Let’s start with this: To “defund the police” — which means, more explicitly, “to take some amount of resources we currently give to armed police and reallocate those resources towards social services, drug treatment, or other intelligent programs that target the root problems of crime effectively” — is a good idea. No honest and reasonable person should disagree with the underlying premise of defunding the police, no matter how much they might gripe about the slogan itself. If the Democratic Party thinks that “defund the police” is a bad slogan, they should think of another way to describe these good and reasonable policy ideas.
Instead, they are just going to scream about how much they love cops.
Even as the political center of the Democratic Party has been pulled ever so slowly to the left in recent decades, the Clinton-era thirst for triangulation still burns bright in the souls of the party’s tottering old leaders. Although the main proposition of progressives is that the future can be better than the past, the urge of the Democrats to jump up and prove that they can be just as retrograde as Republicans is proving inescapable. Nothing defines the modern Democratic Party more than its consistent refusal to embrace its own beliefs, due to projected fears over what voters might think. The conventional wisdom of Democrats has long been to only whisper their deepest beliefs about racism, injustice, and the stupidity of much of American culture behind closed doors, while making nice with god and guns in public.
Never mind the fact that “defund the police” is a slogan voiced by activists, not politicians. And never mind the fact that it describes a set of policies that we absolutely should be pursuing. And never mind the fact that 20 million people just got done marching for Black Lives Matter, and that shrinking our bloated and militarized police forces would be one of the most meaningful ways to accomplish the long-term goals of that movement. None of that matters more than the belief held by Jim Clyburn and Nancy Pelosi that that particular slogan led to inconvenient Democratic election losses that must be explained away somehow.
The brilliant campaign strategy now being advanced by Pelosi is to declare that Republicans are the ones who actually voted to defund the police, because they voted against Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, money from which was used in many places to fund police departments. Akela Lacy reports that this message from Democrats is expected to be widespread in the coming midterm elections. One aide told her that when Republicans accused Democrats of wanting to defund police during the last elections “we didn’t have anything to say back. Now, you have something to say back.”
This is such a perfect encapsulation of the moral failure of the Democratic Party that you almost have to admire it. It reflects the same impulse that constantly makes Democratic strategists seek out Tough on Crime Prosecutors or Badass Fighter Pilot Vets to run for office. It is the same impulse that has given us classic Democratic positions of the recent past, like “Actually, we’re against gay marriage,” or “Actually, we do support the war in Iraq,” or “Actually, I do enjoy making my presidential campaign appearance riding in this tank.” It is the pathological fear of being called weak — a fear that, ironically, is a sure sign of weakness. The Democrats are acting like all the shame-faced kids at school who laugh along with the bully because they are scared of the bully turning on them. It never seems to occur to the party’s candidates that what they could “say back” to bad faith accusations about defunding the police is: “Let me tell you how this could be a good thing.”
One year ago, Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic congressional leaders were kneeling while wearing kente cloths. Today, they are working to prove that was even more of a sham than we all might have imagined at the time. Police violence, mass incarceration, and the devastating, racist, and destructive War on Crime are all structural problems. Structural problems demand structural solutions. Defunding the police is a structural solution. Claiming to be against the structural problems without being willing to embrace structural solutions means that you want the credit for being on the right side of the issue without having to engage in the fight to make the issue better. That is what the Democrats are doing. Not only are they not defunding the police — they are coopting the Republican position that defunding the police is a bad idea to be ashamed of. They are being as useless as… well, as kneeling wearing kente cloths while bragging about increasing police funding.
Legitimate progressives — those who are willing to advocate for positions because they are just, not because they are politically expedient — have spent many decades gritting their teeth while Democrats wink and assure them that yes, they agree with the goal, but in order to get there we must have a long masquerade of pretending not to agree with the goal, because voters demand that we Be Tough. Invariably, the passage of time proves that the just position was where everyone should have been all along. History is littered with the disgraced corpses of politicians who took positions that they knew were unjust, but that they considered to be politically necessary. That is how all of the evil things happen — with the acquiescence of leaders who consider themselves to be realists.
Instead of not defunding the police, let’s try defunding the police. I bet that it will not provoke more police shootings and 20 million angry people in the streets, like last summer’s protests. Maybe it’s more realistic than the Democrats think.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.