is politically salient, what are the responses to crime?Prof Miller began by setting up a popular anti-populist argument, what she dubs the ‘mob rule’ argument. The ‘mob rule’ thesis is that the lay populace tends to both overestimate how much crime (especially violent crime) is occurring in their surroundings. The fallout of this mob rule thesis, if it’s true, is that politicians who promise to address crime will be more successful, regardless of whether crime rates are high or low. In other words, the prevalence of violent crime, and the prevalence of political rhetoric about violent crime are unrelated. Prof Miller presented the results of extensive research into empirical sources that suggests that quite the opposite is true: both news articles and political speeches and attempts at passing legislation about crime rise when crime rates rise, and fall when crime rates fall. Contrary to the mob rule thesis, rising rates of violent crime are necessary for the political salience of crime. The public, it seems, is much better at assessing crime than academic writers think they are. The implication―though Prof Miller didn’t outright say this―is that there’s a certain kind of anti-populist snobbery that leads academics to think that laypeople are irrational and bloodthirsty.
Prof Miller also argued that not all responses to high crime rates are punitive. Many people who live in high crime areas support not just punitive responses but also more social welfare responses, such as afterschool or early education programs, that might take longer to have positive effects. However, especially in the US, the measures that tend to become law are the most punitive measures. Prof Miller argued that this isn’t because of what others have called a ‘democratic surplus’―which is in line with the mob rule idea that what the bloodthirsty mob wants is to punish rather than to improve the social conditions that lead to crime. Rather, it’s because of a generally unidentified democratic deficit in the US system that punitive policies are the ones that most often get passed into law. Prof Miller presented evidence of instances when US presidents have wanted to pass more comprehensive responses to high crime rates, such as higher prison sentences but also social welfare reforms, but the system of checks and balances has meant that the social welfare reforms have been blocked by other branches of government (Congress and/or the Senate) and only the longer prison sentences have been enacted.Prof Miller gave the following illustration of this idea: large majorities of Americans have wanted gun control for decades, but gun control never gets legislated because of the Senate and because of the judiciary, neither of which are particularly democratic institutions (the Senate is elected, but it isn’t representative of the population―very small states, population-wise, have as much Senate representation as states with ten times as many people in them). Prof Miller has thus dubbed punitive crime bills as lowest common denominator legislation.
Of course, there may be other ways of interpreting these facts. However, Prof Miller is a captivating and persuasive theorist who skillfully balances theory and evidence. While academic work can sometimes sound like armchair theorizing without evidence, or like a lot of data with a slap-dash theory glossing it, Prof Miller combines data and theory into a sophisticated and nuanced narrative.