The problem with “defund the police” as a slogan isn’t it’s inaccuracy, lack of nuance, or failure to represent the true position of most liberals, it’s that Democrats are utterly inept when it comes to fighting a culture war.
By David Todd McCarty | Tuesday, July 14, 2020
Despite what you may have seen in the movies, your typical street fight lasts between 3 and 8 seconds1, with most fights never exceeding 30 seconds, as even the most willing combatants lack the will to continue once their nose has been bloodied and they experience the shooting pain of being hit in the face with brute force. A street fight is messy and awkward, and nine times out of ten, won by the person who strikes first. There is no round two.
According to the legendary chess Master Gary Kasparov, the game of chess is all about decision making, and a winning strategy is one whereby you employ a series of maneuvers designed to annoy your opponent, and strengthen your position. It is critical, therefore, that you create situations that play to your strengths and exploit your opponent’s weaknesses, and not the other way around.2
Republicans are currently fighting a hardscrabble, playground culture war—a game of dodge ball to the death, while Democrats continue to attempt to operate as glorified camp counselors, making sure everyone has a turn to get hit in the face with the ball.
The problem with Democrats isn’t that they’re playing the game incorrectly, it’s that they don’t understand the rules of play.
Taking The Fight To Your Opponent
Chris Voss, once the top hostage negotiator for the FBI, explains the concept of tactical empathy, his term for using empathy to achieve your goals in a negotiation. Empathy, in his view of things, is not about compassion but understanding.
“You have to understand what your opponent’s rules are,” he says. “You don’t have to agree with, or even adopt those rules, but you have to understand and respect what they are.”3
There is a concept in game theory that concerns itself with finite and infinite games. A finite game is one between defined players, with established rules and an end goal. An infinite game is one played between defined and undefined players, with changing rules and where the goal is to perpetuate the game. If you have two sides playing a finite game, the game is stable (baseball). If you have two players playing an infinite game, the game is also stable (cold war). The problem is when you have one side playing a finite game and other an infinite one. Democrats are attempting to win a game with a goal and Republicans are trying to keep the game going as long as they can. This is why Republicans are better at playing the long game. Their goal is simply to stay in the game and keep it going, while Democrats are constantly trying to win.
In the field of play, Republicans have become adept at doing two things simultaneously, which is a move that harkens again, back to chess. Republicans are quite successful at enacting strategies that allow them to attack two positions simultaneously. One that increases their advantage (energizing their base), and at the same time makes their opponent uncomfortable (forcing them to fight a battle they don’t want to fight).
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “David and Goliath”, he tells the story of Vivek Ranadivé and his daughter’s basketball team in Menlo Park, California.4 Ranadivé is a software developer and immigrant from India who knew nothing about basketball when he took on the job of coaching his daughter’s team, so he approached the game from an outsider’s perspective. In the game of basketball, once a team has scored, they generally retreat to their side of the court and wait for the other team to dribble the ball up the court to where they are now defending their basket.
This made no logical sense to Ranadivé. The teams were essentially surrendering 50% of the field of play to their opponents, and allowing them to do so uncontested. The girls on his team were inexperienced and small; not accomplished shooters or playmakers. They were never going to win playing games that way. They needed an advantage.
Ranadivé realized that one of the most vulnerable aspects of the game, for any team, is the inbound pass. Even the girls on the other team weren’t terribly good at this, so Ranadivé had his team press on every in-bound pass. What happened? His team won most of their games and they only barely lost the state championship to a much better team. They were successful because his girls were able to simply make layups under the basket after stealing the ball or causing unforced turnovers by the other team.
Ranadivé saw no advantage in letting a superior team come to him where they would surely beat him. Instead, he brought the fight to them and consistently beat a stronger team, on their side of the court no less. He designed a game plan built to their strengths, that put their opponents off balance. He presented a game plan that was unexpected and it turned out to be nearly impossible to defend by his opponents.
