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.
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!