For two weeks, Democrats have been arguing over why they didn’t do better in the election. Was it socialism? The Green New Deal? Bad organizing online? These disputes will rage on. But there’s one lesson on which all sides should agree, because the evidence is clear, and the remedy is semantic: Stop saying “Defund the police.”
Most activists, when they talk about defunding police, mean that we should fund social services and thereby reduce the scope of what police have to do. But that’s not how many voters hear it. Defund is generally applied to organizations you want to cripple or eliminate, not reform. So it’s easy to seize on this phrase to paint Democrats as anti-police and pro-crime. And that’s what Republicans did in campaigns across the country, including key Senate races in Maine, Iowa, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. In all these races, the Democratic candidates opposed defunding law enforcement. But the slogan stuck to them anyway, because they were associated with politicians or activists who had used it.
These attacks hurt. A before-and-after survey found that a “Defund the police” attack ad on Joe Biden—who opposed cuts in law enforcement—knocked 11 points off his net favorable rating among independent voters. In many places, Republicans who used similar attacks won. In South Carolina, House Majority Whip James Clyburn reported that polls for Democratic Senate nominee Jaime Harrison (who probably would have lost anyway) “started to plateau when ‘Defund the police’ showed up with a caption on TV, right across his head.” In a post-election interview, Clyburn warned that “Defund the police” could do “to the Black Lives Matter movement … what ‘Burn, baby, burn’ did to us back in 1960. We lost that movement over that slogan.”
The simplest way to measure the effect of “Defund the police”—and the benefits of replacing it with more thoughtful language—is to compare it to alternative formulations in the same poll. For example, an Axios survey in September asked people what they thought of “reducing the funding for the police in your community in order to fund an increase in social services for programs like housing and mental health.” That language polled 17 percentage points better, in net favorability, than did “defunding the police.”
If you talk about redirection rather than reduction, the poll numbers increase more. In June, a Politico/Morning Consult survey asked about “redirecting funding for the police department in your local community to support community development programs.” That idea outpolled “Defund the police” by 31 net points. An Economist/YouGov survey asked about “gradually redirecting police funding toward increasing the number of social workers, drug counselors and mental health experts responsible for responding to non-violent emergencies.” That formulation outpolled “Defund the police” by 37 points.
The biggest gains, however, come from talking about how your plan would control crime and improve policing. In June, a Reuters/Ipsos poll asked about “proposals to move some money currently going to police budgets into better officer training, local programs for homelessness, mental health assistance, and domestic violence.” That idea outpolled “Defund the police” by 72 points. In September, a Detroit News poll asked likely voters in Michigan whether they would “shift some funding that currently goes to the police and invest that money in other areas that might help fight crime like mental health assistance, job assistance, education, homelessness and drug abuse prevention.” That formulation outpolled “Defund the police” by 77 points.
Some advocates on the left think they can keep the word defund and just explain what it means. Unfortunately, that idea doesn’t work. Look at this question from another poll in Michigan:
As used by almost all supporters of the idea, defunding the police does not mean eliminating local police departments and sheriffs’ offices. Instead, it calls for redirecting some portion of police funding to other agencies, such as those providing mental health or social services, that could handle some emergency calls. Based on this description and what you may know or have heard or read about defunding the police, do you support or oppose the idea for your community?
It’s a beautifully written question. But it bombed. Likely voters opposed the idea, 57 percent to 37 percent. That’s the exact opposite of what likely voters in Michigan had said a week earlier (57 percent yes, 37 percent no) when they were asked a similar question that omitted the word defund. A poll in Nevada, taken in October for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, tried the experiment from the other direction: First it explained the proposal (“reallocation of money” to “social and community programs”), then it mentioned that this idea was “known as defunding police.” That phrase was lethal. Likely voters nixed the idea, 63 percent to 28 percent.
Defunding police isn’t popular with minorities, either. Latinos generally oppose it. And while Black Americans in national surveys tend to favor it more than they oppose it, it’s a close call. In the Axios poll, 44 percent of Black respondents viewed “Defund the police” favorably; 38 percent viewed it unfavorably. In the Economist/YouGov poll, 42 percent favored it; 30 percent opposed it. In the Detroit News poll, Black likely voters in Michigan opposed it, 51 percent to 30 percent. In a Texas poll last month, Black likely voters tilted against it, 41 percent to 38 percent. In Maryland, 61 percent of Black respondents opposed it.
Democrats can’t wait two years to retool this message. Republicans are attacking it right now in the Senate runoff elections in Georgia, which will determine control of the chamber. In July, a poll taken for the conservative American Principles Project showed that 69 percent of likely Georgia voters were less willing to support Black Lives Matter “if you learned Black Lives Matter supported defunding police departments nationwide.” In August, a poll taken for Democratic Senate candidate Matt Lieberman found that 56 percent of Georgia voters viewed Black Lives Matter favorably, but 66 percent—including 40 percent of Black voters—viewed police favorably. Pitting yourself against an institution that’s supported by two-thirds of the electorate is a gift to Republicans.
To win in Georgia and other states, Democrats need to reject “Defund the police” and replace it with a thoughtful, affirmative message. Progressive organizations such as Moveon.org should stop peddling the “defund” slogan. Politicians who have promoted or echoed it, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ilhan Omar, should drop it and talk instead about how, through investments in communities, we can improve policing. And protesters should understand that when they carry “Defund the police” signs, they’re literally creating video for Republican campaign ads.
Policing needs to be reformed. That’s clear from the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others. And you can make a strong case that if we were to invest wisely in education, employment, mental health, and controlling drug abuse, we wouldn’t have to pay cops to deal with problems that are better managed by social services. But “Defund the police” doesn’t help us make that case. It sets us back.