Knowing What To Do When There Is Nothing To Do
Kasparov explains that in chess, there are strategies and there are tactics.
“A tactic is knowing what to do when there is something to do,” he says, “while a strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do.”2
In the fight for social justice, equality, and human decency, Democrats continue to try to fight on the merits of an individual argument while Republicans are looking for weaknesses in their opponents to exploit. Republicans don’t concern themselves with promoting an agenda unless it exploits a weakness in their opponent, and yet that is also their own weakness. They are relying solely on a strategy of exploiting weaknesses, but have no plans for actually winning the game. They expect to succeed by fighting a war of attrition, not a contest of skill.
It’s important to recognize, that if you are going to follow Kasparov’s advice concerning strategic game theory, you decrease your chances of winning if you try to play your opponent’s game, so the answer is not to mimic your opponent’s style of play. A comprehensive strategy that enables one to act when there is nothing to do, is what Democrats lack in their game plan. Democrats resort to tactically defending against attacks, but are ineffective at putting the Republicans off their game. This is because Democrats have allowed themselves to be lured into playing someone else’s game, rather than forcing their opponent to play a game they are uncomfortable with.
Defunding The Police
In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests that took place around the world, people took to the streets to proclaim that despite considerable evidence to the contrary, Black lives mattered. Out of these protests, there arose a renewed call to abolish the very concept of policing as we know it today. It’s the same logic that demands an end to mandatory minimum sentences and the prohibition of drugs. Decades of research have decisively concluded that these policies were not just bad ideas, but disastrous failures. They didn’t work.
This new movement, whether you like the name or not, has become known as “defund the police.”
Republicans strategists seized on this immediately as a way to paint “the radical Left” as favoring the abolition of all police, thereby hoping to capitalize on the collective fears of white, suburban voters everywhere, that they would soon be raped and murdered in their beds at night by ruthless gangs of faceless, nameless, dark-skinned criminals.
Not only is the institution of modern policing racist in concept and implementation, the fear of removing the police from the equation clearly reveals the truth behind white society’s desire for a strong police force. Whites have been thoroughly indoctrinated since the days of Jim Crow, to believe that the only thing standing between being murdered in their sleep by Black criminals is that thin Blue line. It is, in fact, the institution’s entire reason for being.
In truth, it’s nothing more than an extension of the post-slavery fear mongering that established modern police departments in the first place. An effort by White supremacists to undermine, destabilize and depress Black communities. The statues of Confederate heroes erected in front of the court house were simply a way to remind people of color, who was really in charge.
The relationship that Black communities have with the police is complicated at best. No one wants to live in a crime-ridden neighborhood that is unsafe. But if you live in a neighborhood where you are more likely to be killed by the police than your neighbor, having more police patrolling your streets doesn’t really create a better quality of life for you. You’d literally be better off without them.
Almost no one believes we should abolish police departments, certainly not without a serious plan of how we would replace them, but it is worth talking about what we are asking the police to do, and how we are funding a never-ending war against our own people.
Modern Policing Is Broken
Even the most conservative of ideologue would have to agree that modern police departments are being asked to perform an impossible task for which they are neither properly trained nor effectively structured to succeed. They were not designed to be social workers, counselors, parking attendants, teachers, guidance counselors, homeless advocates, or dog catchers. They are trained as warriors and they attract those to their ranks who wish to be recognized as such, which is itself, a separate problem.
Police today are given what is essentially military training, in a boot camp scenario, including hours of instruction on hand to hand combat, tactical and weapons training, and criminal investigation and interrogation. Departments are structured using a military hierarchy with a comparable chain of command, given surplus military hardware designed for the battlefield, told they are under attack, and then sent in to what are referred to as war-zones. It should comes as no shock to learn that the people living there, call them neighborhoods.
