The two sets of reactions to the nationwide spasm of police violence tell us a lot about the divide between America and the political class that rules us.
Polls show that for most people, the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent spectacle of police violence has prompted a decline in cops’ favorability ratings, more support for protesters, and new demands for change in police policy.
Among the political elite, the reaction has been different — it has often been dishonesty and concern trolling.
Donald Trump, Republican lawmakers, and Fox News are actively trying to whip up a backlash against the clarion call of “defund the police.” Predictably, the political conversation has become a project of caricature, portraying the whole thing as a choice between either the current $115-billion-a-year militarized police army that occupies our communities, or a dystopian anarchy of absolutely no law enforcement whatsoever.
Meanwhile, as cops deploy chemical weapons and violence against protesters, we’ve seen the rise of the Tone Police — a battalion of keyboard warriors that patrols the terms of the discourse and berates protesters for the alleged crime of stridency. These pundits, think tankers, social media icons, and Democratic elites have started insinuating that the protesters’ language may be too divisive, discomfiting, and extreme — and therefore represents an act of political malpractice that will only harm the effort to make progressive change.
“As somebody who’s been through a great number of political wars, branding matters,” said former Democratic senator and current MSNBC pundit Claire McCaskill, in a comment summarizing the Tone Police’s attitude. “My fear about the term ‘defund the police’ is it will be misused and abused by people who will want to scare people.”
It is certainly true that an initial poll showed that when you ask people in a vacuum if they want to “cut funding for police,” there isn’t much support for that yet. However, it remains to be seen how Americans will answer that question as they now learn more about the disproportionate amount of money their communities are spending on police — at the expense of other priorities.
But that’s not even the point. The truth is, critics citing current polling snapshots as supposed proof of protesters’ electoral malpractice are inadvertently exposing themselves as immoral and politically shortsighted — and either hostile to the entire concept of mass movements, or embarrassingly ignorant of our nation’s history.
Immoral Monsters and Soulless Naysayers
How can videos of cops teargassing city blocks prompt anyone to demonize those saying we should spend less on militarized cops and more on schools and housing?
How can videos of police beating peaceful protesters prompt anyone to tell protesters they haven’t properly focus-grouped or poll-tested their jeremiads of despair?
How monstrous do you have to be to respond to bloodshed with this kind of victim blaming and victim shaming?
The obsessive-compulsive hand-wringing and bed-wetting about protesters’ specific language almost proves the protesters’ point — it seems to embody the kind condescending, we-know-better-than-you, paternalistic, lower-your-voice bullshit that the demonstrations are inveighing against.
Then there is the politics of it all, so let’s start with a fact: Republican politicians promote all sorts of ideologies and principles that poll terribly, and they still win elections, in part, because they don’t look weak and they don’t back down. There’s a lesson there: Democrats often lose elections not because an activist base promotes provocative slogans, but because Democratic politicians look pathetically weak when they reliably shit their pants in fear anytime the GOP spins up a fake outrage scandal about semantics.
As it specifically relates to the “defund the police” motto: yes, there’s electoral peril for national Democrats here — the danger is that they are once again soiling themselves in fear and running away from a just cause, thereby personifying the kind of unprincipled weakness that many voters find repulsive.
That process of Democratic cowering — which we’ve seen over and over and over again on so many issues — risks legitimizing and emboldening the GOP’s obviously dishonest scare campaign. It also threatens to reinforce the notion that Democrats in Washington have no moral compass and no convictions — qualities that Americans don’t typically reward at the ballot box.
“Defund the Police” Has Already Been a Huge Political Success
Let’s pause and state a truism: Politics is not some entertaining, meaningless sport you watch on ESPN. The point of politics is not to win elections for the sake of winning elections, just so your home team can get a championship trophy and a downtown parade before riding into the glorious off-season for more lucrative contracts and free agency. On the contrary, the entire point of politics — and the reason to try to win elections — is to change the laws, regulations, and policies that affect millions of human beings in the world we all live in.
In light of that, the way to judge the success, failure, savviness, and stupidity of a political cause, slogan, or movement is not to sit in your armchair lazily prognosticating about whether you think it will help or hurt your favorite politician or your preferred political party in some future election. If you actually believe that politics is more than some game you watch at a sports bar — if you actually believe it is about the real, tangible world — the more accurate and empirical way to judge success is to consider whether a cause, slogan, or movement has actually started changing public policy and the political discourse.
By those metrics, contrary to the critics’ pooh-poohing, the protesters bellowing “defund the police” have had far more real-world political success than most naysaying Democratic consultants and pollsters that gets paid millions of dollars for political counsel.
