THE presidential campaign of 1968 is dominated by a pervasive and obsessive issue. Its label is law and order.
Its symptoms are fear and frustration and anger.
Everyone is for law and order, or at least for his own version of it. Few Americans can define precisely what they mean by the term, but the belief that law and order is being destroyed represents a trauma unmatched in intensity since the alarums generated by Joe McCarthy in the Korean era. The issue has virtually anesthetized the controversy over Viet Nam. It has distorted debate over pressing urban problems. It has perverted the presidential election, the closest thing in this secular republic to a sacred collective act.
For millions of voters who are understandably and legitimately dismayed by random crime, burning ghettos, disrupted universities and violent demonstrations in downtown streets, law and order is a rallying cry that evokes quieter days. To some, it is also a shorthand message promising repression of the black community. To the Negro, already the most frequent victim of violence, it is a bleak warning that worse times may be coming.
The law-and-order issue has elevated George Wallace from a sectional maverick to a national force, making the two-party system seem suddenly vulnerable. It has lured Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew to the edge of demagogy, as they watch the national atmosphere darken and Wallace's popularity grow. For reasons of his own, Hubert Humphrey has played less heavily on the fear of lawlessness, and he finds himself losing ground as a result.
The Mood of Crisis
So roiled is the country's mood that Wallace describes his election as nec essary not merely to contain dissent and disturbance but also to protect dissenters and disturbers from repressions worse than any that he would impose on them. His implication is clear: only his victory can placate the New Right sufficiently to prevent vigilante action. This artful threat of ever more taut confrontation carries with it the prospect of still more violence, which in turn could lead to curtailment of traditional civil liberties. Some hard-core rebels of the farthest left would welcome exactly that. They reason that the resulting disorder could only weaken the system that they seek to overturn.
In this, they face the united opposition of the great mass between the extremes. Every citizen has a valid right to demand that his government provide security for his person and his property. This is perhaps the public's first civil right. No responsible element quarrels with it. It is ironic that law and order, at best the glory of any society and at least an unobjectionable cliche, should have turned into a controversy. Partly it has happened because many vocal protesters put forth the old but troubling idea that, in certain circumstances, law and order must be defied for the sake of a higher justice.
Every pollster's report, every sounding by reporters, attests to the momentum of the law-and-order issue. The surveys fuel the rhetoric from the right. Eighty-one percent of the public believe that law enforcement has broken down. Even more believe that a "strong" President can do something about it. By large margins, the public wants looters gunned down on the streets. By varying majorities, people blame Negroes, the Mafia, Communists, rebellious youth, the courts.