But it’s not just the training that so ill-equips police officers for the job with which they are tasked, they are also asked to follow policies that require them to treat everyone they meet as a potential threat and a probable criminal. They begin each day searching for criminals, not a higher standard of living. If you are always looking for criminals, everyone you meet begins to look like one.
There is a common policing strategy in America that is based on something called the Kansas City Experiment5, which theorized that since 90% of crime occurred in very small pockets of any community, sometimes just a few city blocks, if you concentrated the majority of your patrols in the places where the most crime occurred, and stopped everyone for even the smallest infraction, you could reduce gun violence by taking guns off the street.
Basically, the idea was to stop everyone, especially anyone of color, for any reason (even if you had to get creative), on an endless fishing expedition, and in the hopes that you would uncover real crimes by accident. That’s the unfortunate policy of many police departments in America today.
One famous case for this style of policing was Sandra Bland, a woman from Chicago who had just come from a successful job interview with a local university outside of Houston, TX. She was not a criminal, and was not breaking the law in any way when she was pulled over. She ended up having a heated exchange with the officer, caught on the dash cam of the patrol car, and ended up in a jail cell for three days, where she eventually hung herself. All for failure to signal a lane change after a police officer aggressively sped up on her tail in order to get a reaction, and she moved out of his way to let him pass without properly signaling a change of lane.
In this style of policing, the entire purpose of the stop is not to give you a ticket for the supposed reason they pulled you over (failure to signal properly), but to see if they can escalate the situation and find evidence of a larger crime. That is the expressed purpose. In the process, they are looking for clues that will confirm their suspicions that you are indeed a criminal, and those include such things as whether or not you appear nervous (you’ve just been pulled over by the police, of course you’re nervous) or whether there are fast food wrappers in your car (drug runners apparently don’t have time to sit down to eat). Meanwhile they are questioning the suspect (yes, you are already a suspect) using a method called “concealed interrogation” which is designed to see if you will give something up that can be used against you. Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Why do you have all these tools in your back seat? You appear nervous, what’s wrong?
This is a real strategy that is taught to police all over America. The officer who pulled over Sandra Bland was following protocol that day, in fact in the twenty-six minutes before he stopped Sandra Bland, he stopped three other people and in just under a year on the job, he had written 1,557 tickets.5 Only he wasn’t patrolling a high crime area at night looking for guns, he was driving down a busy street in the middle of the day and pulled Bland over for a situation he himself caused.
What Does Defunding The Police Really Mean?
Defunding the police does not mean abolishing the police, but rather it represents an opportunity to rethink the purpose of police in our communities and to redistribute our limited resources to those people best suited to promoting public safety. Defunding the police means reducing the scope of the job of policing, thereby reducing the need for such a large police force.
Only about 4% of police calls in America are in a response to a violent crime. Roughly 35% are responding to non-criminal calls, 15% for traffic violations, 15% for property crimes including things like vandalism and noise complaints, and 8% for medical reasons.6
The rest of their time is literally spent looking for trouble.
Police departments are being asked to do things they have no business doing, and therefore aren’t any good at. We need much smaller police forces, that are focused on responding to real criminal behavior and we need to be spending the rest of that money on people who can better perform the duties that have improperly been foisted on the police.
Playing Their Game
Democrats constantly underestimate the Republican Party, because they don’t feel that Republicans are their equals. A strong chess player can use brute force to overpower a weaker player, through superiority of experience and skill. But two equality matched players must try to get the other player to play a game they are uncomfortable with. This is what the Republicans do to the Democrats, and do repeatedly, despite arguably having a weaker position.
It is a fatal weaknesses that Democrats fail to understand that Republicans understand intimately and in minute detail, the Democratic game plan. Republicans know exactly how Democrats will respond in any given situation, and they bait them endlessly, to play their game. Time and again, Democrats take the bait and are forced, once again, to play defense in someone else’s game, on someone else’s field of play. It’s exhausting.
