Americans’ level of concern about crime and violence is at its highest point in 15 years. Fifty-three percent of U.S. adults say they personally worry “a great deal” about crime and violence, an increase of 14 percentage points since 2014. This figure is the highest Gallup has measured since March 2001.
The simplest explanation is that violent crime really did tick upward, at least in many major cities, over the past year. However, overall victimization rates remain low (higher than 2013 and 2014, but roughly the same as they were in 2012), and as one sociologist told Time magazine, “historically, there’s a very weak relationship between actual crime and fear of crime.”
Look closer, and the poll provides more potential clues about the provenance of the spike: It is most acute among whites, Republicans, those making less than $75,000 per year those without a college degree. (In fact, there was virtually no change in concern about crime among college graduates between 2014 and 2016). In other words, it seems that the growing anxiety is concentrated among the age-old American constituency we call the Jacksonians—a group that tends to respond especially strongly to threats of rule-breaking and disorder, and whose consciousness has been activated with particular force in the last 12 months.
Another possible factor: For years, Americans have been reporting a declining faith in major mediating institutions—from political parties to the media to the legal system—across the board. As many pundits have observed, the tone of the 2016 election may reflect a sense that traditional political norms and structures are on their last legs. It’s easy to see how grim pessimism about the sustainability of the current political order could combine with rising Jacksonian sentiment and a modest but real uptick in the urban murder rate to produce a sense—accurate or not—that more crime, violence, and disorder is around the corner.