(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In recent months, statistics on violent crime have confirmed a troubling trend: Homicide rates in the U.S., long on the wane, shot upward in 2020. Early signs suggest it’s continuing. Many cities have reported new spikes in murder rates in early 2021.
Many commentators blame the pandemic for the violence. Others attribute the spike to record-breaking gun purchases or claim that protests against police brutality have undercut effective law enforcement, opening the door to mayhem.
These are seductive arguments. But if the past is any guide, they’re wrong. Instead, the spike in our murder rate is more likely the product of something else entirely: political instability.
Historians — Roger Lane, Eric Monkkonen and others — have long sought to explain why murder rates aren’t static, but rise and fall over time. This has been true in European countries as well as the U.S., even if each country has registered different rates at different times. Moreover, some killer boom-and-bust cycles last a few years; others drag on for decades.
There is one constant in all the chaos: domestic murders — spousal violence and family feuds — rarely drive spikes in the overall murder rate. Rather, the culprit is typically a surge in violence between unrelated adults. Minor disputes between friends, acquaintances and strangers resolved peacefully in the past suddenly turn lethal. But why?
In the 1990s, a handful of researchers interested in historical homicide rates — Manuel Eisner, Gary LaFree, Roger Gould and Randolph Roth — independently arrived at a similar, if startling conclusion: People’s faith in political institutions and one another are closely correlated with homicide rates. When faith falls, killings rise.
The sociologist Roger Gould determined that virtually every spike in the homicide rate in 19th-century France correlated with periods of political instability. Moreover, he found that murder rates also went up in parts of France distant from eruptions of actual revolutionary upheaval; simply living in the shadow of a political breakdown was sufficient to jack up the murder rate.
Gary LaFree found something similar in the postwar U.S. He observed that while social scientists had amassed a treasure trove of statistical data for the second half of the 20th century, only two variables demonstrated a consistent correlation with the rise and fall of the homicide rate.
Both were measures of trust in government: questions that asked respondents whether they believed their government would do the right thing and whether they believed that most public officials are honest. When these measures declined, murders went up.
Randolph Roth’s research also focused on the American case, but went much further back in time. When he examined so-called “impersonal” killings — murders between strangers or people unrelated to one another — he found a close statistical correlation in times of political crisis. He hypothesized that “state breakdowns and political crises of legitimacy produce surges in non-domestic homicides [while] the restoration of order and legitimacy produces declines in such homicides.”
His argument eventually found full expression in a book as well as a number of related articles. Roth’s collective work indicates that the Colonies, quite violent at first, became rather stable by the mid-18th century, the height of political integration into the British Empire. Things subsequently fell apart during the revolutionary era, but recovered during the 1790s, with the murder rate hitting all-time lows in the early 19th century – lower, arguably, than anywhere in Europe.
Then all hell broke loose during the sectional crisis, and eventually the Civil War. This cataclysm marked the U.S. as different from European nations. While countries in Europe repeatedly went to war with each other, only the United States descended into a fratricidal civil war on such a monumental scale.
Nonetheless, America’s murder rate eventually declined by the 1870s, only to rise by century’s end. It has bounced up and down since that time, though it has remained consistently higher than that of any other developed, affluent nation.
Roth argues that these fluctuations — as well as those in Europe — can best be explained by the strength or weakness of citizens’ belief in the integrity of the political order. This includes a conviction that government is stable, that the legal system is impartial, and that elected and appointed officials have a legitimate claim to power. These beliefs foster a sense of solidarity among citizens that, whatever their differences, enables them to view each other as sharing a common political identity.
Proving this is another matter: Opinion polls didn’t exist in the 18th and 19th centuries. Roth and other researchers instead constructed a number of unconventional proxy measures of political cohesion and solidarity. (A good sampling of these sorts of measures can be found here.)
For example, Roth looked at the names Americans gave to new counties. Many county names celebrated national figures; others commemorated a local dignitary. Roth found that these naming practices tracked with homicide rates. When national figures were popular, murder rates were low. When obscure, local notables became popular, murder rates rose. National names correlated with national cohesion and political stability; more obscure, local names with disintegration and instability.
None of these researchers, Roth included, have claimed that political stability is the same as harmony — or that it is a good unto itself. In other words, stability has often been achieved by forms of solidarity that are exclusionary — that the declining homicide rate in colonial America was partly the product of European settlers finding solidarity with one another on the basis of race. They stopped killing one another in high numbers, but this went hand-in-hand with the enslavement of African-Americans.
Other researchers have built on Roth’s work. They include Peter Turchin, who compiled a database of extra-legal killings by vigilantes as a means of tracking political instability. It tracks quite well with changes in the homicide rate.
Which brings us to our current moment. Much of the research on homicide rates emphasizes that people don’t start killing one another simply because the economy tanks or because there’s a national emergency — a pandemic, for example. These only pose a problem if people don’t trust the government and the political class to deal with the crisis.
The last year has brought a sustained attack on the legitimacy of political institutions and the fragile solidarity that defines American society. At this point, Americans are divided in ways not seen since the Civil War, with many skeptical that leaders will do the right thing. And, once again, the murder rate is rising.
If Roth is right, fixing the problem will require much more than more cops and fewer guns. It will take a dramatic revival in people’s faith that the political system can address the nation’s troubles.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg Opinion.
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