Has the Right Really Shifted on Police Militarization and Abuse?

Breitbart coverage of Ferguson

Leading right-wing websites—like Breitbart—didn’t seem very “torn” about how to cover Ferguson.

It would be a great thing if politicians were more critical of the obvious trend towards militarization of police forces. And there’s no doubt that some voices have been more critical of overzealous police practices than one might expect. But is it actually a widespread trend?

The New York Times and Washington Post seem to think so, since both papers have pieces about a supposed shift among Republicans. But there’s not a whole lot of evidence–beyond one Republican in particular.

The Times piece (8/14/14), headlined “Missouri Unrest Leaves the Right Torn Over Views on Law vs. Order,” argues that the police killing of Michael Brown and the “overwhelming law enforcement response” to the protests that followed “have stirred more complicated reactions” among conservatives. One would certainly hope so. As the Times‘ Jeremy Peters notes, “Some prominent conservative commentators and leading Republican politicians began questioning whether the police had gone too far.”

But just how much of this questioning is really happening? Peters points to an “ascendant strain of libertarianism” in the GOP, and focuses on Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul‘s piece at Time (8/14/14), a powerful argument against the militarization of the police as a threat to liberty.

Drudge Report Ferguson coverage

The Drudge Report seemed to think the big story from Ferguson was the New Black Panther Party.

But is there much happening beyond that? Peters points to a rather bland statement from fellow Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, and to a Twitter comment from right-wing blogger Erick Erickson. But the counter-examples in the piece seem to outweigh the evidence of this new trend on the right:

In much of the conservative news media, the protesters in Ferguson are being portrayed as “outside agitators,” in the words of Sean Hannity, the Fox News host.


Other conservatives have focused on instances in which chaos has broken out in the streets. Images and headlines on the Drudge Report and have singled out acts of violence among demonstrators and shown looters breaking store windows.

In one segment broadcast on Fox News on Thursday, a reporter walked down the street with demonstrators who he said were members of the New Black Panther Party, a radical group.

In the Washington Post, Dan Balz had a similar piece (8/14/14), arguing that the Brown killing

has produced a rare and surprisingly unified response across the ideological spectrum, with Republicans and Democrats joining to decry the tactics of the city’s police force in the face of escalating protests.

To Balz, “the reactions reflect a shift away from the usual support and sympathy conservatives typically show for law enforcement in such situations.”

“No better sign of that,” explained Balz, than Paul’s Time op-ed. Fine–and what are the other examples? Balz cites some comments from Republican strategists that don’t really answer that question, though one notes that he doesn’t think reactions like Paul’s are “indicative of a broader trend among conservatives that is less pro-law enforcement.” Balz then points to the “more careful reactions” from other Republican leaders like Sen. Marco Rubio. “Careful” here would appear to mean less critical of police repression.

It would be wonderful if more Republicans–and, for that matter, more Democrats–were speaking out about police abuses and related issues. But treating one lawmaker’s op-ed as a sign of a fundamental shift on the right seems a bit of an overreach.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.