By now you may begin to understand the look of glee on the faces of Republicans when Democrats agree to engage. They are beside themselves. How can Democrats be so gullible every time? Lucy puts out the football, and Charlie Brown is certain, that this time, she will hold the ball so he can kick it. Despite a long history of disappointment, Democrats continue to be surprised that Republicans, time and again, pull the ball away at the last second. So here we lie, once again, on our backs.
The New Southern Strategy
Republicans have been fighting a culture war in America since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s when they launched their Southern Strategy to recruit white, southern Democrats upset about Black voting rights, to the Republican banner. It profoundly changed the nature of both parties, almost entirely flipping ideologies and becoming the modern versions of what we see today.
Prior to the 1960’s, Republicans had long enjoyed the loyalty of Black voters because it was Lincoln, a Republican after all, who had freed the slaves. But when Democrats became the champions of civil rights, the balance of power shifted, with Black voters streaming to the Democrats, and White voters, jumping ship and joining the Republicans.
Beginning with the Tea Party movement of 2009 as a response to the election of Barack Obama, America’s first Black President, and exacerbated under the racist ideology of Donald Trump, the current Republican Party has shed any ideological fealty to small government, fiscal responsibility and free trade and instead has fully embraced White nationalism as it’s primary weapon of choice for maintaining power. Suppressing the Black vote through Voter ID laws, gerrymandering, and intimidation is simply part of the current playbook, glaringly obvious in its inception and implementation. In effect, Republicans understand, even better than Democrats do, that Democrats can not win without the Black vote.
This is the Republican’s new strategy for maintaining power. It’s an old strategy that has proven effective time and time again. Nixon promoted law and order and called on the silent majority to rise up against the tide of “Black aggression” and “wanton criminality.” Reagan used the term “welfare queens” to attack housing benefits, aid to children in poverty, and food stamp programs. Trump vilifies immigrants, hispanics, and Black communities on the daily.
All the Republican economic theories of the last half century have proven to be entirely without merit, ineffectual, costly or fiscally unsound. Their economic messaging in tatters, they have, therefore, reverted back to what they know best, fear mongering, scapegoating and race baiting. White supremacy has always been their ticket to ride.
Playing By The Rules
Chris Voss, the FBI negotiator, tells the story of Jill Carroll, a journalist in Iraq, that had been kidnapped and was being held by Al Qaeda.7 They put out a video, as was their way at the time, showing three men, clearly in control of the situation, acting as if they had legitimate authority to pass judgement on the young woman seated before them. They were in effect saying, “We will use your understanding of the rule of law against you and see how you like it.” They intended to execute her of course, just like they had done to others before.
The negotiators noticed, however, that in the video, Jill Carroll’s head was left uncovered, which was presumably done to humiliate her, but was also a violation of their own rules. This wasn’t a rule that Voss agreed with, but it was one he understood. He called them out on it, suggesting that they were not following their own rules, so how could they assume legitimate authority? He also understood that in the culture of Al Qaeda, all power comes from the father, so they used Jill’s father to record a message for her captors. Voss knew not to use language the terrorists would expect. They expected the father to claim she was innocent and they were prepared to dismiss that as hypocrisy from infidels. What they weren’t prepared for was the father to explain that his daughter had been reporting on the war, not taking sides, and that if they let her go, she would continue to report on the war, and in the end, that would do them more good than killing her.
Jill Carroll was eventually freed, and in interviews later, it was revealed that her kidnappers were moved by both of Voss’ strategies. Voss understood the rules of the game, and used them to his advantage to win the objective.
The Gentle Way
The ancient art of Judo, which means “the gentle or yielding way” is a form of martial arts developed by Jigoro Kano in 1882 that emphasizes winning in combat by using your opponent’s weight and strength as weapons against him, while preserving your own mental and physical energy.
Judo embodies the principle that good technique can win out over sheer strength. In a judo match, a slight person can overcome a heavier, stronger opponent. There are no kicks or punches. Instead, players “throw” their opponent to disable them, or control them using a hold-down, a choke, or an armlock.8
It is largely viewed as a more defensive form of martial arts, emphasizing controlling your opponent rather than inflicting damage on them.
