“Defund the Police”: The Republicans’ Dream Slogan (for Democrats)

Increasingly, it looks like it’s the Democrats’ election to lose, given the ever more deeply revealed, abhorrent character of Donald Trump, which has combined in a perfect storm over the past weeks with his profound, gross incompetence. But if the dizzying turn of events over the past few days are any indication, the Democrats might just be up to the task.

If the catastrophe of Trump’s re-election comes to pass, we will likely be able to lay it at the feet of the well-meaning but utter stupidity of cries to “Defund the Police.”

Just three words, but fully capable of changing the course of human history if, as a result of their careless, ill-considered release into America’s public conversation, the world is forced to endure another four years of Trumpian chaos in a sort of new Dark Age.

Let me be clear: I have no argument with the call to revision the whole gamut of police services and interventions to make policing and various social services that can complement it more humane, efficient, responsive and effective in both preventing crime and apprehending/rehabilitating criminals. (Here, Democrats: “Revision Policing.” Two words only, and you can have them, free…)

Any discussion of reallocating resources from enforcement to prevention that results in safer, more thriving and healthy communities is all to the good.

Already, a spate of articles have appeared since the slogan gained sudden wide currency last week… what all of them have in common is the need to ‘explain’ what ‘Defund the Police’ actually means.

But that three-word slogan, in all its “We’ll explain later” amorphousness, threatens to be a flaming tire Republican strategists hang around Democrats’ necks, rhetorical fuel added to it every day to keep middle America frightened they’re going to wake up one morning with their local police stations emptied out and no one to call when the bad guys come around.

Already, a spate of articles have appeared since the slogan gained sudden wide currency last week during the righteous, nationwide mourning and protesting over George Floyd’s killing at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

What all of them have in common is the need to “explain” what “Defund the Police” actually means.

Here’s a mere sampling from the past few days:

Washington Post: “Why ‘Defund the Police’ Is a Chant With Many Meanings”

The Post a day later: “Defund the Police: Here’s What That Really Means” 

CNN: “Defunding police: What it means and what it could look like…”

NY Times:  “What Would Efforts to Defund or Disband Police Departments Really Mean?”

John Oliver: “Explaining ‘defund the police’ — and why it doesn’t mean ‘no police’”

Baltimore Sun: “Defund the police: Not as scary (or new) as it sounds”

NBC News: “Calls to reform, defund, dismantle and abolish the police, explained”

All of that against the backdrop of a truism every student of Politics 101 learns on the first day of class: “When you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

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Notably, much of the Democratic establishment starting at the top with presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden has sought to distance itself from the slogan as it has been used by more idealistic (and naive) elements of the party.

That is because they readily grasp how such an ambiguous slogan could and would be twisted into any shape its detractors want, leaving its defenders sputtering, “We really don’t mean no more police!” while visions of thugs and criminals roaming the streets unchecked trouble the minds of nervous Americans.

Because here’s the thing: “Defund the police” at first glance and comprehension strongly suggests elimination of police budgets, leading to their dissolution.

It sounds radical, far-reaching, utopian, other-worldly, carrying an emotional wallop that zips right past the rational brain—just as slogans are designed to do. If you’re looking to scare people who don’t readily adapt to revolutionary change (which is to say, pretty much everyone), then it is a powerful slogan—but in direct opposition to its intent. It scares rather than inspires most people.

Which means the slogan’s propagators have to fall all over themselves recruiting psychologists, social scientists and academicians to help soothe everyone’s nerves by writing learned op-eds in major media explaining what it really means—and which maybe 10% of the population will actually read.

That as opposed to the 100% who will have heard the pithy slogan and formed their biases and conclusions about it—often rooted in fear. My own fear is that a small but perhaps crucial portion of that population will respond along the lines of, “There go those crazy Democrats again; maybe I’ll vote for Trump or sit this one out after all.”

This fear was stoked over the weekend when Jacob Frey, the young and progressive mayor of Minneapolis and a former civil rights lawyer, was shouted and shamed off the stage of a protest he dutifully attended and addressed in his hometown. Here’s how the “New York Times” described the scene:

“Looming above the mayor on a stage, a woman with a microphone asked him if he would commit on the spot to defunding the Minneapolis Police Department. ‘It is a yes or no,’ she said, instructing the crowd to be quiet and reminding them that the mayor is up for re-election next year. ‘And if he says no, guess what we’re going to do next year,’ she said, adding an expletive for emphasis. She then handed the microphone to Mr. Frey, who said in a barely audible voice muffled by his face mask, ‘I do not support the full abolition of the police.’ With that, the protesters began their chants of ‘Go home, Jacob, go home!’ and ‘Shame! Shame!’”

Sometimes it feels to this longtime FDR liberal that the relentlessly self-proclaiming “tolerant” left is just another place where true tolerance goes to die.

And if that tendency persists through campaign season and the Democratic Party can’t get its stories straight on how it wants to get the country back on a safer, more prosperous, respectful and sane track after enduring all the opposite the past four years, then all Democrats will likely be a lot more terrified heading into November 3 than we need to be.

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The refrain in this beautiful song by the Queen of Folk (“We’re gonna raze, raze the prisons, to the ground”) reminds me of what has been said about President Trump: that the press takes him literally but not seriously, supporters seriously but not literally. I don’t know whether Ms. Baez would gladly light the torch to every last prison in this fallen world, but I don’t begrudge her the noble sentiment.

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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Police officer with flag mask by Julian Wan, Brooklyn, New York  https://unsplash.com/@julianwan

Graffiti photo by Renoir Gaither  https://www.flickr.com/photos/100005244@N06/

Cop and protester by Joe Piette, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania  https://www.flickr.com/photos/109799466@N06/

11 comments to “Defund the Police”: The Republicans’ Dream Slogan (for Democrats)

  • Robby Miller  says:

    If memory serves me right, our generation, Mr. Hidas, was going to end all war through flower power. How did that work out?

