The Practical Idealist

In my youth I was an idealist. To use a baseball analogy, I wanted to swing for the fences. Now, I’ll take a walk, a single, a bunt and a sacrifice fly. One method is more dramatic than the other, but it’s still one run.

Last week I wrote a column on crime, cleverly titled, “Let’s Be Against Crime.” My theme was that Democrats were hemorrhaging political capital on the crime issue because some hard-left activists were still talking about “defunding” the police, and because even mainstream Dems weren’t displaying a sense of urgency about the issue. Promising to deal with “the root causes of crime” sounds like “we’ll get around to that some time.”

Reader Rollie took issue with that and wrote a spirited and thoughtful comment. I replied that, while some of his points were well-taken, “defunding the police” was politically disastrous for Democrats. Rollie wrote back: “I don’t really care about slogans, just policy. I’m not on a “defund the police” mission necessarily myself, I’d fund as the facts necessitate. But if that slogan pushes a closer look rather than endless budget increases with no structural changes, than great. I’m sure a lot of people mean it literally, I’m fine with that too. Let’s get a lot of ideas out there and really get open to real change.”

That’s a perfectly reasonable point of view and one I might have adopted myself even a few years ago when I was an adjunct professor. But, while the reality of Trump has pushed a lot of liberals and Democrats further left in their outrage, it has made me intensely practical. Trump and his party now represent such a clear and present danger to everything I believe in about classical liberal values, pluralism and fair play, that I just don’t think we have much room for error. After all, Trump got 75 million votes and only lost the electoral college by 44,000 votes, even less than the 77,000 by which Hillary Clinton lost it four years earlier.

So, when Rollie writes, “Let’s get a lot of ideas out there and really get open to real change,” I agree in spirit, but I think it’s a practical political mistake. For too many voters, the word “defund” won’t cause them to think deeply about the role of policing in our society. It will just get them angry or scared or both. It plays beautifully into the hands of a party whose stock-in-trade is now anger and fear.

Are the words we use core to the vision or just details? Academics and activists tend to think they’re at the core while a good pol is flexible on the words chosen. Photo by Daria Shevtsova on

I don’t think that now is the time to be pushing the envelope on language. Moreover, I think it’s mostly unnecessary. Instead of “defund” why not just say “reform,” especially if that’s what is usually meant anyway? Similarly, why talk about “white privilege” when you could just as easily talk about “fairness”? Why talk about “systemic racism” when you could get the same basic idea across by just being against discrimination?

Now, I understand that these phrases are not absolutely equivalent, but they’re close enough for government work. Issues don’t get decided in academia; they get worked out through politics. And the political costs of using a phrase like “defund”, which gets people’s backs up and drives voters away, just aren’t worth it, especially when you can get close enough by saying “reform.”

This is the difference between pols, like me, who see words as political tools that help win or lose elections and activists and academics (and often it’s hard to tell them apart), who see words as ways to get people thinking in new ways. It’s not that I don’t have some appreciation for the latter, but to the extent that academic language finds its way into the popular culture it makes winning elections much harder for left-center candidates.

Look, there is, in fact, a hard-left out there with which I have profound disagreements. It’s the hard-left that sees classical liberal values as mere impediments to social justice. But for the bulk of everyone else who is centrist or left of center, I think we agree on most goals. It’s just a question of how to get there. I believe you get there by winning elections and you win elections with language. “Defund” is a clear loser, while “reform” may be a winner. Simple as that.

Welcome to the 153rd consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

5 thoughts on “The Practical Idealist

  1. “Reform’ (re; policing} is better than ‘defund”, obviously. But if I were a cop, or a “law & order” proponent, there are words/phrases other than “reform” that I’d prefer seeing/hearing, and YES words DO matter. “Reform” sounds punitive, and most police personnel and departments in my opinion based on many decades of living life (mostly in urban settings), do not remotely deserve to be punished. Are any of you old enough to remember the term “reform school’, which was essentially “prison for youngsters”, right?

    What we WANT, I believe, is “Improved Policing” or “Upgraded Policing” or “Enhanced Policing”— even it costs more. Taxpayer $$ to be spent on (1) higher pay to recruit better cops and (2) more/better training, and (3) expanded community relationship-building activities and programs.


    1. Interesting thoughts, this seems to be a thoughtful place. Regardless of language, what actual things are needed? “Better training”… “better recruitment”… what does that need to be specifically and actionable-ly? I’m not putting you on the spot to answer, just putting it out there.

      I think that we need to change the law to stop police from enforcing victimless crime and stop measuring police department success by crime rates and instead measure them by clearance rates. I really think those two specific and actionable things could do a lot to improve police community relations.



  2. I totally agree with you. Let’s get rid of the jargon and just use normal words that are not inflammatory. They are just used to stir things up and grab headlines

    Sent from my iPad



  3. Well I guess I’m famous! I’m a new reader, so I’m just getting up to speed with the context of this blog. I see what you mean about defund as a dubious political strategy, and my perspective doesn’t consider political considerations at all. I just want reason to lead me to clearer truth. As a moderate I assumed that you didn’t have a preference for either party, but now I see your rationale for going all in for Democrats at this point in time and that makes sense.

    While this language may not be useful for politicians, it is for society. We need to give words to ideas, and limiting the range of available words limits the range of ideas. That is a classic tactic of rulers. The word “reform” doesn’t at all get at the same idea as “defund”. Reform is what we’ve always done, and people are trying to express a new idea.

    Fairness and discrimination are in the same boat. Our society has always been “in favor” of both those things, but we’ve rarely lived up to that. We can’t use those words anymore because they’ve lost true meaning. Which is why they’re great for politicians 😉

    With that, politicians should feel free to not embrace that language. The language seems to me to have arisen out of last summer’s protest movement organically. I could be wrong about that, but if so, it’s simply a true feeling and perspective of a very passionate and fed up set of people. They are saying their truth and I support that even if I don’t agree, and if it’s inconvenient so be it – nothing meaningful is gained without at least inconvenience.

    It’s important for people to really find and stake out their truth even if it’s considered extreme. This pushes the Overton window, and that’s something the American left has failed to do for far too long. And it’s the natural job of activists to do this so that the politicians in 40 years have a slight chance of following.

    The American right has used this tactic very effectively; what is moderate now would have been quite conservative 75 years ago. Have they felt any political fallout for it? Why will the left? (I know the answer and it’s money, but that’s a whole ‘nother ball of worms to get into here).


  4. Wow this place really has me thinking, I need to stop word vomiting here 🙂

    Another way to frame this is that people want to defund what they don’t think serves them. Note that it’s a mainstream Republican idea to defund the schools.

    Obviously those that want to defund the police don’t think they serve them – they don’t often get justice when they’re crime victims, just look at urban clearance rates. It’s a foreign idea for people who live places where they think the police will actually solve the crime if they’re a victim, but common where I live. People often don’t even bother to report crime because of this


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