Republicans, as a rule, are bare-knuckle street fighters, who want to draw their opponents into a fight with insults, braggadocios behavior, misdirection, and dirty fighting. This is not a fight Democrats are well-suited for. It does not play to their advantages, but that doesn’t mean they should back away from the fight. They just need to do so on their own terms, on their own turf, and where they set the rules that give them the most advantage.
Republicans rely on counter-punching when attacked. If you call them racist, they will say you hate America. If you point out they are being fiscally irresponsible, they will say you want to give everyone free money.
Democrats are terrible at counter-punching, so they need to become experts in political Judo; to use the weight of the Republican Party against them and avoid the punches altogether.
When Did You Stop Beating Your Wife?
The question “when did you stop beating your wife” is known as a false assumption, and it’s a classic case of the loaded question. The assumption of course, is that you have, in fact, been beating your wife and the question presented, is not concerned with whether or not this is true, or even if you are continuing to do so, but when it was that you stopped. It’s a question that you can’t answer in the form it was presented.
In a trial, witnesses are often coached to answer only the questions asked of them, in the narrowest way possible. So that if a lawyer asks you if you know the time, you do not answer, “4:30”, you answer “yes.” She didn’t ask you what time it was, she asked you if you knew the time.
People regularly give up far too much information and are easily encouraged to defend even the slightest accusation with a vehement defense, when often none is called for.
Republican strategists constantly use narratives that contain false assumptions. For instance, spinning the desire to investigate the possible reallocation of the massive budgets that fund police departments into a threat of violence against American citizens is a prime example of a false assumption.
The answer to the question is no, no matter how it is framed, because the premise is false.
They can’t hijack the narrative and get you to contribute to their shoddy theories if you don’t allow yourself to be a party to it. They will try to bait you into arguing about details that don’t have anything to do with issues you care about and are designed to sidetrack you and get you to play their game. If you’re unfamiliar with this line of attack you’ve clearly not spent any time arguing with anyone on social media.
The answer is to reject the very premise in the first place. It’s not your job to help them try you in the court of public opinion. When they ask if you know what time it is, you do not give them a lesson on how clocks are made, you answer that in fact you do know what time it is, and leave it be.
The time to make your point is when you hold the gavel, when it’s a time and place of your choosing, when you can control the environment and the narrative. You can afford to be patient, step back and watch them play the game for awhile, ready for them to make a mistake and force them to defend themselves. What you don’t do is engage them on their terms.
In the case of how we fund the police, the truth is that no one is suggesting we sacrifice public safety when we talk about defunding the police, so leave public safety out of the conversation for now. We are talking about how best to allocate our limited funds so that they will do the most good in our communities. Period.
The fact that police departments are overfunded and ineffectual should be of great concern to everyone, regardless of political party. The only reason to deny that would be a seemingly corrupt desire to fund police departments beyond what is needed or useful, presumably in order to keep the friends and family of those in power employed, or to keep police unions that contribute to certain political parties, powerful.
We will look at public safety as part of the equation of course, but we won’t do so emotionally like petulant children, we will look at it, as you would in a business. If something isn’t working you don’t simply throw more money at it. You evaluate it, calmly and coldly, as a logical reaction to fiscal responsibility and ethical values, and you fix it, replace it, or remove it.
There is no need to run from the debate, but there is no rule that says you must engage using their rules if you do not wish to. Embrace the slogan if need be and turn the question on them. Why are they so interested in protecting a bloated governmental department? Aren’t they interested in greater efficiency in government, in more effective public safety measures? Don’t respond to their programmed responses about sending social workers to investigate murders. That’s a false assumption and you were never beating your wife in the first place.
