As The Nation’s designated liberal hand-wringer, I admit I’ve been concerned about the rapid spread of the demand to “defund the police,” which sociologist Alex S. Vitale argued for persuasively in our digital pages last week. I have worried that its radicalism jeopardizes the growing mainstream support for police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s apparent murder by Minneapolis police two weeks ago, and the subsequent police violence against those protesting that crime. It has, of course, become a simplistic “gotcha” question for some reporters and news anchors to shoot at Democratic politicians, especially since a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council pledged to disband its police department Sunday.
But I’ve decided to calm down and trust the wisdom of the activists, as well as some of the leading politicians, who’ve been working on this issue far more closely, and with far more on the line, than I have. There is right now a productive tension between liberalism and radicalism, as well as establishment insiders and activist outsiders, the kind we talk about in history: labor unrest in the 1930s (and earlier) helping to lead to New Deal reforms; civil rights unrest in the ’60s culminating in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
Of course, the white backlash to ’60s civil rights progress, as well as sometimes-destructive protest and rising crime, led to the election of Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan—and now Donald Trump. And some of us older folks are still living in the shadow of those traumas.
I’ve come to realize part of the problem is that much of the liberal Democratic establishment came of age politically, as I did, in the shadow of the Reagan revolution, when Republicans came to dominate not only policy but language itself, especially around crime, welfare, and the role of government. After Republicans won the White House in five out of six elections, with a brief pause for Jimmy Carter, some Democrats worried that they’d never get it back. President Bill Clinton led us out of that wilderness, partly by making the many compromises with the dominant GOP worldview that progressives now loathe, or at least lament. But even Barack Obama, like me, graduated from college into cramped, fearful Reagan-era political activism. That partly accounted for his (justified) fear of a GOP backlash and (futile) determination to work with Republicans. Now, some of us cringe at every slogan that might potentially frighten off the elusive swing voter, from “Medicare for All” to “Abolish ICE” to, now, “Defund the police.”
But remember when “Abolish ICE” was going to doom Democrats in 2018? And they took the House?
Even Scott Walker, not the GOP’s brightest bulb, framed the issues on Twitter this way Sunday night:
Smart: Reform the police.
Not smart: Defund the police.
—Scott Walker (@ScottWalker) June 7, 2020
Thus making “reform” the default conservative position. (Georgetown public policy professor Don Moynihan immediately demonstrated the authoritarian Walker’s deep hypocrisy.)
But the ever-centrist Politico Playbook reported Tuesday morning that some congressional Republicans say they are seriously considering whether they can support any of the police reform tenets of the bill proposed by the Democratic House along with Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker on Monday. Senators Mitt Romney and Tim Scott are said to be looking at what they might back, and even some House Republicans are, too. Politico reports:
The low-hanging fruit for Republicans includes a ban on chokeholds, declaring lynching a federal crime, creating a national reporting mechanism for police officers who get in trouble and beefed-up training programs for law enforcement. Republicans are even holding open the possibility that they could rework liability protections for police officers.
I’ll believe it when I see it, but… it’s not nothing.
I’m not going to pretend I don’t still worry about the slogan’s being confusing and potentially chasing away Americans who are otherwise open to serious police transformation. (So does Senator Bernie Sanders, by the way.) But I also worried that the violence on the fringe of the George Floyd protests last week would alienate the public—only to see public support for the demonstrators, and police reform, soar in that same period. Part of that is thanks to cops themselves: The violent police riots we saw in cities from New York to Minneapolis to Austin to Los Angeles opened the nation’s eyes, belatedly, to the lawlessness of too many of the men and women who are paid to enforce the law.
And I think liberal and progressive Democrats are mostly handling the question well. The View’s Meghan McCain tried to corner Senator Kamala Harris on Monday by professing support for police reform but opposition to “defunding the police,” and insisting that Harris say whether she supports that demand, “yes or no.” Harris did something deft—I think she learned a lot from her failed presidential campaign—and turned the question around on McCain: “How are you defining funding the police?” Of course, McCain couldn’t answer. Noting that many cities spend “more than one third” of their budgets on police, Harris said she thought the actual task was “reimagining how we do public safety in America, which I support.” Incidentally, that’s the same formulation used on Sunday by Representative Ilhan Omar, who is to Harris’s left. For now, I’m going to let those running for and holding public office sort it all out.
And there’s a lot to sort out. Even those who profess to support “defunding” the police mean different things. For many, it starts with demilitarizing urban police forces by not investing in the armaments of war. For others, it’s putting significant chunks of police budgets into social services treating homelessness, mental health issues, and substance abuse. It can also mean disbanding police forces, as the Minneapolis City Council seems to envision—but even that proposal remains admittedly vague. And though he only uses the word “reform,” Minneapolis SEIU leader Javier Morillo laid out seven tough moves— to break the power of conservative, often brutal police unions that have blocked attempts at change in many cities, including his own.
In an interview last week, The End of Policing author Vitale acknowledged this:
I’m certainly not talking about any kind of scenario where tomorrow someone just flips a switch and there are no police. What I’m talking about is the systematic questioning of the specific roles that police currently undertake, and attempting to develop evidence-based alternatives so that we can dial back our reliance on them. And my feeling is that this encompasses actually the vast majority of what police do. We have better alternatives for them.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden, elected to the Senate in 1972, grew up in the shadow of Nixon, which was in some ways more withering to the political soul than Reagan, especially on racial issues. Biden says forthrightly that he doesn’t support defunding the police. Of course he doesn’t. But the former vice president is coming along on these and other issues. Can we move him to “systemic questioning” of the roles police perform? Or even “reimagining the police”? We’ll see where Biden lands.
The only remaining worry I have is if it becomes a litmus test for activists, and they spurn a presidential candidate like Biden who won’t go that far—yet. But I’ll worry about that later. I’ve finally realized: It’s time for those of us who grew up in the shadow of the Reagan revolution either to shut up and listen, or exit stage left.