In new research, Francesco Barilari and Diego Zambiasi study how President Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s rhetoric on the War on Drugs while on the campaign trail, particularly targeting crack cocaine abuse, was enough to alter policing policy. Specifically, the authors find that increased rhetoric led to an increase in arrests of Black Americans. Their study contributes to a literature on the material impact that political rhetoric can have on policing and public policy.
Political campaigning has a profound influence on individuals’ behaviors, as evidenced by the 2021 Capitol riots, where aggressive campaign tactics fueled violence. Extensive research in the social sciences has examined the connection between political campaigning and violence against minorities, highlighting how social media activity, political rallies, and election outcomes can trigger violent behavior. We analyze the impact of political campaigning on law enforcement officers’ behavior, specifically focusing on President Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs” campaign, which targeted crack cocaine abuse. Through this case study, we show that Reagan’s rhetoric against drug abuse led law enforcement officers to more likely arrest Black Americans.
The War on Drugs and its Effects on Law Enforcement
We focused on two pivotal moments in the U.S. War on Drugs: the enactment of the 1986 and 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Acts (ADAA). While these acts primarily aimed to combat drug trafficking and crimes with interstate components, they are regarded as examples of “dog whistle” politics. In other words, these acts are seen as conveying a call to action against stereotypical crack cocaine abusers and shifting law enforcement agents’ efforts by “going public.”
We analyzed monthly arrests for 1,383 police agencies in 40 American states from 1984 to 1990. We compared arrests in police agencies that were in counties that were more/less exposed to the presidential rhetoric against drug abuse and documented that the presidential rhetoric increased arrests for Black Americans but not for white Americans. Following the introduction of the 1986 ADAA, arrests of Black Americans for possession of cocaine and heroin increased by 6.6% in counties more exposed to the presidential rhetoric (Figure 1). We found no significant impact on arrests related to other drugs or crimes associated with crack cocaine use, such as marijuana consumption, prostitution, robbery, driving under the influence, or murder. This finding suggests that the effect that we found is driven by a change in law enforcement behavior rather than by a change in consumption patterns.
Figure 1: Monthly Arrests for Possession of Heroin and Cocaine
Measuring the Intensity and Exposure of Presidential Rhetoric
To measure how the president’s rhetoric changed law enforcement behavior, we constructed a novel measure of the presidential rhetoric against drug abuse. We used a collection of 11,171 public papers released by Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush between 1984 and 1990. We employed a Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) topic model and identified the topics that were talked about the most by the presidents. This method allowed us to understand the importance of the War on Drugs in the presidential rhetoric and to track its intensity over time (Figure 2). We found that discrimination in arrests is higher when the presidential rhetoric against drug abuse peaks.
Figure 2: The Evolution of the Relevance of Drugs
To determine which places were more exposed to the presidential rhetoric on the War on Drugs, we posited that counties that are more politically competitive were more exposed to presidential rhetoric against drug abuse. We show that campaigning efforts were more concentrated in counties where Republicans and Democrats got similar vote shares in the 1984 elections. This behavior is consistent with politicians trying to maximize their vote share by campaigning in places that are neither Republican nor Democratic strongholds. We gathered articles from 1,329 local newspapers and show that newspapers that were in more politically competitive counties mentioned terms like “War on Drugs” more often (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Mentions of Words Related to the War on Drugs
Furthermore, we compared counties that hosted political rallies by Reagan with those that did not. If our findings are a consequence of the exposure to the presidential rhetoric against drug abuse, one would expect Reagan’s rallies to have a similar effect. We found that the racial gap in arrests increased by 50% during a given month when Reagan held a nearby rally.
Why do Law Enforcement Officers Change their Behavior?
We have shown that the presidential rhetoric against drug abuse increased the racial gap in arrests between Black and white Americans. We attribute the increase to a change in law enforcement behavior. We show that this change is not driven by police officers that operate in counties that historically had a stronger racial animus against Black Americans—proxied, for example, with the number of lynchings of Black Americans between 1882 and 1930—as one could expect. Instead, we found that the racial gap in arrests intensifies in counties that did not previously exhibit strong racial animosity. Our findings suggest that the presidential rhetoric against drug abuse influenced individuals who may have otherwise held less-racist attitudes.
Using survey data from the American National Election Studies, we show that individuals in counties more exposed to the presidential rhetoric developed more negative attitudes towards Black Americans, perceiving them as receiving more than they deserved and needing to try harder to succeed. This evidence suggests that the presidential rhetoric against drug abuse, albeit being framed as color-blind, shaped the views of Americans against Black Americans. This change in views likely affected police officers as well, who then changed their law enforcement behavior.
Implications and Calls for Reform
The findings of this study highlight the substantial role presidential rhetoric played in intensifying law enforcement efforts related to crack cocaine possession, particularly against Black individuals. These results shed light on systemic discrimination and unequal treatment experienced by minority communities due to heightened law enforcement activities triggered by political campaigns. Understanding the impact of political campaigning on law enforcement behavior is crucial for addressing racial biases inherent in the criminal justice system. By identifying the link between political campaigning and law enforcement actions, policymakers can work toward reforming policing practices and reducing disparities in arrests and convictions for drug offenses.
Politicians need to carefully consider the potentially discriminatory implications of their policy platform. We have provided evidence that the presidential rhetoric against drug abuse that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush developed during the second half of the 1980s resulted in a sizable racial gap in arrests for possession of illicit drugs. Our results are specific to the political situation in the U.S. in the ‘80s, but still provide general insights on how a “tough on crime” rhetoric and political platform can exacerbate racial inequalities. These findings are particularly relevant in the current policy debate, especially with respect to the 2021 Capitol attacks and Black Lives Matter protests.
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