Law and Order Research Paper

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The term law and order refers to a prominent theme of Richard Nixon’s (1913–1994) successful 1968 campaign for the American presidency. Law and order became a potent campaign symbol for Nixon, and related themes have sometimes surfaced in later Republican presidential campaigns—especially in 1972 and 1988. The term law and order is a political symbol capturing public anxieties about  civil unrest,  urban  riots,  black militant  groups (which, some charged, fomented  violence), and  rising crime rates. Later events, such as the  violence in  the Boston area in response to court-ordered busing, widely publicized crime sprees like the Son of Sam murders in New York City, and continued rising crime rates, stoked fears of societal breakdown during the 1970s and gave law-and-order appeals additional resonance. These developments, sometimes connected with subtle racial appeals, contributed to the erosion of the Democratic Party’s dominant position in American politics after 1968.



1962 to 1965: Violent Resistance to Civil Rights

After a  period  of  relative domestic tranquility  in  the 1950s, the 1960s came as a rude shock to many Americans. Between 1961 and 1964, violent actions by southern  whites bent  on  defending  racial segregation became commonplace. Demonstrators at sit-ins and freedom riders, black and white, faced actual or threatened  violence and  mass arrests on  fabricated charges. More violence erupted as federal officials attempted  to carry out court-ordered desegregation. When black student James Meredith sought to enroll at (and integrate) the University of Mississippi, thousands of segregationists rioted, resulting in two deaths and forcing President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) to mobilize thousands of troops to restore order.

As the civil rights movement continued, it was met with  more  violence. Police in  Birmingham,  Alabama, deployed dogs and high-pressure water cannons against unarmed civil rights demonstrators in 1963. The murders of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People  (NAACP)  leader  Medgar  Evers in  Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963 and of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964 fed fears of mounting social unrest. A 1963 bombing of a Birmingham black church killed four little girls, and Alabama state troopers attacked unarmed voting-rights marchers with dogs and electric cattle prods in March 1965. These cumulative shocks to the national consciousness were amplified by the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas.

1965 to 1970: Black Militant Groups and Urban Unrest

In response to white violence against civil rights activists, some black leaders adopted increasingly belligerent rhetoric. The rise of black radicalism was personified in militants like Stokely Carmichael (1941–1998) and H. Rap Brown. As political scientists Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders noted, the new rhetoric frightened many whites. There was “less talk of nonviolence and  more of selfdefense; less yearning for integration and more for solidarity  and  black nationalism;  ‘We  Shall Overcome’  was replaced by Black Power and ‘burn, baby, burn’ ” (1996, p. 103). The image of neatly-dressed blacks pummeled by vicious white violence faded, replaced by images of blacks rampaging through city streets, torching cars and buildings and looting stores. The initial trigger for the changing  imagery was the  August 1965  Watts  riot  in  Los Angeles. As Kinder and Sanders described the Watts riot:

The violence raged unchecked for three days, and three days longer in sporadic eruptions. Blacks looted stores, set fires, burned cars, and shot at policemen and firemen. Before the violence was halted, 14,000 National Guard troops, 1,000 police officers and  700  sheriff ’s  deputies were pressed into service.… In the end, 1,000 buildings were damaged, burned, looted or completely destroyed; almost 4,000  people were arrested; more than 1,000 were injured seriously enough to require medical treatment; and 34 were dead, all but  three of them black. (Kinder and Sanders 1996, p. 103)

Watts was only the beginning, as 1966, 1967, and 1968  each brought  more unrest. In  1967,  250 serious uprisings occurred, including the  Detroit  riots, which killed forty-three people. More disturbances erupted in multiple cities after the assassination of Martin  Luther King Jr. in April 1968. As Kinder and Sanders observe:

For one long, hot summer after another, Americans watched what appeared to be the coming apart of their own country. On the front page of their morning newspapers and on their television screens in the evening appeared dramatic and frightening pictures of devastation and ruin: cities on fire, mobs of blacks looting stores and hurling rocks at police, tanks rumbling down the avenues of  American cities.… Discussion of  the  “race problem” in America … centered on the threat that inner-city blacks posed to social order and public safety. (Kinder and Sanders 1996, p. 103)

