Obama’s criticism of the “Defund the police" slogan reveals a rift between American “leftists" and “liberals"

Obama’s criticism of the “Defund the police" slogan reveals a rift between American “leftists" and “liberals"
Source: Jonathan Ernst, Reuters
With Biden winning the election and Obama baring his party’s internal divisions, the next four years could see an even greater split in the American Left.

During a press interview for his latest memoir, “A Promised Land,” former-President Barack Obama angered many on the political left by criticizing the activist phrase “Defund the police.” Obama called the phrase a “snappy slogan” that “[loses] 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.”

Defund the police,” both as a political rallying cry and social media hashtag, emerged this summer in response to police killings of Black individuals and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests. Calls for reforming police departments and the entire policing system has strong support among left-leaning Americans, though such reforms are resisted by conservatives.

Yet, even within America’s political Left, there is significant division. This divide is split between “liberals,” represented by mainstream Democrats like Obama and President-elect Joe Biden, and “leftists” (or “progressives”) who back the independent Senator Bernie Sanders and see the future of the Democratic Party in House Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.

Among these leftists, there was heated debate over whether they should vote for Biden or abstain from voting, with many “holding their nose” to vote for Biden merely to get President Donald Trump out of office. With Biden winning the election and Obama baring his party’s internal divisions, the next four years could see an even greater split in the American Left.

Obama criticizes “Defund the police”

In an interview with Peter Hambly on the Snapchat interview show Good Luck America, Obama addressed the phrase, “Defund the police,” comparing it to marketing:

“We take for granted if you want people to buy your sneakers, that you’re going to market it to your audience. If a musician drops a record, that they’re going to try to reach certain audiences by speaking to folks where they are. It’s no different in terms of ideas.”

Obama then went on to say that he supports reforming the criminal justice system “so that it’s not biased and treats everybody fairly.” However, he doesn’t believe the “Defund the Police” slogan is effective in communicating the policy aims and unnecessarily alienates potential allies in the cause.

In the media, Obama’s remarks were met with a range of reactions, from those who praised his remarks for being savvy and realistic, to those who decried his “cynical” centrism.

Writing in The Washington Post, Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, castigated Obama for “endorsing comity over confrontation.” Butler maintains that the issue is not with the phrase, arguing, “The people it turns off were unlikely to support the effort anyway.”

To support his argument, Butler points to a Gallup poll from July in which 58% of Americans said they supported major changes to policing in the United States (as opposed to 36% for minor changes and only 6% for no changes). However, that same poll finds there is “ambiguity in what defunding the police actually means.”

Only 47% of respondents supported “reducing police department budgets and shifting the money to social programs.” Even fewer people, across racial lines, supported abolishing police: “15% overall say they support it, with Black Americans (22%) and Hispanic Americans (20%) somewhat more likely than white Americans (12%) to do so.”

Still, members of Obama’s party pushed back on the idea that activists should be thinking like marketers. Representative Ocasio-Cortez, an admired young star in the party who supports democratic socialism, tweeted that it was not the job of political activists to be “PR firms for politicians.” She claims that the offensive nature of “Defund the police” is a feature, not a bug:

“The thing that critics of activists don’t get is that they tried playing the ‘polite language’ policy game and all it did was make them easier to ignore. It wasn’t until they made folks uncomfortable that there was traction to do ANYTHING even if it wasn’t their full demands. The whole point of protesting is to make ppl uncomfortable.”

The ambiguities of “Defund the police”

As the Gallup poll reveals, “Defund the police” has varied meanings, even among those who support it. To some advocates, it means abolishing the police altogether, while to others it means reallocating funds away from the police to other programs. Others merely use the term as a call for general police reform.

In his comments, Obama addressed that ambiguity, stating that the ideas need to be expressed more plainly. If they are, he argues, they’ll be more popular:

“Let’s reform the police department so that everybody’s being treated fairly, you know, divert young people from getting into crime, if there’s a homeless guy, can maybe we send a mental health worker there instead of an armed unit that could end up resulting in a tragedy? Suddenly a whole bunch of folks who might not otherwise listen to you are listening to you.”

The phrase “Defund the police” even has its detractors among leftists. In June, when the phrase was starting to gain traction, Senator Sanders spoke out against abolishing police forces in an interview with The New Yorker. He argued, instead, that police departments need funding for better training:

“I think we want to redefine what police departments do, give them the support they need to make their jobs better defined. So I do believe that we need well-trained, well-educated, and well-paid professionals in police departments. Anyone who thinks that we should abolish all police departments in America, I don’t agree.”

Like Obama, Sanders advocates for using mental health care workers to address community needs rather than police. He also calls for “the transformation of police departments.”

Nonetheless, there are many on the left who not only support reallocating funds from police departments, but who seek to abolish them altogether. Their argument is that police departments do more harm than good in Black and minority communities and should therefore be completely defunded.

In the July Gallup poll, 27% of Democrats supported abolishing the police and 33% of people between the ages of 18 and 34 were in favor of the idea.

The leftist/liberal divide

Political terminology is frequently confusing. For instance, in Gallup polling, American political divisions are labeled as “conservative,” “moderate” and “liberal.” Yet, leftists and liberals are distinct groups within the American Left.

Since the American two-party system all but ensures third parties don’t get much traction on the national stage, the two main parties (especially the Democrats) tend to encompass a wide range of political views. So, for example, Ocasio-Cortez can be both a member of the Biden-led Democratic Party and a self-described democratic socialist.

Adding to the confusion is that for many leftists, “liberalism” means “neoliberalism,” which is essentially just another word for conservative economic policies that insist the free market – not the government – is a better steward of the economy. Under Reagan, this economic viewpoint birthed “trickle-down economics,” a political philosophy that still undergirds much US economic policy.

Writing in New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait, a liberal journalist who has been critical of both Trump and leftists, explained it thusly: “The ubiquitous epithet [neoliberal] is intended to separate its target — liberals — from the values they claim to espouse. By relabeling self-identified liberals as ‘neoliberals,’ their critics on the left accuse them of betraying the historic liberal cause.”

John Broich, an Associate Professor at Case Western Reserve University, provides a basic definition of the two prevailing political halves of left-leaning politics in western countries like the US and the UK. He contends that the difference between liberalism and leftism is:

“The difference between a candidate who believes capitalism, with just a little refereeing, will eventually provide what working people need, versus a candidate who believes serious intervention in the capitalist economy is necessary.”

According to Broich, the liberalism of the modern Democratic Party emerged with President Bill Clinton, who mixed the economic philosophy of the conservative President Ronald Reagan with liberal social policies like support for legal abortion and civil rights.

In an interview with Chait published December 9, Obama acknowledged this very reality, stating of both himself and Clinton, “I think there was a residual willingness to accept the political constraints that we’d inherited from the post-Reagan era … And probably there was an embrace of market solutions to a whole host of problems that wasn’t entirely justified.”

Obama accepts there is an “element of truth” in the criticism that the Democratic Party embraced Republican neoliberalism. He counters, though, that even the biggest leftward moves in US history, in particular President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, have been built on compromise and didn’t go as far as leftists of the eras would have wanted.

“Sometimes we forget that these political constraints have always operated,” Obama explains.

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