“Defund the Police” and the Exploitation of Leftist Rhetoric

Politics is just as much pragmatism as ideas. Careful, pragmatic action is crucial for ideas to have impact. This notion is one sometimes lost on much of the political left, including myself. Problematically, the left often pushes ideas through tactics and slogans that drive willing people from their cause. More often than not, the left’s ideas are not just reasonable but actually popular. However, the way their ideas are framed and described play into right-wing scare tactics rather than just demonstrating the merit of policy. This needs to change, or else good, popular policies will lose out to scare tactics, as is Donald Trump’s approach in the 2020 election. 

What does “defund the police” mean? In the wake of George Floyd’s horrific murder at the hands of the police, many left-wing activists began to use the slogan as a powerful rallying cry against police brutality. The reality is that even these activists could not (or choose to not) agree on a definition for the term. When you get to the root of what “defund the police” means, most activists would agree it is a call for urgent police reform and a need for a re-evaluation of police responsibilities. But what kind of reforms? What responsibilities will other organizations take? Does this reduce the number of cops on the ground? And most importantly, how are reforms paid for while also reducing the budget? For example, are the calls to “defund the police” really calling to defund, or just reform? There is no clear consensus on any of these questions, which allows for almost any answer.  

Therein lies the problem with the slogan and thus with many modern leftist movements. It is sometimes good to have vague slogans, because then any leftist, from the centre-left to the far-left, can rally behind their own meaning of the term. Yet on the other hand, the vagueness, the lack of consensus, the notion that saying something that feels right under leftist philosophy is a smart political tactic – they can all allow the right to fear-monger away good ideas. For example, Black Lives Matter is widely popular, as is police reform. And yet, on average, only 31% of the population supports “defunding the police” (and even less for more radical notions like “abolishing the police”). The right has been able to paint the left not as the ideology of police reform, which is popular, but the ideology of unrest and lawlessness. Since “defund the police” is ambiguous, and theoretically could cause “disorder and lawlessness,” even people who support police reform may turn against the left’s movement. Thus, even when handed a political win on a silver platter, some on the left can squander general society’s good will by focusing more on somewhat unclear leftist beliefs (even when those beliefs are valid) than pragmatic politics.

This is not a one-issue problem. It spans a variety of issues, where a slogan defining a complex but popular policy solution pushes more people away than it draws in. Another obvious one is the “abolish ICE” movement in the US in 2018. Most Americans do not want children thrown in cages or most illegal immigrants deported, with the majority saying immigrants strengthen the country as a whole. And yet, the idea that ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that is responsible for enforcing immigration laws, should be abolished is unpopular. ICE is problematic and abolishing has merit, however, the slogan itself suggests a sort of “open borders” mentality, that allows the right to claim terrorism and gang violence would result from ICE. This turns people away from the left, even when immigration reform is generally popular. 

This shifts the conversation away from meaningful policy and towards fearmongering. When Kamala Harris, who has an extremely progressive record as a senator, has to distance herself from abolishing ICE, it shifts focus away from the popular immigration policies and puts the left on the defensive. It allows political debates to become “how radical are you?”, not “how do you solve this problem that needs solving?” The reality is that the left more often than not HAS solutions for problems. I am certainly biased in saying that, but seeing Republicans stonewall the DREAM Act, an extremely popular plan which would give illegal immigrants who arrived in the US as children legal residence and a path to citizenship, makes me doubt the right’s intentions. It seems like the right-wing strategy, at least in the United States, is to characterize the left as more radical than they are, then hope they play into that idea. So far, they have. 

There are two necessary steps that us on the political left need to take to stop this trend of demonization from the right that diminish the positive goals of the left. First, stop playing right into their hands. Trump, as I mentioned before, WANTS to conflate Democratic candidate Joe Biden and the most radical form of “defunding the police,” for example. This forces Biden onto the defensive and shifts the topic of conversation away from policy solutions for police brutality, allowing slogans to unfortunately get weaponized by the right. Second, the left must shift the conversation to policy, where they excel. Trump may win some voters by claiming Biden wants police off the streets and crime to run rampant, but if Biden counters with “here are my solutions to police brutality,” it allows voters to fact-check Trump and demonstrates his utter lack of solution for this serious institutional problem. Pragmatism matters here, sometimes more than ideas. If, especially in the US, the left’s messages don’t change, and we continue to allow the conversation to be controlled by the right, there will be many more electoral failures in the future. And with that will come many more unsolved problems.

Charlie Randall

The views in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The Liberty Club


What does ‘defund the police’ mean? The rallying cry sweeping the US – explained.” – The Guardian

Amid Protests, Majorities Across Racial and Ethnic Groups Express Support for the Black Lives Matter Movement” – Pew Social Trends

“Abolish ICE,” explained.” – Vox

Poll: Voters oppose abolishing ICE” – Politico

Kamala Harris Wants You To Know She’s Definitely Not Calling For Abolishing ICE” – Buzzfeed News

“Amid Protests, Majorities Across Racial and Ethnic Groups Express Support for the Black Lives Matter Movement” – Pew Social Trends

“‘Major changes’ – almost all Americans want police reform: poll” – Al Jazeera

How Americans Feel About ‘Defunding The Police’“- FiveThirtyEight

What is the Dream Act and Who Are the Dreamers?” – ADL

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