Third Way’s Primitive, Exploit-Youth Roadmap to Progressive Ruin

Third Way’s primitive, exploit-youth, demonize-immigrants roadmap to progressive ruin

April 24, 2008

A new report by the Democrat-advising “Third Way” lobby coldly urges progressive politicians and groups to get ahead of conservatives by whipping up fears of a youth “crime wave” driven by new technologies and racial change–a strategy that is at once dishonest and disastrous. The report also suggests that progressives blame crime on illegal immigrants and call for harsh crackdowns.

The ludicrously misleading report by Jim Kessler and Rachel Laser of Third Way’s The Culture Program fans primitive, chimerical panic of a violent new generation driven by internet images and increasingly dark-skinned demography. After correctly noting that unprecedented numbers of prisoners are being released without education or training (and, they might have added, harboring continuing drug addiction) and dubiously claiming failure to enforce anti-immigration laws has created “a shadow world of crime” (isn’t crime by nature a “shadow world”?), Third Way then recommends that progressives launch a Madison-Avenue style publicity crusade against crime based on groundless fears of youth: “The internet has exposed children to lurid, dangerous and coarse influences unlike any that children have experienced in previous generations,” it says. Further, “a rising youth population that is statistically far more prone to commit crimes is coming of age.”

Neither of these statements have any basis, and the second clearly invokes racist fears. But Third Way doesn’t care what is factual. Repeatedly, Third Way urges progressive politicians and interest groups to cheaply exploit public panics about crime shown in polls rather than working honestly to establish the framework for a reasoned discussion.

“Alert the Nation,” the report shouts: “Because of technology, children have never been more vulnerable to sexual predators and strangers… By a 78-3% margin, Americans say children are more vulnerable to the dangers of crime than they were 10 years ago.” In truth, every crime-trend analysis (the National Crime Victimization Survey, FBI Uniform Crime Reports, Monitoring the Future, National Center for Health Statistics homicide tabulations, etc.) agree that young people’s crime and victimization hasn’t just fallen but plummeted over the last 10 years–and careful studies reveal the Internet poses a trivial danger to youth. For example, the NCVS, the most reliable measure, shows violent victimizations of youth fell by more than 50% from 1996 to 2006, while youth murders dropped from 1,978 to 1,061 from 1996 to 2005. But compelling facts are of no interest to Third Way. “Progressives have an opportunity,” the authors chortle–to exploit baseless public fears, that is.

Third Way’s larger report spends 10 pages trumpeting potential Internet dangers but never establishes, despite the hundreds of billions of youthful Internet interactions every year, that any substantial online danger to youth actually exists–let alone that young people using social networking and other cyberspace sites themselves pose a crime danger. Indeed, repeated studies of thousands of police agencies have found that beyond a couple of rare but sensational anecdotes, very few crimes can be linked to Internet predators or teens online. In fact, all forms of crimes by and against teenagers have plummeted rapidly as youths have flocked to internet cites by the rising billions over the last decade. But again, Third Way authors care less about what is going on than what imagined public fears, shown in polls, progressive interests can inflame.

“Alert the Nation: The surging youth population will lead to 2 million new crimes if they simply behave like past teenagers,” the report continues, ignoring trends over the last dozen years. Third Way then argues that “low-income kids” should “get a college scholarship only if they stay off drugs” and “have a clean rap sheet.” These restrictions would have barred scholarships for tens of millions of Boomers, including presidents Clinton and Bush II.

“Over the next five years, the number of teenagers and young adults in America will increase by one million,” the report warns. “This youth population surge will increase the number of crimes in America by over two million if they simply behave like the national average.” And Third Way provides no evidence for its alarming summary claim that today’s teens are “statistically far more prone to commit crimes,” leading to the troubling conclusion that the increase in the proportion of black and Latino youth is the subtle source of fear. This even as the report admits that “America’s crime rate reductions between 1993 and 2002 were led by an even more dramatic decrease in the rate of teen crime despite an increase in teens’ proportion of the population.”

Third Way’s demographic claims are simply crazy. From 2006 to 2011, the Census Bureau projects that the teen and young adult population age 15-24 will grow from 42.3 million to a peak of 43.0 million, an increase of 700,000. Contrast the future increase with what has already occurred: from 1993 to 2006, the 15-24 population grew from 36.0 million to 42.3 million–and increase of 6.3 million.

That is, 90% of the feared juvenile and young-adult population increase has already taken place. Did crime increase from 1993 to 2006, the period of surging young population growth? Just the opposite: the FBI Uniform Crime Reports finds that Part I violent and property crimes reported to police fell by 2.7 million, while the National Crime Victimization Survey (a more comprehensive measure based on surveying victims) found18.5 million fewer felony and misdemeanor crimes in 2006 than in 1993.

Thus, using the report’s own crude logic of basing future crime rates on recent trends (an exercise the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention rightly calls “a fool’s errand”), we would estimate that each increase of 1 million in the age 15-24 population would generate 425,000 fewer Part I crimes reported to police and 2.9 fewer crimes overall. Thus, we would expect that the coming increase of 700,000 in the youth and young-adult population would lead to a further decline of 300,000 offenses reported to police and two million overall crimes by 2011.

Although the report cites a plethora of standard police, media and interest-group quotes (the sort that can be found in any era) to support its claims that “the recent increase in the crime rate is primarily due to young people committing more crime,” there is no independent analysis of crime trends by age and clearance rates. True, FBI reports show the number of violent crime arrests of youths under age 18 did increase by about 8,000 from 2002 to 2006–about the same as the increase for age 45-54. However, overall arrests of juveniles (the report’s focus) fell by 310,000 during this period, while 45-54 arrests rose by a staggering 350,000 in just four years! What age is driving crime rates, again?

Nor is there any independent verification of a laundry list of programs and initiatives designed to reduce crime, beyond the self-serving assertions of their supporters. In particular, multi-city analyses have cast doubt on the “Boston Miracle” claim of vastly reduced youth homicide in the late 1990s, and many of the reports other assertions of successful reductions in drug use and other behaviors actually coincide with the slight increases in juvenile crime the report elsewhere claims occurred in the last three years. Collecting press releases and laudatory quotes is not a substitute for analysis. When are we going to see institutional scholars analyze data that contradict the popular quotes they run instead–eg., the Minneapolis Police chief’s incendiary claims (cited by the press and recycled by Third Way) that youth crime is rising when his departments own posted figures show it’s declining?

While the purpose of this report is to support increased spending for an array of noble progressive policies generally including education, prevention, and intervention, the advocacy method–scaring the public and policy makers that new technology and new demographics will produce a new “crime wave”–is sorely mismatched to the liberal policy goals. For al its 400 footnotes and liberal tone, this report is a manual for inciting and exploiting primitive fears of race and change based on the worst public prejudices, not a plan for modern crime policy. And history (particularly the Clinton years, in which the Democratic Party suffered massive losses at every level) shows than fanning fears of the young, new technologies, immigrants, and modern trend represents a disastrous strategy for progressive groups in particular–unless their goal is to one-up the far right by becoming the far right.

Third Way’s amoral, backward-looking report reveals a deeper crisis in institutional thinking: aging strategists seem incapable of devising any political plan other than recycling the disgraceful, discredited tactic of winning elections, press, and money by inflaming baseless fears against powerless groups. Progressives who seek gain by using this “Third Way” belong with the ancient demagogues.