In 1968 the Kerner Commission released a report on the civil disturbances, warning that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate  and  unequal.”  The  urban  violence and  Kerner Commission report created an opening for Republicans to pounce on the law-and-order theme. Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon blasted the report for “blaming everybody for the riots except the perpetrators of violence,” promising “retaliation against the perpetrators” that would be “swift and sure.” As noted by journalists Thomas  Edsall and  Mary Edsall, Nixon’s  running mate, hard-line Maryland governor Spiro Agnew (1918–1996), summoned black leaders in Baltimore to a stormy meeting where he accused them of cowardice for refusing to renounce black militant leaders like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. Speaking of the violence in Baltimore after the King assassination, Agnew charged: “The looting and rioting which has engulfed our city during the past several days did not occur by chance. It is no mere coincidence that  a national disciple of violence, Mr.  Stokely Carmichael, was observed meeting with local black power advocates and known criminals in Baltimore three days before the riots began” (quoted in Edsall and Edsall 1991, p. 85).

The 1968 Democratic national convention met in Chicago  following  the  June  1968  assassination of Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. Chaotic  scenes of  police  beating  demonstrators  in Chicago’s streets and parks echoed the tumult within the convention  hall, as party delegates splintered over the Vietnam War (1957–1975). By 1965 almost all American homes had televisions, bringing searing images of one dramatic (and sometimes horrifying) event after another into the public consciousness. The racial subtext to much of the unrest of the 1960s is unmistakable. As Kinder and Sanders note:

The riots opened up a huge racial rift. Fear and revulsion against the  violence were widespread among  both  white  and  black Americans, but whites were much more likely to condemn those who participated in the riots and more eager for the police and National Guard to retaliate against them. Where blacks saw the riots as expressions of legitimate grievances, whites were inclined to explain them as eruptions of black hatred and senseless criminality.… To  many  white Americans, then, the civil disorders of the 1960s amounted  to  an  appalling collective mugging. (Kinder and Sanders 1996, p. 104).

Liberals, then, faced the unenviable task of explaining why, after leading the fight to pass major civil rights laws, blacks appeared to be responding not with gratitude, but with annual explosions of violence, looting, and destruction.

As political analyst James Sundquist  observes, the potency of law-and-order themes was evident as early as 1966, when Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) easily won the governorship of California after promising to “get tough” on welfare, crime, riots, and student unrest. In October 1966, the Republican Coordinating Committee charged that  officials in  the  Lyndon  B. Johnson  (1908–1973) administration had “condoned and encouraged disregard for law and order.” In an August 29, 1967, press conference, House Republican leader Gerald R. Ford (1913–2006) proclaimed:

The  war at  home—the  war against crime—is being lost. The Administration appears to be in full retreat. The homes and the streets of America are no longer safe for our people. This is a frightful  situation.… The  Republicans in  Congress demand that the Administration take the action required to protect our people in their homes, on the streets, at their jobs.… There can be no further Administration excuse for indecision, delay or evasion. When a Rap Brown and a Stokely Carmichael are allowed to run loose, to threaten law-abiding Americans with injury and death, it’s time to  slam the  door on  them  and  any like them—and slam it hard! (quoted in Sundquist 1983, p. 385)

As Sundquist notes, Ford’s statement illustrates that “by 1967, the Republicans were pulling out all the stops” (on the law and order issue). In 1968 “the issue was propelled by so many events that it hardly needed partisan exploitation” (1983, p. 385).

The cumulative effect of civil-rights violence, assassinations, urban rioting and unrest, the tumult at the 1968 Democratic convention, and the comparatively peaceful 1968 Republican convention in Miami was to create a climate  unmistakably ripe  for  Republican law-and-order appeals. Many Americans were shell-shocked by the rising crime rates and domestic violence of the 1960s, amplified by the increasingly controversial Vietnam War, with antiwar demonstrators burning their draft cards and soldiers coming home, some in body bags, others maimed. In May 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on antiwar protesters at Kent State University, killing four students and injuring nine. Many Americans sympathized more with the  shooting guardsmen than  with the  dead students—a sentiment captured in Neil Young’s protest song “Ohio” (written immediately after the Kent State shootings and performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young).The song characterized conservative sentiment as celebrating the shootings: “should’ve been done long ago.”

