December 4, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

‘Defund the police’ is bad? No, it’s working

It's aimed at Democrats, not Republicans.

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I really don’t want to, but apparently we need to talk about “defund the police.” It’s a slogan that might have faded on its own in the aftermath of a national election. Thanks to Jim Clyburn, it didn’t. The House Majority Whip blamed it, as well as quote-unquote socialism, for the Democrats losing House seats (but keeping their majority). Coupled with the party not doing as well in the Senate as they were expected to, the conventional wisdom in Washington is now that the Democrats lost despite winning.

If that weren’t maddening enough, then came Barack Obama. The former president has written a book that’s naturally getting a lot of attention. Understandably, given that the conventional wisdom in Washington is that the Democrat lost despite winning, interviewers want to know what he thinks. Here’s his advice to activists.

If you believe that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it’s not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you can use a snappy slogan like ‘Defund the police,’ but you lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done.

But if you instead say, “Let’s reform the police department so that everybody’s being treated fairly, you know, divert young people from getting into crime … [then] suddenly, a whole bunch of folks who might not otherwise listen to you are listening to you. And if you want to get something done in a democracy, in a country as big and diverse as ours, then you’ve got to be able to meet people where they are.

The idea here is that meeting people where they are is where you begin political change. Perhaps that explains the sudden media interest in “Blue MAGA.” Instead of red hats demanding that we “Make America Great Again,” there are now blue hats declaring that we “Made America Great Already” when voters ousted Donald Trump and elected Joe Biden. That, too, is a game of addition and not subtraction. It’s also really stupid.

“Blue MAGA,” if you’ll pardon the apparent tangent, might be the best way possible to illustrate the core difference between the parties, a difference that still confounds members of the press corps, because it belies their insistence that the parties are two sides of the same partisan coin. While one is all-in for wearing hats, the other isn’t. The Republicans are a party of authoritarian collectivism. The Democrats are a party of liberal individualism. One is better than the other. Both hats are dumb, though.

Here’s the tip jar!

The above paragraph isn’t a tangent when you place it in the context of Obama’s advice to activists demanding reforms to local police departments. Where people are can be a really, really bad place. We should not accept where they are uncritically. If where they are is fascism, or blind institutional faith in police authority, or wearing new hats piggybacking on old hats, maybe starting where they are is a bad idea. It might be better to move them to a better place, and then begin. It seems to be telling, with reference to “Blue MAGA,” that Biden supporters say “we don’t need another cult.”

“Defund the police” has moved people to a better place. The movement is slow and incremental and insufficient, and it’s never going to completely drain cop shops of all their resources, but it is nevertheless progressing. Specifically, the slogan has moved Democrats. Obama is talking about national politics. “Defund the police” is about local politics. It was never intended to move Republicans, because Republicans will never listen no matter how faithfully reformers try to meet them where they are. Reformers, instead, have targeted Democrats, because it’s the Democrats who govern most of the country’s cities. Democrats don’t want to take action against local police departments. Inertia is where they are. They must be forced. “Defund the police” is doing just that.

What bugs me most about Clyburn’s and Obama’s criticism is that it gets us all talking about language (which is relative) instead of talking about action (which is concrete). It focuses attention on marketing instead of policy. It actually encourages self-doubt and paralysis. If progress depends on meeting people where they already are, instead of moving them to where you want them to be, there’s little point to raising hell. And if there’s little point, then why bother? Better to believe that everything will work itself out in the end—or that everyone is corrupt and nothing really matters. True, local activists might make life less comfortable for national Democrats. But tough shit.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. realsaramerica on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

    I have to disagree with you here. I hate that slogan, and I fullly support everything meant by it. Maybe it’s an age thing. I had a conversation with my daughter (24, teaches high school English in Maryland) and she didn’t have a problem with it. Yes, I agree that it has moved the conversation, but I also think it’s a bit of an own goal, because it’s handed Republicans a talking point that will resonate with their voters on a silver platter. If they’d said “Demilitarize the Police” that would have been useful. Or “Reallocate Police Funding (not as catchy, but is actually what they mean) it wouldn’t have given GOP such a great talking point.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

      I like demilitarize the police personally.

      • realsaramerica on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

        What I like about that slogan is that even raging libertarian Koch Institute thinks over-militarization of police is a bad thing. One could make the argument that militarization of police actually hurts civilian police relations, which is the opposite of what things like Citizen Police Academies are trying to do. It gives us something around which to build consensus. However, it doesn’t fully describe what Defund the Police folks are advocating. So there has to be another catchy phrase that that describes reallocating funds from policing to community initiatives that hit the sources of social problems – like providing wraparound services through schools, etc.

        • Roger Hubregtse on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

          First requirement:::police must live within the communities they serve.

          • realsaramerica on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

            Which means we need more affordable housing that’s designated for public service workers. I used to live in Greenwich and with house prices there, a newly minted police officer/firefighter/teacher would struggle to rent or buy.

      • Roger Hubregtse on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

        Good first step.

  2. Ed Kako on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

    Everyone has failed the political marshmallow test. We’ve all rushed to talk about the impact of a short, imperative sentence — born of moral outrage rather than careful policy making — with almost no data to inform the conversation. It *might* have cost Democrats, but we don’t know. On yesterday’s Pod Save America, Dan Pfeiffer interviewed Obama’s data guru, Dan Wagner, who said that slogans — even cries of “socialism!” — didn’t appear to move people much. But he also maintained epistemic humility: We don’t yet know enough. Rushing to judgment — as Clyburn and Obama have done — isn’t helping anyone.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm
    • Daniel Chiplock on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

      Well, I think the local candidates themselves can speak most convincingly as to what attacks were working against them – they were the ones facing and talking to voters, after all. I don’t think they’re lying.

  3. Roger Hubregtse on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

    @MichaelEDyson adamantly commented about police reform efforts::
    Cities have tried reform for 40 years and because of the police unions, those efforts have always failed.

  4. Daniel Chiplock on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

    Big fan and subscriber of yours, John, but I think you and Pres. Obama are talking past one another on this one. The reason he’s addressing this as an issue of national (rather than local) politics as you’ve urged is precisely because Republicans nationalized it – very effectively, in my opinion – and used it in swing districts, including districts well outside of the big Democratic-controlled cities you mention, to pummel moderate Democrats. And if we’re being completely honest with ourselves, it was a painfully easy thing for them to do, because the slogan “Defund the police” is easily misconstrued as (or twisted to mean) “eliminate the police.” I am from upstate NY and, believe me, I heard this everywhere from people who spend very little time in the cities you mention. The attack ads wrote themselves, and promising candidates and officials from swing districts paid for it.

  5. Daniel Chiplock on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

    Put differently – while the slogan may be aimed at Democrats, Republicans effectively aimed it at swing voters to blunt Democratic numbers in Congress and statehouses. That’s Pres. Obama’s point.

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