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Democrats should steer clear of 'defunding the police'

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., recently endorsed a Minneapolis

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., recently endorsed a Minneapolis City Council resolution to change policing, saying the current police structure "should not exist anymore." Credit: AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez

This time, as Americans watched with horror the killing of a black man in police custody in Minneapolis, it seemed as though something had changed. Polls backed up that intuition: Fully 69% of Americans said they thought George Floyd's death represented a broader problem, as opposed to an isolated incident. In contrast, just six years ago, only 43% of Americans expressed that view after shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City left unarmed black men dead.

The sense among Americans that this was "our" problem and not just a problem for black people was reminiscent of Bloody Sunday 55 years earlier, when Alabama state troopers descended with dogs and water cannons on peaceful protesters marching in Selma. Then, as now, the opportunity emerged for more transformative change, and Democrats seized the moment.

President Donald Trump made the Democrats' task easier, pouring gasoline on the fire with his calls for "law and order" and with a Bible-brandishing photo op that required tear-gassing peaceful protesters — a crude impersonation of Richard M. Nixon without the gravitas and Billy Graham without the faith. Unlike the president, who was busy inspecting his bunker, fearful of all of those dark faces marching near his gated community, the rest of the country was no longer living in 1968.

But while commentators across the spectrum, and many Democratic leaders, have spoken with tremendous eloquence about the problems with policing and potential solutions, others have found just the right way to turn off just the wrong voters. A veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council quickly embraced the protesters' demand to "defund the police," for example. One member said the goal was "dismantling policing as we know it." Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., endorsed the resolution, saying the current police structure "should not exist anymore." The idea is spreading: Los Angeles is discussing steering $150 million away from its police department to mental health programs and other city services. Protesters can and should chant what they want, and their demands, like those during the Occupy Wall Street movement, can shine a spotlight on injustices that were previously taken for granted. But the job of transformative political leaders is to turn what are often inchoate ideas not only into policies that make sense but into words that make sense to the broader public.

And "defunding the police" does not make sense to the broader public. Just one in three Americans supports "defunding the police," according to an ABC News-Ipsos poll. That number rises to 39% only when the question specifies that any reduction in funding go toward mental health programs, housing or other social programs. (If you have to explain a slogan, it isn't conveying what you mean.)

Trump and Republicans wasted no time branding the movement to defund police departments as "consuming" the Democratic Party. They will no doubt turn this into a central campaign meme in swing states that neighbor Minnesota, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, which gave Trump his narrow electoral college victory in 2016 and are crucial to defeating him in 2020.

Democrats' tendency to embrace self-defeating rhetoric is not new. If the goal is to win elections, beat Trump and address social problems such as bias and racism, Democratic leaders and political commentators need to address what might be called systemic linguistic egocentrism — the tendency to use words without considering their meaning to people outside an in-group. You don't want to use unfamiliar terms in unfamiliar ways. Still less do you want to use off-putting language to describe policies that people might find appealing, if framed differently.

When Democrats aren't adopting the language of the opposition — for example, "Obamacare," which Republicans coined as a term of abuse — they often draw their language from academia or the world of activism. I am both an academic and an activist, yet frankly, those are the last places I would look for language that strikes a chord with people. In discussions of climate change, Democrats too often pepper their speeches with arid talk of "CO2 emissions," which may evoke hazy memories of high school chemistry classes, rather than condemning "pollution" or speaking of, say, "billions of tons of black soot pouring into the atmosphere." Rather than the bland term "campaign finance reform," why not talk about what we really mean (which I can say with certainty polls much better, having tested it): fair elections?

Under Trump, the GOP often has to scramble to find words to justify the daily products of Trump's random neural firings. But over the past several decades, Republicans have been more disciplined about the words they use, following the dictum of conservative wordsmith Frank Luntz: "It's not what you say, it's what people hear."

Think "Government is the problem, not the solution," "They want to take away your guns," or even "Make American Great Again." Think "pro-life," "partial-birth abortion" and "illegal aliens." Think of how the GOP rebranded an estate tax that applied only to the super-rich as an ominous "death tax." Through sheer repetition, Trump was successful in convincing 92% of Republicans that media outlets are purveyors of "fake news."

In politics, the wedge can be mightier than the sword, and the Minneapolis City Council — and pundits who have taken up the "defund the police" cause — just gave Republicans (and Russian bots) the perfect wedge to drive between Democrats. Already, 59% of registered voters either believe Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, supports defunding the police or aren't sure, according to a HuffPost-YouGov poll. Biden was forced to issue a carefully worded statement denying his support for ending police departments, while trying not to contribute to the "unexciting centrist" narrative that turns off young voters and the party's left wing.

Many proposed overhauls for police departments are highly popular, and Trump's approval ratings have plummeted as he has dog-whistled Dixie with his law-and-order talking points. Three-fourths of registered voters now support a federal registry for complaints against officers, for example, to prevent them from shifting from one jurisdiction to another, according to the HuffPost-YouGov poll. Similar proportions think only prosecutors who do not work closely with local police on other matters should prosecute police killings.

Yet this election is anything but a foregone conclusion, and Democrats should be choosing their words strategically. Relieving the police of the burden of dealing with mental health issues for which they have neither the time nor the training might turn out to be popular among officers and the communities they serve. But promoting those changes under the banner of "defunding the police" is not the way to accomplish that goal.

In the past 50 years, Republicans have built an infrastructure of think tanks and nonprofit organizations, whose employees and fellows devote considerable time thinking about how to frame the right-wing agenda for popular consumption. Republican candidates for office get training in media relations and messaging. Although the left and center-left have made some progress in matching that infrastructure — with organizations such as the Center for American Progress — they still lag when it comes to marketing sound policy.

The left has no systematic training programs for how to "talk left," a prerequisite for creating farm teams of candidates who can run for city council, county commissioner and state legislatures — and then higher office. No one who had spent time in that kind of program would ever have let "defund the police" get out the door, no matter how satisfying they might have found it to be to toss it around in text messages.

Democrats need to do what Republicans do: Take their words seriously. Because the public does.

Westen is a professor in the departments of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University, and the author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation." He is working on a follow-up, "What's Left?" This piece was written for The Washington Post.