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I never bought that utopian fantasy (though it made for some lovely music). Was already reading the existentialists by then, and took too dim a view of human rationality.

      Did you have another question? :-)

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Powerful tag line – “defund the police” and you are oh so correct, the right wing pundits like Tucker Carlson instantly jump on, stoking the very same fear/racism/classism/resentment etc that has always been the potent brew of Trumpism from “lock her up” to “build the wall” etc. This is a critical rhetorical needle the Dems must thread to not stoke the GOP fires instead of letting the insanity and incompetence of Trumpism continue to work (he was sinking fast after his bible photo op!). It is totally understandable that people are feeling outraged and unwilling to settle for another commission making sensible recommendations that have no teeth and they are left up to the states to implement as they choose (See Kerner for example). BUT it will take a Dem victory AND sweep of Congress to make this happen so let’s support the focus on that urgent task!! There are many good examples here, a couple I would recommend include Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight: https://fairfight.com/ and Eric Holder/Barack Obama’s All on the Line: https://allontheline.org/#home No time to lose! (and pray the Dems can get out of their own way!)

    • Lou Denti.  says:

      Cut the force in I/2 in every city, cops on bikes with light blue uniforms (demilitarize, communication vs control and force), money to community organizations, education and organizing, change the police union policies or dismantle them and rebuild with citizen panels, learn from Camden NJ. That’s what defund means and more. That’s what the demonstrators are saying, they know what the slogan means and that may be all we need. They dismiss neoliberals or right wing pundits. The conversation is over-deeds-lives on the line. Power to the young, bold, and brave. RIP George Floyd. Don’t worry, the Republicans are dissembling and the democratic voice is shouting and it’s primal.

      • Andrew Hidas  says:

        Thanks for that, Lou. I’m going to have to part company with you on the idea that maybe only the protesters have to know what the slogan means. Ultimately, the voters have to know—especially the fence-sitters: those 3-5% of the electorate that is low-information, self-described “independents,” who flop from one party to another and broke for Trump or the Libertarians in 2016. They decided the swing states, which decided the election, and it was close, and we need them back, and a confusing proposal that might mean doing away with police will complicate that, IMHO.

        Also, I think if power actually resided in the young, bold and brave, Sanders or Warren would be the nominee. That age cohort is critical for energizing the party, but there aren’t enough of them (and not enough of them vote!) without the older staid voters, many of them African-American, who put Biden easily over the top. That vote struck me as resoundingly for stability and basic decency rather than primal shouting energy.

        I think you’re right about Repubs dissembling. My concern is that Dems are historically pretty good at that, too. Do you know there are only 21 weekends left till the election? Can’t come soon enough!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Like that image of a “critical rhetorical needle,” Kevin. Always appreciate a well-turned, meaningful phrase! (And yes to all your content, too…)

  • David Moriah  says:

    I could not agree more vigorously Andrew. The slogan is tone deaf and DOA with middle America. Why, oh why, do the bigots and authoritarians “get it” and come up with compelling (if misleading) slogans like Make America Great Again while the left flounders around and shoots itself in both feet in a mindless rush for purity which ends up leaving the worst elements in the victor’s circle?

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I wish that was not a rhetorical question and there was a knowable answer for it, David! As I mentioned on my Facebook page, though, I suspect these slogans are always hatched and put into play by activists rather than communications professionals who better understand the uses and misuses, power and vulnerabilities of words and phrases.

      The situation is not dissimilar to “Black Lives Matter,” which almost automatically invited even well-meaning, right-voting white and other ethnic groups to ask, “Wait, doesn’t my life matter, too?” Whereupon all the woke folk had to go into long explanations of why the slogan isn’t exclusionary, etc. Still happens today. My own opinion is all of that could have been avoided by adding one more word to it: “Black Lives Matter, Too!” That would’ve conveyed the same urgent message demanding inclusion without any hint of excluding anyone else.

  • David Moriah  says:

    Understood and agree. However, I believe BLM has broken through and pretty much everyone who’s not brainwashed into the Cult of 45 “gets it” now. There are many reasons why BLM is perceived differently today than at the beginning, but I believe it’s wishful thinking to think the same process will unfold in the next few months before the election if “Defund the Police” becomes a rallying cry. I shudder to think of the moderate Republican women in suburbia thinking left-wing loonies will shutter (word play intended) their local police station and leave them and their children at the mercy of the bad guys. Law & Order will trump (again, word play intended) Defund the Police and we’ll be plunging headlong into the Fourth Reich.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yes, and the tragedy is it took the horrendous images of George Floyd’s murder to give BLM the critical mass acceptance it has finally achieved. Now if we can only keep our eye on the right prize and not go off on troublesome tangents with problematic slogans!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Defund tag on Dems would be damaging. However, reorganization with specific guidelines such as civilian oversight, public records stating which officers have most complaints filed against them, etc. Biden and Dem platform must stress the importance of reorganization & stay away from any slogan about abolishing or defunding police. Camden, NJ fired all of its police force and then went through a re-hiring process which gained national recognition (mostly positive), but it was not done in such a highly charged partisan political season. Finally, mentioning that police are wearing too many hats would be a sensible and acceptable. solution to those who consider themselves as moderates. In other words, emphasize the need for police to have social agencies within the community to assist them. A slogan like “Police need to police with community assistance” should be central to the Dem platform because it credits both the need for reformation while appealing to the those who fear that dismantling will create more crime and anarchy.

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