The Democratic Party’s left flank, including Rep.-elect Cori Bush of St. Louis, is pushing back at former President Barack Obama for his suggestion that the party should ditch the phrase “defund the police.” Bush and others should listen to the party’s most popular figure — and heed the lessons of Nov. 3, when moderate voters nervous about perceived left-wing radicalism thwarted what otherwise could have been a Democratic landslide in Congress.
The defund movement gained national prominence following the police killings of George Floyd and other Black citizens. What the phrase means depends on who is doing the talking, which is part of the problem. At its least radical, it means addressing the root causes of crime by diverting some public funding away from traditional policing and toward poverty relief, social programs, mental health interventions and other efforts.
That isn’t an unreasonable approach to crime, but doing it at the expense of police funding threatens to further victimize residents of high-crime areas. And the “defund the police” slogan itself, however it’s defined, scares political moderates and gives fuel to right-wing demagogues — especially when coupled with other radical ideas such as Bush’s “defund the Pentagon” tweet.
That’s no way to achieve reform — and it’s likely a big part of the reason Democrats last month lost House seats and have probably failed to take the Senate, even though voters overwhelmingly unseated a Republican president.
Obama was spot-on in his comments about that slogan during an interview Wednesday. “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,” he said. “The key is deciding, do you want to actually get something done, or do you want to feel good among the people you already agree with?”
Bush, like others on the party’s left, pushed back. “With all due respect, Mr. President — let’s talk about losing people,” Bush tweeted, referencing Black victims of police killings: “We lost Michael Brown Jr. We lost Breonna Taylor. We’re losing our loved ones to police violence.” The defund issue, she wrote, is “not a slogan. It’s a mandate for keeping our people alive.”
The argument falls apart the moment anyone looks at St. Louis’ escalating numbers of murders — committed not by police, but by criminals, almost entirely against Black victims. How does depriving police of funding solve that problem? And how does it help reform the police, with reduced staffing and fewer resources for training and oversight? And how does it aid police reform to lose ground in Congress to a Republican Party that doesn’t prioritize the issue at all?