- The movement to “defund the police” is growing rapidly, but leading Democrats in Congress have been shying away from the slogan while trying to capture the energy of its supporters.
- The tactic of disavowing the “defund the police” slogan while trying to win over the movements’ supporters is a mistake.
- The Democratic party has a real opportunity to get behind a policy call to action with a passionate movement.
- Eoin Higgins is senior editor and staff writer for Common Dreams, a non-profit progressive newsroom.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Democrats should embrace the defund police movement, if only for political expediency. But don’t tell them that.
Democratic party leaders and liberal pundits are worried that Republicans could make an election issue out of the current nationwide protests against police brutality by tying presumptive nominee Joe Biden to the defund demand. So these leaders and pundits are doing their best to walk away from the “defund the police” slogan while still vaguely embracing what they interpret as the ideals of the movement.
Trying to disavow the slogan while trying to win over the movements’ supporters is a mistake. Hedging on a central plank of a demonstration movement with broad support around the country in an election year is a pointless rejection of a political moment sparked by unprecedented unrest around the country due to the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing police brutality.
A political uprising
The nationwide protest movement was sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin while three other officers watched. The brutality of the act – nearly nine minutes of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck and back all caught on camera – combined with months of watching as injustices piled up in the COVID-19 era produced the perfect set of conditions for the country to erupt in a justice movement for the ages.
Black feminist scholars like Angela Davis have explained that defunding the police comes with reinvestment into communities for a better social and economic future for over-policed communities. “It’s about shifting public funds to new services and new institutions,” she toldDemocracy Now! Friday.
Democratic leaders don’t seem to want to hear the moral case for cutting police budgets despite nearly daily videos of police officers beating and abusing Americans around the country. So let me suggest another reason that they should support the defund movement that will get through to them: it’s smart politics.
Shifting public sentiment
Despite growing support for the idea of defunding the police, leading Democrats still refuse to meet the moment. Rep. James Clybrun summed up the party establishment’s resistance Wednesday to MSNBC‘s Craig Melvin arguing that the “sloganeering” around “Defund the police” was hijacking the movement-a statement completely out of touch with the demands of the people on the ground.
“So yes to reallocating resources and reform,” said Clybrun. “No to defunding the police.” Inspiring stuff.
The argument put forward by Democratic leadership goes like this: Americans remain attached to ideas of law and order and the goodness of police and therefore attacking the institution is a political loser.
The movement has been described as a “lifeline” for President Donald Trump’s fading reelection chances, with pundits claiming that the movement will help the GOP in the fall as a public sceptical at best of “defunding the police” will turn on the protesters and in favour of a more authoritarian approach to law enforcement.
That logic is leading liberals to push moderate reform efforts instead and for Biden himself to come out and say he will not support defunding. The former vice president told CBS News anchor Norah O’Donnell that he opposed defunding police departments, instead saying he supported a meaningless standard of “conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness” and a more concrete $US300 million spike in federal funding for departments around the country.
But the party’s interpretation of the beliefs of the country’s voters appears to fly in the face of the changing mood of the public.
Defunding the police is gaining favour among Americans. Two YouGov/Yahoo news polls taken a week-and-a-half apart show the idea jumping in support from 16% to 24% of respondents. The rapid shift comes as the public has learned more about the idea of using bloated police budgets for initiatives that help the community
The polling support for the defund movement also depends on how the question is asked. A YouGov/HuffPost poll found only 27% of Americans supported defunding the police when asked about the slogan directly, but that 44% of respondents backed budgeting less money to police departments with 41% opposed.
The movement has broad support around the country and 78% of respondents in a recent Monmouth University poll reported they at least partially understand the anger and support the protesters. The Monmouth poll is one of three released last week that found that a majority of respondents, including majorities or near majorities of whites, believe racial bias plays a role in how police treat people. This is unprecedented.
This shift in public opinion is even reflected in GOP politicians with more of a legacy instinct than party loyalty like former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney calling for reforming the police and saying “Black Lives Matter” in marches against police brutality, respectively. And conservative strategist Frank Luntz is predicting the end of a hard and fast alliance between the police and Republicans.
Further, “defund the police” is exactly the kind of simple and effective sloganeering Democrats for some reason abhor. Much like Black Lives Matter, the meaning is clear in the wording. In this case, defunding the police means just that -cutting police budgets.
As criminal justice advocate Josie Duffy Rice noted on Twitter, the disconnect between the simple reality of the policy and what people want it to mean is stark.
“I am really amazed by how many people in my mentions are calmly explaining to me that defunding the police doesn’t mean defunding the police,” tweeted Rice. “Au contraire.”
Democratic strategists and wonks have nonetheless tried to find different ways to explain what they believe the policy is, from “New Blue” to “Reboot the Police” to “Reimagine America and her Possibilities.” The constant shifting has led many sceptics to note, correctly, that the efforts to undo the slogan are born of a frustration with progressive policies and a reticence to endorse the effort itself while attempting to stay in the good graces of what is becoming a global movement.
Funnily enough, Democrats would only have to look to their political opponents to see the power of effective and short political slogans. As detestable as the messages may be, “Make American Great Again,” “Lock Her Up,” and “Build the Wall” are easily digestible and understandable statements of ideology and policy priorities that are hard to misunderstand.
By contrast, “Restore The Soul of America,” “We are America, second to none,” and “Our best days still lie ahead” are only recognisable as Biden 2020 slogans because I just told you they are.
And the most memorable Democratic electoral and policy slogans of recent years are “Medicare for All,” “I’m With Her,” and “Not Me, Us,” all three easy to understand and with a clear message.
The question is if the Democrats will read the room in time or if the party will squander this opportunity to seize a wave of public sentiment united behind change and instead choose stagnation and defeat.
The party has a real opportunity right now to get behind a policy call to action with a movement behind it. Will they take the opportunity to embrace a simple, effective message with the righteous energy of a nationwide popular uprising behind it? Or will they choose the well-worn path of empty promises? The latter won’t work this time – but the former could win them the election.
Eoin Higgins is senior editor and staff writer for Common Dreams, a non-profit progressive newsroom. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, The Intercept, Vice News, and many other outlets. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.