Comment: Our fear of big cities driven by politics, not facts

Yes, crime is up, but that’s true of rural, suburban and urban areas. Yet politics and media drive the narrative.

By Philip Bump / The Washington Post

Crime has risen in the United States since the pandemic began. That includes homicides and violent crimes as well as property crimes and quality of life crimes. This is worrisome, certainly, though a dearth of national, updated data makes it difficult to assess whether or to what extent the trend is continuing.

We do know, though, that things in the past have been much, much worse. In New York City, for example, there have been about 115,000 crimes that fall into the most violent categories tracked by the New York Police Department through the end of November: assaults, car thefts, rapes, burglaries. There have been about 391 murders so far this year.

But in 1990, near the peak of the city’s worst period of crime, there were nearly 530,000 crimes that fell into those most-violent categories, including more than 2,200 murders. That was at a point when the city’s population was 14 percent smaller than it is now. Crime in New York City is up; but it has been far worse.

That’s one city, but it’s the country’s biggest and the city that’s probably most identified with American urban life. So it’s useful to note that, while crime occurs in New York, the city is still much safer than it used to be.

Which raises the question: Why do so many people think it and other cities are hopelessly dangerous?

Exploring the results of the midterm elections last month, the New York Times interviewed residents of Long Island — just east of the city and a short train ride away — and asked them why they voted so heavily for Republican candidates in a very blue state. One answer that kept coming up: crime, particularly as exemplified by New York City.

“I wouldn’t go into the city even if they paid me,” one person told the Times’s reporter. Another said that it seemed like the worst days of New York crime had returned; which is very much not the case.

And that was people close to the city! Others, often in less densely populated areas, have simply waved away the idea that cities are anything but crime-infested hellholes. A political candidate from Texas declared in September that “there isn’t one major city that we would feel safe taking our children to visit,” which is a remarkable — and not isolated — sentiment.

Increases in violent crime and increases in concomitant negative events like vandalism contribute to a sense that cities are crumbling. But there’s unquestionably also a component of the perception that cities are dangerous which derives from politics, distance and the media.

The country’s urban-rural political divide runs deep. In the 2020 presidential election, for example, rural counties backed Donald Trump by 32 points. Large urban counties backed Joe Biden by the same margin. But the divide manifests in politics even outside of vote totals.

In June, Pew Research Center published research looking at how Americans viewed government. Among the questions they asked was one evaluating the extent to which people thought the government did too much or too little on behalf of people living in cities, in rural areas or in the suburbs.

Overall, most Americans thought that the government did too little for people living in rural areas. That included a majority of both Republicans and Democrats. There wasn’t much of a partisan divide on the suburbs either. But on the question of cities? A plurality of Republicans said that the government did too much for urban residents, while Democrats were more than three times as likely to say the government did too little.

A lot of Republicans live in urban areas, of course; the point of cities is that they house a lot of people. But more people who voted for Trump in 2020 live in small metropolitan counties or rural ones than in large suburbs or large cities. Among Biden voters, nearly two thirds lived in counties in those latter two categories.

It’s also worth pointing out that there’s a lot of homogeneity in both urban and rural areas. Precinct-level vote data compiled by Everett resident Ryne Rohla and provided to The Washington Post indicates that about 46 percent of Trump voters in rural areas live in precincts where Trump won by at least a 50-point margin. About the same percentage of Biden voters in large urban areas live in precincts where Biden won by such a lopsided amount. In total, about 1 in 11 Republican voters lived in a precinct in a rural area that Trump won by at least 50 points.

That by itself doesn’t prove that those rural voters don’t spend a lot of time in urban areas, certainly, but it does reinforce the very different political worlds in which rural and urban Americans live. And if those rural Americans don’t spend a lot of time in cities, they may be susceptible to overwrought presentations of what’s happening in them.

Presentations that outlets like Fox News are happy to stoke. When protests over police treatment of Black men and women began in the late spring of 2020, Fox News spent an enormous amount of air time covering vandalism and looting that occasionally spun out of the protests. In July 2020, Fox News talked about cities in the context of crime or violence at least 1,000 times. (Technically, in 1,088 15-second snippets of airtime.) For weeks, the network aired the same footage of vandalism that had occurred weeks prior; the narrative that Democratic cities were collapsing in paroxysms of violence overlapped neatly with Trump’s reelection messaging.

Since then, though, Fox’s focus on crime has persisted. There’s an obvious connection to elections, as there was in 2020, but also an almost traditional “if it bleeds, it leads” approach to what’s on-air. In 2022, the network has talked about cities in the context of crime in more than 2,750 segments.

One of the people who spoke with the New York Times about crime attributed her concerns to the headlines she’d seen about “crazy stuff” going on; a central component of Fox News coverage and New York Post covers, which she admitted she read.

Again, crime is, in fact up. But it’s up in rural areas as well as urban ones. There are fewer random subway attacks in rural Iowa than New York City, certainly, for obvious reasons, but there are also more random, observed acts of violence in a large city that make the news because there are more people around to interact and to observe what happened. Murder is down in New York City this year, though you wouldn’t know it from the coverage on Fox News.

Last weekend, my wife and I took our kids into midtown Manhattan to see the Christmas lights. There were large crowds, mostly tourists. I can report that the most alarming thing that occurred was that our kids didn’t want to leave F.A.O. Schwarz.

Just an anecdote, yes. But no more so than a lot of things that end up in the New York Post or as the subject of overwrought segments on “Fox and Friends.”

Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in New York. He writes the weekly How To Read This Chart, to which you should subscribe. Follow him on Twitter @pbump.

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