Law and Order in the 1968 Campaign

The political context in 1968 was clearly ripe for a campaign centering on law and order. The Nixon campaign eagerly seized the opening. Nixon’s selection of Agnew as his running  mate  sent  an  unmistakable signal that  if elected president he would “crack down” hard on rioters, draft protesters, and others perceived as contributing to or fomenting  social  and   urban   unrest.  At  the   1968 Republican convention, Nixon began his acceptance speech: “As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night.” Nixon’s speech continued by attacking Democratic-sponsored government programs for the unemployed, the poor, and cities as “reaping an ugly harvest of frustration, violence, and failure across the land.” Nixon’s campaign advertisements, too, reinforced the law-and-order theme. As Kinder and Sanders note:

Nixon’s  television advertisements played upon Americans’ fear of crime. While voiceovers pointed to sharp increases in violent crime and blamed the Democrats, the television viewer witnessed scenes of riots and buildings in flames, montages of urban decay, a lonely policeman on the beat, a mugging, crowds taunting the police, faces of anxious and perplexed Americans, and a woman walking alone on a deserted city street as darkness fell. (Kinder and Sanders 1996, p. 226)

After Nixon’s election victory in 1968, Agnew, as vice president, demonstrated a slashing, attack-dog speaking style that further expanded on law-and-order themes. As noted by Sundquist, Agnew toured the country to support Republican candidates, attacking and denouncing “permissivists,” “avowed anarchists  and  communists,” “misfits,” the “garbage” of society, “thieves, traitors and perverts,” and “radical liberals” (1983, p. 387). This rhetoric is anything but subtle in positioning the Republican Party as representing the masses of “middle America” that abide by society’s  rules, are horrified by social violence, and support harsh crackdowns against it—a group that later would be targeted by the appeal of the 1972 Nixon campaign to the “silent majority.” By implication, Agnew sought to position Democrats as representing less savory elements: antiwar radicals, draft-card burners, urban rioters, black militants, hippies, and practitioners of recreational drug use and sexual activity. Agnew’s language, then, expanded the law-and-order theme to imply that Democrats sympathized not only with those who encouraged and practiced crime and violence (i.e., black militants, urban rioters, and draft-card burners), but also with groups that encouraged a more general social permissiveness and breakdown of traditional moral values—that is, permissivists, radical liberals, and perverts. These themes foreshadowed Nixon’s  1972 reelection campaign, which would successfully brand Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern as the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion.”

1972 to 2007: Law-and-Order Themes Recycled

Since 1972, explicit law-and-order themes have become less central issues in most campaigns. However, a major exception was the  1988  presidential campaign,  when George H.  W.  Bush  portrayed  Democratic  candidate Michael Dukakis as “soft” on violent crime in a campaign that  critics charged appealed to  racial prejudices. The campaign featured the story of William “Willie” Horton, a black convict who, released from prison on a weekend furlough (a controversial program supported by Massachusetts governor Dukakis), escaped to Maryland, where he attacked a couple in their home. Republican strategists openly exploited the Horton  case. One television advertisement, sponsored by an independent  proBush group, showed a sinister and unruly-looking Horton in a mug shot, while an announcer recounted Horton’s crimes, emphasized by the words kidnapping, raping, and stabbing appearing  in   large  print   on   the   screen. Republican strategist Lee Atwater (1951–1991) promised that “by the time this election is over, Willie Horton will be a household name.” Later, he said “the Horton case is one of those gut issues that are value issues, particularly in the South, and if we hammer at these over and over, we are going to win.” As Kinder and Sanders note, Atwater joked to a Republican gathering, “There is a story about Willie Horton,  who, for all I know may end up being Dukakis’ running mate.… Maybe [Dukakis] will put this Willie Horton  on the ticket when all is said and done” (1996, p. 255).

