Despite all the hand-wringing by conservative Democrats over the Defund The Police slogan, as a pure messaging strategy, it was an astonishing success that was completely misunderstood.
By David Todd McCarty | Thursday, December 3, 2020
Not long after the protests began, mere days after George Floyd was murdered in cold blood while America watched, the phrase “Defund The Police” began circulating. This was May, 2020 and much of the country was in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, but still protests rose up in cities across America, both large and small, and even extended to major cities throughout the world.
Almost immediately, conservative members of the Democratic Party expressed their discomfort with the phrase and political candidates rushed to openly voice their support for the police, who are considered important political players in local elections due to their outsized share of municipal budgets. The fear, of course, was that being anti-police was inherently bad politics, especially with white suburban women, who were seen as critical to the 2020 election.
The fact that so many cities and municipalities are held hostage by police unions, who consequently exert undue influence over local politics, is the ultimate irony concerning the Defund The Police movement as it is precisely why activists believe we should examine and reform how we fund public safety and the methods we resort to in the name of security.
The main criticism by the Democratic Party establishment was that Defund The Police was a flawed slogan in that it did not fully and accurately explain the potential nuances of the concept of reforming police departments, and allowed Republicans to paint the movement as nothing more than a desire to abolish law enforcement entirely, giving them fuel for their traditional law and order message that liberals are soft on crime.
There are several problems with the premise of this argument, first and foremost being that no matter what their message was, Republicans were going to paint them in the least desirable light possible because that is their entire political strategy in a nutshell. The GOP is not a party of ideas but a perpetual opposition party that yearns for things to be against. But putting that aside for a minute, Democrats have fundamentally misunderstood the power, strategy and purpose of political messaging overall, which is why they struggle.
Even Barack Obama, an arguably brilliant guy who became a truly gifted public speaker while on the campaign trail, has shown he doesn’t fully understand the significance and power of messaging for messaging sake, and this is a guy who ran on something as flimsy and undefinable as hope. He ran a really good campaign, but he is not inherently a marketing guy.
None of this should actually be all that surprising since a consistent and long time criticism of the Democratic Party is that they are not very effective when it comes to messaging. It’s not that they’re worse at the actual messaging part, not worse when it comes to actual writing skills, since most Republican messaging is fifth grade reading level at best and rarely even grammatically correct. It’s that Democrats misunderstand the strategy and purpose of the message in the first place.
Intellectuals are not good marketers because they too often insist that the message is not only all encompassing, but accurate, honest and realistic in its promise. It’s an attempt to create effective advertising by a committee of nerdy policy wonks. How did you think that is going to work out?
Do you think the chemists, engineers and doctors at Nike came up with Just Do It, or do you think maybe they let the ad agency handle that part and stuck to making shoes? The team who created that line probably didn’t even wear sneakers, let alone exercise. They weren’t trying to explain why Nike sneakers were better, they were selling an idea of pursuing excellence, and achieving personal goals. They were selling a mindset, not a product benefit.
This is where Democrats fall so short and why so many of them misunderstood the value of Defund The Police as an effective slogan. They imagine that the value in a slogan is in its ability to accurately explain a policy position, as opposed to a rallying cry that will draw attention and excite the base. They are simply wrong.
By just about any metric, Defund The Police wasn’t just an effective messaging strategy, it was a colossal, unmitigated triumph of incalculable magnitude. Why? Not because it merely changed the conversation, which is no small feat in a charged political environment, but because it allowed the conversation to happen at all.
Prior to the death of George Floyd, and the subsequent tipping point of national acceptance that the Black Lives Matter movement experienced, the idea of decreasing police funding in lieu of spending on social workers and other non enforcement programs, was fringe at best. It was unthinkable to even have the conversation. No one in mainstream political America was considering altering how we police communities. At best, liberals cried out for better training, or better vetting of police officers, still sticking with the “bad apple” approach to police reform. Very few people were talking about rethinking our entire system, despite the nearly weekly trauma of watching yet another unarmed Black man being gunned down in the streets of America.
But what actually happened? We started having that very conversation, and doing it while waiting in line at a suburban Starbucks, surrounded by all the trappings of wealth and privilege.
The unheralded brilliance of the slogan, was how provocative it was. This is where Obama and others are mistaken. The provocative nature of those three words were not a detraction from the goal, but the main feature. This was not a strategic misstep, but the entire point of the strategy.
It’s likely no one was thinking this deeply about it at the time, or even knew what they were doing, but maybe they did. Maybe they understood exactly what was needed in that moment. But I’d venture a guess that it was simply an honest, emotional response to the terrorism that has been inflicted on communities of color for centuries, and one that resonated at precisely that moment.