In only a few short weeks, the protests have built up enough pressure to force New York and Colorado state lawmakers to pass police accountability initiatives, and Connecticut and Minnesota are on their way to holding special legislative sessions to consider doing the same.
Whereas only weeks ago most public officials in the United States might have scoffed at the idea of ever reallocating police funds to other priorities, public officials in (among others) Minneapolis, New York, Denver, Boston, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Houston are now responding to protesters’ pressure by considering a wholesale reevaluation of bloated police budgets.
Hell, protesters have brought so much pressure to bear that even congressional Republicans — the single most retrograde group of politicians in the entire nation — feel the need to pretend to support police accountability.
This is the political efficacy of mantras and slogans that the scolds say are too strident. However divisive you think the “defund” or “abolish” or “disband” language is, by creating easy-to-understand clarion calls, the protests have abruptly moved the entire Overton window. They have polarized the situation to the point where once-marginalized police reform proposals now seem like the absolute minimum conservative position, and long-overdue structural budget changes are now on the table.
That’s far more political success in a few weeks than the know-it-all pundits, political consultants, and Twitter geniuses have ever mustered in their entire lives.
Now, sure, most demands to “defund the police” will not result in the complete dismantling of entire police forces. But it is also true that despite bad-faith critics’ attempts to literalize the “defund the police” slogans, most public officials appreciate the practical meaning of the language. It is understood as shorthand for an agenda that should be viewed as completely pragmatic, realistic, and necessary: namely, reducing the nation’s outsize $115 billion police budget and fundamentally reimagining law enforcement priorities.
As even New York governor Andrew Cuomo — a loyal police defender — was forced to acknowledge: “When they’re saying ‘defund the police,’ what are they saying? They’re saying we want fundamental basic change when it comes to policing — and they’re right.”
The Thermometer, the Thermostat, and the “Moderate”
So . . . if the protests have been this successful, then the big question is: What is really driving the concern-trolling about protesters’ language?
The answer to that can be found in two factors famously identified by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” — one about the point of movements, the other about the hostility of “moderates.”
In one passage of the letter, King celebrated a time when the church was “not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”
Today, America’s political class is accustomed to being merely a thermometer of fleeting public opinion. That political class is now openly hostile to — and bewildered by — the concept of a grassroots movement being a thermostat that changes policy and popular perception. Indeed, with an obsessive focus on polls, the critics of “defund the police” seem unable to cognitively fathom the political value of any cause that aims to be more than a thermometer. To them, public opinion is not dynamic, it is instead frozen in place forever, and any mass movement trying to change it must be committing electoral suicide.
And yet, we know that’s false.
We know, for instance, that the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century wasn’t some consultant-driven, focus-grouped affair. Like every other successful grassroots movement in history, it was messy and boisterous and provocative. And in the end, it correctly ignored that era’s officious tone police. The result: the movement shifted public opinion and made real legislative changes with all sorts of righteously polarizing slogans that made lots of voters and politicians uncomfortable.
More recently, we’ve seen a similar dynamic with Black Lives Matter.
“Support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years, according to data from Civiqs, an online survey research firm,” the New York Times reported this week. “By a 28-point margin, Civiqs finds that a majority of American voters support the movement, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began.”
Only a few years ago, many politicians considered the very phrase “Black Lives Matter” to be too controversial and divisive. Today, even Republican senator Mitt Romney is marching in protest and declaring that he believes black lives matter. He’s marching because the once-vilified BLM movement was a thermostat that successfully changed the temperature on the thermometer.
That’s exactly what today’s protests are now doing when it comes to police policy.
Of course, the resistance to reevaluating that policy is real — and it will persist with the help of “moderate” allies who express rhetorical sympathy for the goals, but who inevitably serve as the Tone Police. They will rail against the proponents of change and whose foremost priority is not justice but is instead what Dr King called an “obnoxious negative peace.”
In his letter’s passage about the “white moderate,” King described the appeaser who is “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’”
King lauded protesters as “the creators of tension,” saying:
[We] bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
The protests today are doing exactly that: they are using provocative language to deliberately — and rightly — create tension and force ugly truths out into the open.
Nobody knows if “Defund the Police” is a perfect motto. Nobody knows if the protesters’ rhetoric will ultimately succeed or fail. Nobody knows the electoral implications of any of the slogans that might emerge.
What we do know is that those who actually want things to change are not the folks priggishly berating the language of protest amid a paroxysm of police violence. The pedants doing that are the “moderates” who pop up in every chapter of history — the naysayers who always try to undermine the righteous cause.
They are the Tone Police standing in the way of progress.
They should be ignored.