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What is it with conservatives and uniforms?
For a long time we’ve known that conservative opposition to big government doesn’t apply to the military. Our national debt may have topped $18 trillion, but every major Republican candidate for president wants to increase defense spending (In fairness, Rand Paul at least proposes offsetting the increase through cuts elsewhere. On the other hand, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham voted against that proposal).
Too many conservatives see no contradiction between their understanding of government failure here at home, but support nation building abroad. Government couldn’t rebuild, say, Baltimore, but it can somehow create a stable Iraq?
But lately, in the wake of Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, I’ve become increasingly aware that the Republican big-government exception for people in uniform also extends to the police.
If there is one group that Republicans have traditionally rated somewhere below the Islamic State, it is public employee unions. No Republican speech is complete without a – usually justified – jab at the National Education Association. And, leading Republican candidates for president, like Scott Walker or Chris Christie, rose to prominence on their willingness to take on public employee unions.
But Republican willingness to take on these powerful special interests suddenly evaporates when the union in question represents police officers.
Take Illinois, for example. New Governor Bruce Rauner spent much of the first half of this year traveling the state to push his proposal to reduce the state’s heavily underfunded pensions for public employees, saving taxpayers some $2 billion. Well, not quite all public employees. The cuts won’t apply tp police (and firefighters).
That shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, police and firefighters were also exempted from Scott Walker’s signature legislation that rolled back collective bargaining for government workers and required them to contribute more toward their own pensions and health coverage. Similarly, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder included a “carve out” for police and firefighters in right to work legislation that eliminated mandatory union dues for public employees.
We’ve seen this same deference toward police in the aftermath of recent highly publicized examples of alleged police misconduct. Republicans have been quick to defend the police and criticize efforts to hold them accountable. And, while the Michael Brown case in Ferguson should provide ample reason not to rush to judgment, Republicans too often seem to reflexively favor the police in these controversies (with the obvious exception of Sen. Rand Paul).
And, yes, I recognize that the abuses that are alleged in the Freddie Gray case are the exception not the rule. As has often been pointed out by conservatives, a young black man is at far greater risk of dying at the hands of another young black man than at the hands of police. But a police killing is not like any other killing. The police represent us. They act under the color of authority that we grant them. That makes police misconduct far worse than ordinary crime — It’s a violation of the public trust.
No one doubts that police have an important and dangerous job (although, in terms of work-related deaths per 100,000 workers, police work is far safer than power line workers, truckers, loggers, construction workers, and many other professions). And the vast majority of police do their job well. I’m glad they are out there. And, I’m also grateful for our military, and respect the sacrifice of all those who have served, especially those who gave their lives or suffered terrible injuries on our behalf. We owe them a debt.
Still, it would be nice if conservatives occasionally extended their suspicion of government a bit more broadly.
BTW: Anyone interested in following police misconduct, should check out the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project: