Why are cops so conservative?

In the wake of the Capitol riot, an answer to the armchair psychologists

It’s really not a secret that most police trend more conservative. This fact has gotten a lot of attention in the wake of the Capitol Riot. Which leads to a question: Why?

This question prompts a certain amount of armchair psychology among left-leaning people. On social media it typically takes the form of someone saying something along the lines of “all the school bullies/racists/authoritarians/dumb people signed up to be cops.” I’ve also seen some people suggest that police departments engage in a sort of affirmative action for Republicans, hiring conservatives on purpose. Alternatively, in a more academic or journalistic setting, you could ask a Yale Law Professor why police are conservative and get an answer like this:

There is an argument that could be made, that because of the way the job has been defined, we have a high proportion of cops who do have a certain world view … And then there could be other people who are not attracted to the job — who would be very good at this job — who don't have this world view.

My take is that this argument is kind of circular: “Policing attracts people with a certain worldview because it’s policing.” Okay, but why?

Before I get into that, I want to note that there is some concern among left-leaning people that police will stage some kind of putsch or whatever against left leaning politicians. Apparently this runs really deep: Biden was so worried about his Secret Service detail being Trump loyalists that he had them replaced. I think this is pretty silly. Whatever else most cops are, they are rule followers who are inclined to obey the law and lawful orders. I think it says a lot that even amongst the 30 or so cops who were crazy enough to attend Trump’s Jan. 6th rally, so far only three of them have actually been accused of doing something illegal.

A second point: Police are actually not a monolith, and there is a lot of ideological diversity among police officers.1 I know cops who supported Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Gary Johnson, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. I worked with LGBTQ officers and officers who came from every single racial and ethnic background imaginable. I knew officers who came from immigrant families, big cities, and extremely rural areas. And this kind of thing varies a lot by city: I really doubt most members of the D.C. Metropolitan Police or US Capitol Police are Trump supporters right now.

But there is definitely a general tendency toward conservatism among police that’s worth exploring.

The job changes your worldview

The professor I quoted above misses the fact that a lot of cops become more conservative after joining the police force. The old joke is that “a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.” I don’t know if that’s right, but I think it is true that if you spent a lot of time time every day talking to muggers, you start to take on a different, more cynical view of society. And this is basically what happens to police officers.

When I came into the police academy, I was a liberal young person and a registered Democrat with a college degree. I had all that young idealist “save the world” energy. And then I had that stomped out of me by the reality of policing.

It wasn’t other cops or the academy or “police culture” that did this to me. It was the people I dealt with on the street. The nature of the work means that cops deal with people who are overwhelmingly incapable of making good choices. They make bad choices, choices so bad they make your head spin because they are beyond comprehension and/or downright evil. An by bad, I mean like, really bad. Shooting into a car with your own child in it. Refusing medical treatment despite having a life-threatening injury. Driving so drunk you pass out. Calling the police on your kid because they won’t listen to you. Getting back together with the boyfriend who beat you up last week and the week before. And people will do one of these things, you will arrest them and/or help them, and then they will do the exact same thing again.

Then you have the lying: Holy God do people lie. People will lie to you on the street about everything. They’ll lie to get out of jail, to get someone else sent to jail, and for no reason at all. They’ll lie to commit fraud. They’ll lie about their name. They’ll make promises to you and break them right in front of your face. It’s insane. Guys will tell you they haven’t been drinking while surrounded by empty beer cans and reeking with liquor as they sit in the driver’s seat of a crashed car.

At some point this erodes your empathy. It’s hard to understand how someone’s tough childhood or whatever can lead them to shoot into a vehicle with their own infant inside. It just seems like degenerate behavior. Having taken criminology classes in college, this lead to a weird dichotomy in my thinking. I knew about academic research on topics like “addiction is a disease” and “poverty is correlated with crime.” But when you’re really there talking to the felon you just caught carrying a gun - again! - it sure seems like it’s not society’s fault anymore. How hard is it to not carry a gun around?

I’m sure there is some political psychology research somewhere which suggests that being a low-trust person is associated with conservative ideology. I saw an article about how Trump supporters are generally not trusting of institutions, which tracks. All I know for a fact is that it’s a lot harder to vote for an expansive welfare state when you recently arrested a guy trading food stamps for crack cocaine - for like the fifth time. I still do it! But it’s harder than it used to be.

Police demographics

Police are not naturally a Republican constituency. They all work for the government. They are overwhelmingly union members. Policing is generally considered to be a blue collar job, and most departments don’t require a college degree.

But there are several ways in which the nature of policing self-selects for conservative political views. The biggest one is probably gun ownership. If you’re the kind of person who hates guns and can never see yourself owning or using one, you are disqualified from police work. Keeping and knowing how to use a gun is a part of the job. And Republicans are almost twice as likely as Democrats to say they own a gun.

Police are also overwhelmingly male. Like, 90% male. Men are generally more conservative than women, a trend which appears to be accelerating. Being a female police officer is definitely not easy and police departments could do more to rectify that. But I will say I think there is a limit to how much a department can do on its own to change this, because it seems male dominance in policing is an issue everywhere.

Police are also still disproportionately white. But I don’t think this is as big of a factor as many people think. For one thing, police departments are increasingly diverse, especially in big cities. If you think I’m exaggerating, think about this: NYPD’s patrol officers are majority-minority - only 43% of patrolmen are white. This isn’t an outlier: Atlanta, Detroit, Washington D.C., New Orleans and Los Angeles all have majority-minority police departments.

If you don’t buy it, think about the NYPD’s patrol officers being a city. A city where 57% of residents are non-white, everyone is a union member, and everyone works for the government should be a pretty Democratic-leaning city. But PBA, which represents those officers, sent Pat Lynch to endorse Trump at the GOP convention last year. He wouldn’t have done that if it wasn’t broadly supported by the rank and file, which in turn suggests to me that some substantial portion of non-white NYPD officers supported Trump. This lines up with my personal experience. A police precinct remains to this day the only place where I’ve worked alongside Black, Hispanic, gay, transgender, lesbian, and female Republicans - all at the same time.

Democrats don’t want the police vote

Despite police forces changing in a way that should make them more liberal (since 1987, the percentage of officers who are non-white and/or female has doubled) police are becoming more conservative. If you don’t believe me, the National Association of Police Organizations (a lobbying group for police unions) endorsed Obama (and Biden!) in 2008 and 2012 - but sat on the sidelines in 2016 and endorsed Trump in 2020. Why did they endorse Obama? The obvious reason: He was the pro-union candidate. But by 2020, NAPO had different concerns:

The National FOP followed a similar trend: Back in 1996 it endorsed Bill Clinton, then mostly stayed out of Presidential elections before endorsing Trump in 2016 and 2020.

The reason for this shift is pretty transparent: Democrats don’t want the police vote, and since 2016 they haven’t really tried to get it. When the FOP sent Hillary Clinton’s campaign an endorsement questionnaire in 2016, she didn’t even bother to fill it out. And if you’re a cop, then from a policy perspective, voting for Democrats is pretty obviously not in your own self-interest. Consider just two points from the Democratic House’s George Floyd Justice in Policing Act from 2020:

  • Would allow federal criminal prosecution of officers for a “reckless” violation of constitutional rights.

  • Would eliminate qualified immunity as a defense in civil lawsuits against police.

Were this law to take effect, a police officer could be held criminally or civilly liable even if they did not know they were doing something wrong - so even “good cops” would be exposed to much greater liability. It’s pretty hard to vote for the political party that wants to make it easier to sue you or send you to jail. And nearly every Democrat in Congress co-sponsored this bill.

Then there’s stuff that might seem “small” to normal people, but I think is a big deal to cops. In 2016, Hillary Clinton had Michael Brown’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, speak at the Democratic National Convention. This was well after the Obama DOJ had found that Michael Brown’s 2014 shooting was justified and effectively exonerated Darren Wilson. Putting McFadden up there to speak suggests you think Brown was a victim of police brutality. It tells cops that you don’t care, and that you’re fine with a cop going under the bus to advance your political career.

