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Is ‘defund the police’ political poison for Democrats?

Mike Bebernes
·Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Former President Barack Obama said progressive politicians and activists who argue for defunding the police risk undermining criminal justice reform efforts by championing a “snappy slogan” that could alienate moderate voters.

“You lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done,” he said in an interview on the Snapchat political show “Good Luck America.”

Obama’s comments echo criticisms from many centrist Democrats, who say voter opposition to progressive policy goals like “defund the police” contributed to the party’s disappointing down-ballot performance on Election Day. Joe Biden won the presidential race, but Democrats saw their majority shrink in the House of Representatives and failed to unseat a handful of GOP senators who were considered vulnerable.

Proposals to defund the police have been promoted by activists for years, but the concept gained national awareness during the massive Black Lives Matter protest movement in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in late May. At its core, “defund the police” is an argument for reducing the size and scope of police departments by funneling portions of the money spent on law enforcement to other government agencies that are better equipped to respond to public needs without violence.

Debate over whether defunding the police is the appropriate solution to police violence has raged since the issue entered the public eye over the summer. But the election has sparked a related discussion of whether “defund the police,” beyond its merits as policy, is an effective political message.

Why there’s debate

There is, of course, intense criticism of “defund the police” from conservatives who reject the idea that law enforcement needs to be reformed at all. But the phrase has also been maligned by many Democrats who generally back police reform efforts. “‘Defund the police’ is killing our party, and we’ve got to stop it,” Democratic House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said. Republicans in swing districts across the country used “defund the police” to paint Democrats as radicals who favor anarchy, even though most of those Democratic candidates opposed defunding the police.

Critics say the phrase sounds too confrontational to many moderate voters who may be more open to police reform if it were presented in a less extreme way. It can also be confusing, since “defund the police” can sound like an argument for eliminating the police entirely, which it’s not. Some activists do call for abolishing the police altogether, but that movement is much smaller.

Defenders of the policy say moderate critics have provided no tangible evidence that “defund the police” hurt Democrats and are likely looking for a scapegoat to blame for their own campaign failures. They also cite the strong support Democrats received in big cities from groups that they argue were energized by bold proposals like “defund the police.”

Others say those who are arguing about the electoral impact of “defund the police” are missing the point. “It’s not a slogan,” tweeted Cori Bush, a progressive Democrat who was elected to the House in November. “It’s a mandate for keeping our people alive.” Many reform advocates say it’s their job to fight for the changes they believe in, not to temper those beliefs for the sake of the Democratic Party.

What’s next

The impact of “defund the police” on the prospects of moderate Democrats will get another critical test in early January, when two Senate seats — and control of the chamber — will be up for grabs in Georgia. Neither of the two Democrats on the ballot supports defunding the police, but the false claim that they do has nonetheless been a central part of Republican attacks against them.

Perspectives

Critics

“Defund the police” is a toxic political message

“‘Defund the police’ is the second stupidest campaign slogan any Democrat has uttered in the twenty first century. It is second in stupidity only to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 comment that half of Trump’s supporters belong in a ‘basket of deplorables.’” — Political scientist Bernard Grofman to New York Times

“Defund the police” holds back more reasonable police reform policies

“That slogan is a massive self-inflicted wound for the left, a misrepresentation of sensible efforts already underway in some municipalities to fund mental health and other social services so police can focus more attention on actual crime-fighting.” — Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune

Progressives squandered the good will of Black Lives Matter by going too far

“Black Lives Matter has been a stunning success in the elite culture. …To take this position of strength and use it primarily to associate your allies with a politically radioactive position requires extraordinary strategic folly and heedless ideological fanaticism. BLM had both, in ample supply.” — Rich Lowry, National Review

“Defund the police” is a misleading phrase plays into GOP attacks

“Most activists, when they talk about defunding police, mean that we should fund social services and thereby reduce the scope of what police have to do. But that’s not how many voters hear it. Defund is generally applied to organizations you want to cripple or eliminate, not reform. So it’s easy to seize on this phrase to paint Democrats as anti-police and pro-crime.” — William Saletan, Slate

Problems with “defund the police” go way beyond messaging

“The big problem with “defund the police” is that defunding the police is a bad idea — austerity is bad, public services are good, policing is important, and better policing will be more costly than bad policing, not cheaper” — Political journalist Matthew Yglesias

Defenders

Critics don’t provide any evidence that “defund the police” turns away voters

“There is no hard evidence that voters turned against Democratic congressional candidates because of ‘defund the police’ and other radical slogans. … This is a textbook case of assuming one thing caused the other because they followed in chronological order.” — Jamelle Bouie, New York Times

Democrats would lose progressive voters if they abandoned aggressive reforms

“What works in New York won’t necessarily work in Georgia. But centrists ask much of their left-wing colleagues. In urging House progressives to keep silent on key positions, centrists may also muzzle voters, many of them in majority Black, Latino, and immigrant areas.” — Sarah Jones, New York

There will always be backlash to reforms, regardless of how they’re packaged

“Bad slogans/messaging isn’t the problem. There will never be a nice way to sell progress to people who actually don’t want it.” — Atlantic contributing writer Jemele Hill

The message works at the local level, where activists are most focused

“Believe it or not, the goal of most activism on the left … isn't to win House seats for Nancy Pelosi. … Too much of our public discussion of criminal justice is through the lens of national politics -- which is not actually how most [criminal justice] policy (much less activism) works in this country.” — CBS News reporter Wesley Lowery

“Defund the police” isn’t a political slogan, it’s a policy proposal

“I know it might be unfamiliar to career politicians, but a lot of regular people actually advocate and protest for the specific changes they want, instead of developing a long term strategy that involves obscuring their goals for the sake of partisan posturing and bureaucratic niceties.” — Justice Namaste, Jezebel

American voters are so polarized, campaign messaging makes little difference

“The bottom line: In contemporary circumstances, Democrats will have a hard time winning Senate races in Republican states during presidential election years. This has little to do with money, message, strategy, or even candidates—and nearly everything to do with the intense partisan polarization that has made widespread ticket-splitting a thing of the past.” — William A. Galston, Brookings

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images