I have spent my career developing brands for international clients, and spend my time thinking about psychology, human behavior and the factors that motivate us to act. I spend most of that time attempting to part consumers with their disposable income on unnecessary objects for the mere delight and satisfaction of it all. The pursuit of happiness is, in fact, my own little hobgoblin. I’ve come to appreciate the simple beauty of that, despite calls to return to an agricultural collective by my peers on the far left, I like working with companies who can profit from making people happy.
What I have learned over the course of thirty years in the business, is that human beings are motivated by a great many things, but intellectual arguments are rarely one of them. We are ruled, first and foremost, by emotion and that has been proven time and again, in all manner of scientific studies and psychological evaluations. We like to think of ourselves as logical beings, but we are not.
Let’s focus on the main criticism by the intellectual elites, that has concluded that Defund The Police was a mistake that gave Republicans a means to paint the Democrats in a bad light, primarily that they continue to be soft on crime. It’s true that this has been an effective strategy for Republicans since Nixon trotted it out to convince white conservatives that the only thing keeping unruly Blacks and unkempt hippies from overrunning America was the firm hand of an authoritarian police unit and tough drugs laws. There is a certain segment of the population, mostly those who live nowhere near urban centers, that this is particularly effective with, especially in the age of 24-hour fear mongering on cable news. The Left could demand a prison on every street corner and school teachers armed with Uzi’s and the Right would still find a way to call them pussies and snowflakes while still painting them as dangerous radicals. The Republican Party is not about to let the Left flank them when it comes to authoritarian power and the desire to crack skulls. If Democrats bring a knife to a fight, you can be sure that Republicans will bring an arsenal. So disabuse yourself of this theory that if only the Democrats had the right message, Republicans would have no rebuttal, and would simply fold up their tent and go home. It’s ridiculous on the face of it, and seriously underestimates the forces arrayed against you.
The reality for Democrats is that it doesn’t matter what they say to the opposition, because the opposition is not receptive to their message. They are listening to their own messaging, on their own network no less, and that message is demonizing the very idea of Democrats as unethical, deviant monsters. They’re not focusing on a wonky policy differences, or elaborate economic theories. They are claiming that Democrats are pedophile deviants intent on a multinational power grab based out of independent pizza joints. You think they’re worried about how you want to increase funding to mental health professionals and social workers?
Democrats spend far too much of their time worrying about what Republicans will think and missing the point that Republicans don’t give a shit what they say. No matter that they message, they will find a way to twist it, and it won’t matter if there is any truth to their argument. Because they get that the message is not about conveying a reality, it’s about controlling the narrative
If Republicans are going to attack Democrats no matter what they do, they need to focus their messaging on exciting their own base and not worrying about alienating an already alienated opposition party. It’s like worrying about what your ex-girlfriend’s mother-in-law thinks of you.
What Defund The Police did, and did quite effectively, is it controlled the narrative. If Democrats were a little more savvy about this, when Republicans began attacking them for it, rather than run defensively to the Right—trying to show off their law and order bona fides—they should have doubled down (like the Republicans would have done) and accused the Republicans of defunding social security, healthcare and education. Republicans have in fact been defunding democracy for the past few decades. They have been defunding America, instead of defending her, and not once did Democrats call them out on it or rush to her aid. When it comes to political Judo, the Democratic Party has all the skills, and no game, while Republicans have almost no skills, and they are all game.
The issue with Defund The Police was not that it was an incomplete message, or that it gave political cover for Republicans to run a law and order message, but that Democrats are too afraid of alienating voters to actually lead. Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.
The Democratic Party remains fractured between the progressive left and the conservative center, each claiming they have the better strategy. My allegiances defiantly lean left, but mostly because I believe that to lead you have to dream and there is no dreaming in planning for the status quo or incremental change. If you want to reach the moon, sometimes you have to shoot for the stars. No one is expecting to reach the stars, but it’s trying that gets you the moon.
The concept of the Overton Window is something that I believe is very real in American politics, with regards to where the center really is, but that’s just an explanation for why we are where we are. The path to convincing an electorate that you have better ideas, or even that ideas have value, is an issue of branding, not governmental policy. Republicans have decided to stake their claim on being against progress, relying on nostalgia to glorify the past. Democrats claim to be about moving forward, but have done nothing to show Americans a better future, because to do that you have to be comfortable with selling a dream that no one can see, because it doesn’t exist yet.
If we want to talk about the ridiculousness of spending trillions on heavily armed police departments that don’t prevent crime but destroy our own communities instead, we have to begin by making people question the very system we are funding, not just how it is funded. You don’t do that by being polite, you do that by inciting passions at a scale that causes people to take over the town square. You have to be provocative. You have to be radical. You have to be passionate.
The messaging is not the problem, the actual desire to achieve real, lasting change is.