Again, many people might think this kind of thing doesn’t matter. It’s a speech, who cares? But in my experience, cops care. The Ferguson thing, and how the popular narrative turned out to be false, was talked about a lot at least by cops I knew. It bothered me that many people still believe something about that incident which just is not true. And it matters to police because it is their safety and reputation they are being asked to risk.

Some people might point out that Trump in particular was a really obvious fraud when it comes to being a “law and order” candidate, so supporting him doesn’t make much sense either. And they would have a point. I also remember how the GOP acted after the Bundy Ranch incident, and after Ruby Ridge and Waco. Cops weren’t heroes to hardcore conservatives back then - they were Janet Reno’s jackbooted thugs. I think post-Capitol riot you’d get a lot more cops who agree with this point.

So Trump/GOP support for police basically amounts to pandering. But the thing about Trump in 2016 and 2020 was that he tried! He pandered! He said “We love our police!” And Kamala Harris posted a link to a bail fund for anti-police protesters. Trump tried to get the police vote and the Dems did not try. Trying - pandering - counts for a lot.

One more thing: Even when cops are on the side of the angels, Democrats can’t really seem to help themselves. A Capitol Police officer was killed in the Capitol riots on Jan. 6. Another two officers killed themselves. Dozens of others were maced with bear spray or severely beaten. And here’s what Biden had to say in the moment:

This pissed me off to no end. Cops died defending the Capitol from the MAGA mob and the mainstream Democratic party position was “The Capitol Police just let them do it.” Since Biden tweeted this, a lot of journalists have articulated at length just how hard front line officers tried to defend the Capitol. Others have explored just how thoroughly the Capitol Police were betrayed by their completely incompetent leadership. But in the moment, the standard Democratic line was: “They must be racists.”

So what?

There are maybe 600,000 cops in America. They are not a huge voting block and they are not really concentrated anywhere important in electoral terms. And when it comes to lobbying police unions actually don’t have very much money - the National FOP spent $220,000 on lobbying in 2019; the ACLU spent seven times that much. Actual big boys in lobbying like the pharmaceutical industry left both of them in the dust. So even if all cops vote Republican, I don’t think it changes many elections.

I’m much more concerned about what happens if policing becomes a purely partisan issue, with liberals being anti-police and conservatives pro-police. Certain issues in American politics are so partisan that most legislating that gets done on the topic is harmful. Take gun control. Gun control is so polarized that actual legislators make bad laws just for virtue signaling purposes. For example: Idaho has recently made it legal for anybody to carry a concealed handgun whether they have a permit or not. Why? Gun rights were not under attack in Idaho. It was a “shall issue” state already. But there was a need to own the libs who were doing anti-gun things in liberal states, so there you go. The NRA-endorsed Democrat is dead.

If policing becomes a similarly partisan topic, there is a huge risk that effective law enforcement will hinge on the whims of whoever happens to take power. The parties will take legislative action just to hurt “the other side.” This is already happening in some places. For example: Nobody can plausibly argue that defunding the police makes them better, because it turns out better policing costs money. But many liberal cities are doing it anyway. And in conservative states like Florida, you have a Republican government passing laws which ratchet up the penalties on already-illegal stuff - basically just to own some hypothetical rioters.

This level of partisanship is incredibly destructive when we are talking about a basic municipal service. Making radical policy changes in this area just to own the other guys is either going to drive the murder rate up - more than it already has - or put people in prison who don’t need to be there. Imagine if the Democrats were vowing to cut the Fire Department’s budget while the Republicans were vowing to empower the Fire Department so that firefighters run the local hospital. It wouldn’t end well.

There are a lot of parallels with the 1960s and 1970s. Crime, race and policing were very charged issues. There was high-profile police brutality and racism. Cops were ambushed and killed by Black Panthers. And what followed was a long climb in murders that killed a lot of people - needlessly - until a bipartisan consensus emerged on crime again. I’d like to avoid a repeat of history, but it doesn’t seem especially likely that I will be getting what I want.

1

Some of the most liberal police officers are big-city police chiefs, probably because 1) they usually have graduate degrees and 2) they need to get appointed by Democratic mayors or voted into office by Democratic voters.