This summer was not the first time Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets demanding change and accountability of and within “the system.” However, it was one of the first times that substantive policy proposals came out of the movement and into mainstream discourse. The main policy proposal: defunding the police

This has different definitions depending on who you ask, but it can range anywhere from reallocating some of the funding police departments receive to mental health and counseling initiatives all the way to abolishing the entire police system in this country. I am not here to discuss the merits of this plan, but merely the messaging that younger progressives brought to the streets this summer. 

In early December, former President Barack Obama said, “I guess you can use a snappy slogan like ‘Defund The Police,’ but, you know, 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.” 

What Obama is saying is that there are serious and systemic problems that need to be solved and addressed by politicians, but by using such harsh language, younger Democrats have alienated themselves from the larger population. I know from experience that older Americans were turned off from the language of “defund the police” at first because they viewed that as a direct threat to their personal safety. One huge assumption that progressives made is that the average person will read beyond the title of a plan and do their due diligence in researching the actual policies it is aiming to advocate. It is impossible to expect this of every American. Clearly, our messaging matters. A lot.  

In a meta-analysis of polls in June, around 31% of Americans supported defunding the police system. What is even more shocking is that when the polling question changes from “Do you support defunding the police?” to a more specific question asking if you would support using some taxpayer funds that go to the police to other agencies that could better respond to some emergencies, the number shoots up to 72%

This represents a massive gap between the support of the slogan and the support of the actual messaging behind it. Almost three in four Americans believe in the concept of taking some responsibilities off the plate of law enforcement and giving them to more qualified professionals instead. This stands sharply in contrast with the slightly more than one in four who support the attached slogan. 

This shows us that Obama was right: Messaging matters. 

People often quickly jump the gun and go for the home-run solution when the practical and effective approach is right in front of their eyes. It is important to understand that policymaking does not happen in a simple Democratic or Republican vacuum. Real policymaking takes compromise and understanding of others. 

A lot of young people simply see the world from one lens, sometimes clouded by privilege and relative inexperience. While well-intentioned, the messaging of defunding the police played right into the hands of the current Republican Party in the 2020 election cycle; they ran numerous false ads targeting Democratic candidates saying that these candidates supported defunding the police when many had categorically denied this. These include the senate seats in 2020 in Maine, Iowa, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia — the majority of which Democrats lost — as well as attempting to leverage this claim in the presidential race

Additionally, an ad claiming that Joe Biden supported defunding the police decreased his net favorable rating by 11 points in focus groups. Black Americans, who many progressives claim to be acting on the behalf of, do not overwhelmingly support this policy — anywhere from 51% of Black voters in Michigan are actually against defunding the police. These findings confirm that using this divisive messaging is not accomplishing the goal we need to be striving for: police reform. It is getting us further away from that goal in exchange for a snazzy slogan that we can exert on our parents or less “woke” friends. 

While I believe the damage of the “defund the police” slogan has already been done, progressives, liberals, independents and conservatives concerned with the gravely serious issues of police brutality and systemic racism should instead look to see how we can best solve this in the future. 

We can do it by approaching people who do not look or think like us to see how best to get our message across to them. There have been many issues where messaging has limited the policy goals behind it, but it must stop here. Progressives have great ideas to move this country in a positive direction, but we must understand how our views come across to others and plan accordingly. 

If we want to genuinely accomplish something with our messaging, it is not enough to merely think we are correct and not care about the public perception. We must engage with others on a substantive level to truly accomplish policy change in the future.

Shubhum Giroti can be reached at sgiroti@umich.edu

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