A Chink In The Armor
As in any fight, Democrats must work to exploit the weaknesses of their opponent. In the case of Republicans it is their own self-described narrative of moral superiority based on a legalistic understanding of Judeo-Christian beliefs. The hubris, derived from believing that they are fighting in God’s army, while simultaneously violating nearly every teaching of their self-professed Messiah, is their achilles heel on many social justice issues.
It is just one way to use the force of their own will against them. This might be ineffective against the more brazen charlatans in their midst who are merely using religion as a tool to control the public, but it’s much harder to argue against a morality that is woven into your cultural code of honor, when it is presented to you like a mirror.
Morality is the ethical code that guides a person’s choices in life and determines how you understand the difference between wrong and right, both for you own life, as well as your community and the world at large. Republicans have long held a belief that because of their more conservative nature, they are the morally superior political party, pointing to traditional values when it comes to sex, marriage, family structure and personal behavior. They don’t drink, dance or chew and they don’t go with girls who do.
Personal freedom is another virtue that Republicans hold in nearly religious rapture. It has been used for decades as a way to justify open racism and bigotry, as a means to reject the notion that the Federal Government could tell the state of Mississippi what to do with its Black population.
The combination of morality and liberty has been a means for conservative Americans to lay claim to the birthright of patriotism in America as the true recipients of God’s grace, but there are serious cracks in this narrative that can be exploited. As all things are relative, that which they assert as tradition, we recognize as regressive. What they maintain is conventional, we can paint as primitive and underdeveloped.
Republicans under the leadership of Donald Trump have seen a huge break from an America that was once considered the leader of the free world. The President, and those who follow him, do not exhibit the values one traditionally expects from the Republican Party.
American ideals were historically values such as honesty, bravery, fairness, loyalty, humility, and kindness. The President, on the other hand, is selfish, egotistical, dishonest, crass, ignorant, racist, and mean. He’s the least likely hero of the party of Reagan you could imagine. He’s what you would get if you put a plastic figurine of Reagan in the microwave for a few minutes, a grotesque distortion of the ideal.
The failure of Republican solutions to meet the challenges of a global economy have finally come home to roost for Republicans after decades of undermining unions, labor laws and protectionist trade policies. Republicans have outsourced America and the people who got hurt have been left with nothing but anger and hate, which the Republicans have been using to great affect, but it’s wearing thin.
On top of everything else, Republicans have chosen to adopt the one thing that doesn’t square with Christian values of morality and humility, and that’s white supremacy. While it’s true that Christians have, since the days of slavery, used the Bible to justify their racist behavior, public opinion no longer sides with overt racism. Now that so many White supremacists have taken off their hoods, and it’s no longer possible to maintain plausible deniability, it will be harder than ever to maintain the facade that Republicans are a party of morality and honor.
The reality is, the Republicans have long ago abandoned whatever role they might have claimed as the moral authority of America by electing and championing a racist, dishonest, philandering reality-television grifter. They have squandered any credibility they had for promoting small government and fiscal responsibility when they cashed in their chips with dubious tax cuts and disastrous trade wars, and they’ve shown their true colors by championing open racism and white supremacy.
It’s time for Democrats to reclaim their role as the moral and economic leader of America, in the vein of Franklin D. Roosevelt. We need to put people to work by rebuilding America’s infrastructure, we need to raise the standard of living by increasing the minimum wage, protecting workers, and reestablishing a social safety net that makes sense. We need to completely overhaul healthcare and stop corporations from profiting from illness. We need to revolutionize our criminal justice system and stop corporations from profiting from our pain. We need to reestablish the separation of church and state so that everyone can practice their religion in peace, without fear or retribution from the government that we risk by establishing a national religion. We need common sense gun control. We need to get money out of elections. We need environmental protections. We need more morality from our leaders and more personal protection from our government.
In effect, it’s time for Democrats to lead again, not just govern.
- Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath. Little, Brown and Company
- s, Malcolm. Talking to Strangers. Little, Brown and Company