Defunding police will lead to Republican victory this year
In the wake of the death of George Floyd, protests have swept the nation, calling for overdue systemic reforms in law enforcement mechanisms. It is clear that immediate action must be taken to reform the police, given that inaction in the last half century has allowed racist and brutal measures to stand. However, the idea from Democrats to defund or abolish the police entirely is dangerous from any political and practical perspective.
If Democrats persist with this rhetoric about disbanding law enforcement in the midst of the pandemic and the protests, which have at times been violent or involved looting, then they will be playing right into the hands of President Trump and will increase his chances to win the election this year. Ultimately, calling to reduce the police will simply make people feel unsafe, insecure, and in my view less likely to vote for Democrats.
But some Democrats in Congress embrace this idea, including Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ilhan Omar, who lambasted the police departments in New York and Minneapolis. While his latest leadership failures have forced moderate Republicans and a vast number of independents to move away from Trump, and potentially toward the Democrats, there is little support for defunding the police. This signals that if Democrats continue calling for this action, it could hurt them badly at the polls this November.
Indeed, most Americans do not really want to cut funding for the police. A recent poll on race and justice found less than a fifth of Americans favor a reduction of police departments and more than half of them are opposed. However, a strong majority of Americans support police reform measures to reduce deadly force encounters, including training for police on how to lower conflict and avoid using force, outfitting officers with body cameras, and using an early warning system to identify any problem officers.
This is why Democrats should not advocate for defunding the police. They have to instead push for programs at the state and local levels to produce better trained police, focusing on the tactics to lower conflict and holding police accountable for any misconduct. Beyond police reform, Democrats need a principled and specific policy agenda to address and tackle all the social and economic problems that are causing this civil unrest, including health care reform, educational initiatives, and vocational training.
To be sure, this moment is a turning point for Democrats. The party must shift away from rhetoric about protests, regardless of however justifiable such rhetoric is, and away from the idea of reducing law enforcement to attract critical moderate voters. Democrats must also keep from playing into the rhetoric of Trump, which showcases that he remains committed to law and order above all, in a way reminiscent of Richard Nixon.
Similar to the present era, the period leading to the 1968 election was a time of great civil unrest. There were riots across the country following the assassination of Martin Luther King, while the Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned into a place for protests against the war, which were led by left wing activist groups. Some will recall that it had culminated in a televised riot with police clashing with protesters.
After this historic civil unrest, Democrats took a more liberal foreign policy perspective while focusing mainly on social and racial justice issues at the expense of economic issues. Their opposition to law and order and strong ideological lurch to the left enabled Nixon to use his southern strategy to appeal to the silent majority and win in 1968 and once more in 1972.
There are those who say this is a different era, as voters are more diverse and more sympathetic to the issues of racial justice and income equality. Some also note the lead that Joe Biden has in the polls. I would tell them that for suburban white moderates, a key bloc for both parties in 2020, a threat of Democrats moving too far left along with policy initiatives such as defunding the police could certainly make this a much closer election between Biden and Trump than it might seem to be at this moment.
Douglas Schoen is a consultant who served as an adviser to President Bill Clinton and to the campaign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His latest book is “Collapse: A World in Crisis and the Urgency of American Leadership.”
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