The 1988 campaign illustrates the political dangers for Democrats of not responding adequately to Republican efforts to  brand  them  as “soft on  crime.” Especially in  the  more  conservative South,  Democrats have responded by emphasizing crime-fighting credentials and support for the death penalty. Bill Clinton used this formula successfully in his 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns, and in 2005 Democrat Timothy Kaine won the governorship of Virginia, a conservative state. Kaine successfully fended off Republican attacks on his personal opposition to the death penalty by promising to uphold death sentences handed down by Virginia juries. The lawand-order campaign theme most clearly applies to  the 1968  presidential campaign. However, it  has spawned similar campaign themes, usually pursued by Republicans eager to portray Democrats as “soft on crime,” with varying degrees of success.

Law and Order and Vigilantism in American Life and Film

Paradoxically, the  appeal of law-and-order themes has potentially contributed  to  citizen vigilantism at  times. American history offers numerous examples of citizens “taking the law into their own hands.” White southerners’ lynchings of  blacks are but  one  example of  vigilante actions defending a  social order  that  is anything  but admirable. In 1898, for instance, the majority-black port city of Wilmington, North Carolina, was consumed by a race riot in which an unknown number of blacks (probably dozens) were murdered and hundreds more banished by  an  armed  white  mob  bent  on  establishing white supremacy in  local  and  statewide  politics.  Historian Timothy Tyson described the actions and motives of riot instigators as follows:

On  Nov. 10, 1898, heavily armed columns of white men marched into the black neighborhoods of Wilmington. In the name of white supremacy, this well-ordered mob burned the offices of the local black newspaper, murdered perhaps dozens of  black residents—the precise number  isn’t known—and banished many successful black citizens and their so-called “white nigger” allies. A new social order was born in the blood and the flames, rooted in what News and Observer publisher Josephus Daniels, heralded as “permanent good  government by  the  party  of  the  White Man.” (Tyson 2006)

Tyson added that the riot “marked the embrace of virulent Jim Crow racism” nationwide. The Red Shirts, a paramilitary arm of the then-white-supremacist Democratic Party, had rampaged across North Carolina before the 1898 election, disrupting black church services and Republican meetings, and attacking blacks, who leaned Republican. These violent, vigilante actions were justified as necessary to preserve a cherished social order, white supremacy, by any means necessary. That  their actions were neither lawful nor orderly probably never crossed the minds of either the Red Shirts or the white participants in the Wilmington riot.

Similarly, some anti-immigration activists along the U.S.-Mexican border have launched vigilante efforts to deter would-be undocumented immigrants from crossing from Mexico into the United States. Ranch Rescue is one such group, which styles itself as a defender of U.S. borders and private property rights against what it calls “criminal  aliens” and  “terrorists” out  of  a  belief that  law enforcement is unable or unwilling to act appropriately toward these ends. In 2005 Ranch Rescue founder Casey Nethercutt  lost his southern Arizona ranch to satisfy a court  judgment  levied against him  and  other  Ranch Rescue  members  for  seizing and  traumatizing  two Mexican immigrants (Pollack 2005).  The  Wilmington riots and the Ranch Rescue case illustrate behaviors that are probably driven by the conviction that to restore law and order—or a cherished social goal—requires violating law and order at least temporarily.

The  vigilantism inherent  in  the  actions  of  the Wilmington riot instigators and Ranch Rescue members is also reflected in some American films. In movies like the Death Wish series starring Charles Bronson (1921–2003) and The Punisher (1989 and 2004), vigilantism is celebrated, with a curious and unmistakable implicit message: exacting revenge sometimes requires violating law and order—even abandoning the rule of law altogether. Law and order, then, has morphed from an often-potent political symbol from the 1960s through the 1980s to a notion that  some action films celebrate violating—but whose impact in real-world politics is largely blunted.


  1. Edsall, Thomas Byrne, and Mary Edsall. 1991. Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics. New York: Norton.
  2. Kinder, Donald , and Lynn M. Sanders. 1996. Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  3. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disor [1968] 1988. The Kerner Report: The 1968 Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. New York: Pantheon.
  4. Pollack, Andrew. Two Illegal Immigrants Win Arizona Ranch in Court. New York Times, August 19.
  5. Sundquist, James 1983. Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
  6. Tyson, Timothy 2006. The Ghosts of 1898: Wilmington’s Race Riot and the Rise of White Supremacy. Raleigh News & Observer, November 17.
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