The Myth of Mob Rule: Violent Crime and Democratic Politics. Lisa L. Miller. New York: Oxford University Press (2016). 272pp. £26.49hb ISBN 9780190228705

Publication Date01 March 2018
AuthorVanessa Barker
The Howard Journal Vol57 No 1. March 2018 DOI: 10.1111/hojo.12246
ISSN 2059-1098, pp. 124–134
Review Symposium
co-ordinated by
The Myth of Mob Rule: Violent Crime and Democratic Politics.Lisa L. Miller. New York:
Oxford University Press (2016). 272pp. £26.49hb ISBN 9780190228705
The Myth of Mob Rule or the Myth of Democracy?
An Anthropological Take
The threat of the tyrannical mob looms large in the liberal imagination. Whether we go
back to 19th Century writings on democracy or current debates on punishment, political
thinkers from Alexis de Tocqueville to criminal justice scholars today have warned of
the dangers of an authoritarian and punitive mob. Yet, what happens if we take this
mob seriously on its own terms? In TheMyth of Mob Rule, Lisa L. Miller has addressed
precisely this question. Her argument turns the liberal narrative of an irrational and
retributive public on its head. The book argues that when punitive demands for ‘law
and order’ become salient as political and public issues, then this tends to follow periods
of high victimisation and crime. People’s perceptions of crime are more closely linked
to reality than frequently assumed. And when politicians listen to the people, crime not
only directs attention to security as an essential public good, but to a range of other policy
interventions that address the root causes of crime.
The Myth of Mob Rule is based on a comparison of three case studies: the US, the
UK and the Netherlands. Each of these countries has experienced a substantial increase
in violent crime over the past 50 years, though each represents a very different set
of institutional forms with implications for citizens’ ability to participate in democratic
processes: a fragmented federal system in the US; a Westminster-style system in the UK;
and proportional representation in the Netherlands. It is through this comparison that
we encounter the book’s central claim: the US system is characterised by a system of
racialised state failure produced by democratic deficits rather than an excess of political
accountability. The term ‘state failure’ refers to the high levels of double exposure to
violence (from fellow citizens and from the state) that is an extreme outlier among
democracies). This state failure is racialised because it disproportionately disadvantages
‘the most needy across racial groups, as well as underscores the deliberate use of these
institutions to deny the securities of the modern state to African Americans’(p.100).
By introducing the case of American exceptionalism, the book offers a powerful re-
minder of US democracy’s failures to extend its claims to protection to some of its most
marginalised citizens. It extends existing commentary on the racialised nature of Ameri-
can criminal justice by shedding light on citizens’ lived realities of actual victimisation and
crime. But there is also a tension at the heart of the book that goes somewhat unexplored:
despite Miller’s plea for more direct democratic participation, we learn comparatively
little about how citizens think of, and conceptualise, state failure on their own terms.
As a consequence, we do not learn much about what kinds of policing citizens consider
appropriate or desirable and how everyday experiences of policing sit alongside other
2018 The Howard League and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK

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