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Under Discussion: Law and Order

black-and-white photograph of police officers in riot gear during protest

Our understanding of many political concepts has been divorced from their original definitions or ideologies, their use more often being a matter of rhetoric rather than an accurate assertion of political fact. This issue is ongoing and given that another politically-interpreted concept like “law and order” has become so prominent in this year’s presidential election, it deserves its own analysis.

Law and order do not necessarily go together. While it is possible to adopt a philosophy of law which holds that the purpose of law should be to create order, order can exist without law and law can exist and create disorder. For example, given that the central reason for the existence of Black Lives Matter is as a response to police brutality in enforcement of law, it is obvious that the enforcement of law can lead to disorder, and thus lead to appeals for reform. Similarly, law is not always needed for order (just ask an economist about economic regulations).

But the concepts of law and order are not universal in their meaning. Consider the concept of law: whose laws are we talking about? Are we talking about laws themselves or the entire legal system? Similarly, what is meant by order? Is order simply a lack of crime?

The law and order message is everywhere right now, but the president seems to have a particular conception of order in mind. The call to essentially violate public health orders to “liberate” cities, egg on vigilante groups, and encourage voters to commit felonies are all apparently orderly, while protesting police brutality — and the vandalism and looting that have accompanied some of these activities — is not. Democrats, too, have their own conception of what law and order means; the Biden campaign is currently running ads to counter the perception of being weak on crime and the sense that looting and rioting might be condoned or considered justified.

It has been argued that looting is caused by the disorder created when democratic institutions fail to provide meaningful avenues of peaceful change. Restoring law and order may thus necessitate democratic reform. Indeed, I seriously doubt that most people are opposed to law and order; rather the political debate is which conception of “law and order” should prevail. What does the concept of law and order mean to voters as part of their lived experience? How does it inform voters’ conceptions of order?

The slogan has a messy history well worth exploring. (It was, for example, a slogan of the NAACP in the early 20th century to oppose racist violence.) Many experts connect the Republican’s modern use of the concept to its historical uses beginning in the 1960s. Nixon was able to make great use of the concept in response to racial riots of that time. But few voters will clearly remember the rioting of the 1960s and 70s and so is there any reason to believe that what law and order meant then bears resemblance to the concept today?

It is frequently argued that the concept is coded language that plays on racist fears of “crime” in the “inner cities” and the threat to “quiet neighborhoods.” In the 1980s George HW Bush made use of the issue of law and order again in ways that were accused of being racist. Today, the Trump campaign appeals to the concept of law and order as one of toughness. But the concept of law and order is an incredibly vague and nebulous one. As noted by the Cristian Science Monitor, “the phrase is a political Rorschach test, appealing to whatever it is that voters are most anxious about at the time. It conjures up the kind of society most people would like to live in, one of stability, decency, and security,” what is essentially “an emotional appeal and a way of rallying supporters against an assortment of causes or concerns.”

If the concept of law and order retains little meaning apart from emotional appeal and a vague notion of what is desired, its only use is essentially as political advertising. It undermines reasonable political discourse. But it retains this ability only so long as it remains undefined. Appealing to the concept of “law and order” to advance a political argument is not inherently good or bad; the ethical failure lies in leaving its implications unexplored so that it always remains a vague slogan and empty rallying cry. Necessarily, we must start being specific about how our competing conceptions differ, why they differ, and the ethics of proposing a particular strategy for attaining and preserving it.

-Matthew S.W. Silk

Evan Butts – “The Multiple Ironies of ‘Law and Order’

Rachel Robison-Greene – “Law and Order, Human Nature, and Substantive Justice

Meredith McFadden – “Law and Order as Suppression and Oppression

Benjamin Rossi – “Right to Riot?

A.G. Holdier – “Dog Whistles, Implicatures, and ‘Law and Order’