Over the past several days, Joe Biden and other prominent Democrats have tried to distance themselves from the slogan “Defund the Police.” Some say it’s not representative of policy they want. Others just think it’s bad politics, a radical term that Republicans can easily use against Democrats in 2020 and beyond.
That’s too bad, because the slogan has already caught on. It’s a simple, concise phrase that gets right to the heart of the policy it advocates. And Democrats desperately distancing themselves from “Defund the Police” prove it’s a winner.
“Defund the Police” has become one of the de facto slogans of the George Floyd protests across America. As the movement has grown, so has the understanding of the phrase and policy. At its core, defunding police serves to reinvest taxpayer dollars into municipal services that have been gutted for generations—everything from education to public transit—as well as social services designed to address specific conflicts and community issues like domestic violence and homelessness. Several prominent Instagram and Twitter accounts have taken time to explain the policy in basic terms. Even Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver chimed in, committing an entire segment to it.
Tonight's Last Week Tonight should be required viewing. Here he is addressing the what "Defund the Police" actually means pic.twitter.com/8cWlljXNU7
— André Segers (@AndreSegers) June 8, 2020
The concept of defunding police is wide-ranging, but seems simple enough to explain. Still, Democrats are terrified of the phrase because it sounds radical. They’d rather push policies that sound more realistic—things like #8CantWait, a list of police reforms developed by Campaign Zero that quickly gained traction after the first week of protests and was promoted by celebrities and prominent activists like DeRay Mckesson. But not only were many of #8CantWait’s reforms already in place in several major cities, the entire campaign was based on bad data.
Many prominent progressive voices have tried explaining why half-measure reforms won’t work. Policies and slogans that get mired in semantics don’t illicit reactions or emotions that lead people to act. That so many people are trying to walk back “Defund the Police” proves how catchy and emotionally charging the slogan is. Replacement phrases “Reform the Police” and “Reimagine Public Safety”—two of the very real, terrible compromise slogans making social media rounds—have zero rhetorical bite. They also don’t imply that police departments or law enforcement will undergo the fundamental change and restructuring they desperately require. And regardless of whatever milquetoast slogan Dems settle on, Trump will lie straight through it and say Biden wants to eliminate police anyway.
You can’t win a negotiation or create real change by starting from an already compromised position. Democrats either don’t understand this negotiating tactic or simply don’t care. It’s why they continue capitulating demands and power to the Trump administration and Republicans despite their House majority and seeming political momentum. Most Democrats aren’t committed to defunding police for the same reason Republicans aren’t—because they benefit from the same system that upholds police as bastions of law enforcement. They don’t have any real incentive to fundamentally change policing or any other aspect of American society, which is why protesting has been so effective. Keeping pressure on politicians and making them uncomfortable actually works.
Slogans work to rally causes and illicit reactions. But even Bernie Sanders, who popularized a so-called radical policy and simple three-word slogan of his own, is toeing the party line on defunding the police. In order to enact real, lasting change, Democrats need to drop the semantics and go with what works. The policy is sitting right in front of them along with the perfect slogan to go with it.