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Why Progressives Shouldn’t Care if We Cost Centrists Their Seats

by Keaton Weiss

At this writing, Democrats have lost 8 seats in the House of Representatives, as results from the 2020 election continue to be finalized. As predicted, much of the blame for Democrats’ losses is being laid at the feet of the progressive movement, with particular admonishment given to Black Lives Matter activists over their controversial “Defund the Police” slogan. Old guard establishment figures like James Clyburn have insisted that this demand hurt down-ballot Democrats and should therefore be silenced, while newly elected progressives like Cori Bush have defended the use of the phrase.

Last week, E.J. Dionne Jr.’s column in The Washington Post attempted to smooth over this intra-party rift by writing the following:

“Progressives are right that the quest for racial justice should not be compromised — and is, in fact, an electoral asset. . .But moderates are right that slogans like “Defund the Police” can bring down moderate lawmakers, such as Staten Island’s defeated Rep. Max Rose. Here’s a rule for the future: any slogan that requires five minutes to explain what it really means is not a good slogan.”

Aside from the contradictory points that progressives are correct not to compromise in their quest for racial justice but ought to water down their language to assuage the anxieties of moderates and conservatives, there are other problems with this seemingly benign attempt to unite the warring factions within the Democratic Party.

The first is that “Defund the Police” is not a slogan that “requires five minutes to explain what it really means.” It’s actually remarkably straightforward, and, dare I say, self-explanatory. In the event that it does require further clarification, such can be accomplished in one sentence:

‘Defunding the police means cutting police budgets and re-allocating those funds elsewhere in the community where they will improve people’s lives, making police intervention less likely and less necessary.’

“Defund the police” is simple, clear, and rational, and the effectiveness of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 reflects that. Cities across the country responded almost immediately, and divested funds from their police departments within weeks of George Floyd’s murder. The argument can be made that but for the clarity and forcefulness of the ‘defund’ slogan, such reforms would not have been implemented as quickly as they were, if at all. Nationally, Black Lives Matter enjoyed a record-high 57% favorability rating among the general public at the height of the protests, with 74% of Americans agreeing that Floyd’s death was attributable to broader racial injustices.

Is this to say that “Defund the Police” doesn’t come with certain electoral risks, particularly in moderate and conservative districts? Of course not. The question is to what extent progressive activists should prioritize centrist Democrats’ electoral prospects in swing districts, and the answer is zero.

Dionne Jr. writes about the “Defund the Police” slogan as though it belongs to the Democratic Party – as if it’s the Democrats’ place to make whichever alterations they see fit. And it isn’t. Even some moderate Democratic House members themselves understand this. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney recently responded to Brian Williams’ question about the slogan by correctly pointing out that “the Democratic House majority is not responsible for that rhetoric.” This is undeniably true, as the demand to defund police departments came not from the Democratic Congress, but from activists in the streets. And so if elected officials are not claiming responsibility for the slogan, then it stands to reason that they ought not have veto power over it.

Democratic politicians trying to exercise such authority over the grassroots is yet another installment in the party’s long history of co-opting and killing progressive social movements. This effort must be resisted, even if doing so costs moderates like Max Rose their seats. Dionne Jr. makes the false assumption that the decision over whether to keep, alter, or retire the “Defund the Police” slogan is the Democrats’ to make. Elected officials are free to decide for themselves whether or not to embrace such messaging (Cori Bush has, Maloney himself hasn’t), but it is certainly not their place to insist that activists muzzle themselves to accommodate centrist Democrats’ campaign efforts.

Dionne Jr.’s article also takes for granted the dire necessity of Democrats winning anywhere and everywhere. Even the party itself doesn’t seem to agree with this idea. For example, Democrats went into the 2020 election almost certain to lose Doug Jones’ Senate seat in the deep red state of Alabama. Jones won under bizarre, fluky circumstances in 2017’s special election, but the conventional wisdom was that it would be almost impossible for him to repeat his success in 2020. Still, the Democrats could have tailored their entire 2020 national messaging strategy towards winning the Alabama Senate race, but they didn’t, because doing so would alienate their base to such an extent that taking that approach would do far more harm than good. In other words, Doug Jones’ eventual defeat was just the price of doing business this year. Unfortunate? Perhaps. But it was a risk the party simply had to take.

The progressive movement must look at centrist Democrats’ electoral endeavors in the exact same way. We must view Staten Island the way Democrats view Alabama; as incidental, not instrumental, to our success. If Staten Islanders won’t vote for a Democrat because they are scared off by anti-police rhetoric, then so be it. We can’t afford to appease them any more than the Democrats can afford to placate the sensibilities of Alabama’s ultra-conservative electorate.

If anything, it may even be to our benefit that centrist Democrats are defeated by Republicans, because the narrower the Democrats’ House majority, the more power progressives have within it. For example, if Democrats’ majority was a measly 3 seats, then the Squad would have the ability to tank an inadequate health care reform bill all by themselves, giving them tremendous influence within the caucus. If, on the other hand, Democrats had a 30-seat cushion padded by centrists like Max Rose, Abby Finkenauer, Donna Shalala, and the like, Leftists would enjoy no such leverage. This is yet another reason why progressives ought not let the hand-wringing of moderates and corporate media pundits weaken their resolve.

The “Defund the Police” slogan is perfectly fine as it is, has had great success thus far, and should therefore remain the rallying cry of Black Lives Matter activists for the time being. The rest of the progressive movement should stick to its guns as well, be it on issues of healthcare, climate, wages, debt forgiveness, etc.. If any of this is a problem for centrist Democrats in swing districts, then perhaps it’s time to defund them as well.

Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, AP

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