If There's a Lesson to Be Learned From the 2020 Election, It Isn't 'Shut Up About Defunding the Police'

If There's a Lesson to Be Learned From the 2020 Election, It Isn't 'Shut Up About Defunding the Police'
Image: Elijah Nouvelage (Getty Images)

House Democrats are spiraling. While it appears as though Former Vice President Joe Biden is poised to win the 2020 presidential election—flipping a slew of states President Trump won in 2016 in the process—Democratic House and Senate races have had less joyous results. The fight to overtake the Republican-majority Senate is an increasingly uphill battle, and the Democratic majority House lost seats.

During a contentious call among House Democrats on Thursday, representatives griped about the negative impact that progressives have had on their campaigns. In a curse-laden rant, Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger said that “Tuesday was a failure,” and that Democrats should stop brushing off smears by Republican competitors in attack ads, explaining that even if their claims sound ridiculous, constituents could believe them. She also took issue with phrases like “defund the police” and “socialism” which she blames on House losses.

According to Spanberger, a primary concern for people in her district—one she acknowledges she “barely re-won”—was the idea of defunding the police.

“I heard from colleagues who have said ‘oh, it’s the language of the streets we should respect that,’” Spanberger said. “We’re in congress. We are professionals. We are supposed to talk about things in a way where we mean what we’re talking about. If we don’t mean we should defund the police, we shouldn’t say that.”

She added: “We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again… we lost good members because of that.”

This was a transparent jab at Congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, some of the few and most vocal members of Congress who have supported defunding police departments across the nation, in light of a series of police brutality incidents in spring and summer. While they were accused by some of their colleagues of getting too embroiled in activist lingo and sentiment, they stood firm to their positions. This didn’t hurt their own re-election efforts, but Spanberger is suggesting that Republicans jumping on the anti-police rhetoric destroyed their fellow Democrats in House races across the nation.

Valorizing the police and demonizing socialism are common tactics that speak to all-American values, so Spanberger’s argument would be believable and compelling if a little thing called ‘facts’ didn’t shit all over it. Language regarding policing didn’t move the needle enough for President Trump to sail to re-election on the campaign trail, and data suggests that the protests against police brutality may have helped bring Democrats to the voting booth.

According to TargetSmart political data analyst Tom Bonier, In May and June, Republicans were registering more voters than Democrats were. This changed dramatically during the summer of Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two unarmed black people who were killed by police officers. Democratic registration spiked, especially for voters under 25 and voters of color.

Chatter about defunding the police was massive at the height of these protests, and while it’s unlikely that newly registered voters were naive enough to believe that they could vote away police brutality, it’s not hard to imagine that they were motivated to oust President and a party that overwhelmingly reveled in villainizing protesters and threatening them with state violence.

And location matters. From pollster TargetSmart (emphasis ours):

Following the activism that took place after the murder of George Floyd and demands for justice and equality, along with states gradually re-opening around the country, we took this opportunity to check-in on voter registrations and reflections in the electoral process.
The earliest sign came from Georgia, as the state began allowing voters to cast early ballots in person for their June primary. We found a significant surge in turnout among Black voters, who comprised 35% of early ballots cast before the demonstrations, and 47% after they began. Youth intensity also surged as well, with voters under the age of 30 seeing their early vote share almost double in a day.

Atlanta was an epicenter of massive protests against police brutality, enough to make a delusional Sen. Kelly Loeffler claim protesters were poised to take over the state via mob rule. Now, Biden appears close to winning the majority of votes in the traditionally red state that voting rights activists like Stacey Abrams and other vital organizers took to the streets.

Democrats increased their margins in Atlanta as well as Minneapolis, the city where George Floyd was killed at the hands of a white police officer. Part of that is due to the groundwork of Omar, who represents a district in Minneapolis.

From the Washington Post:

Since the start of early voting in September, [Omar’s] campaign has been working to turn out every potential voter, including tens of thousands who sat out the 2016 election. The towns and counties of the Iron Range cast 180,023 votes four years ago; Hennepin County, home to Minneapolis, cast 679,977 votes. While the Biden-Harris campaign resisted in-person canvassing, Omar’s campaign kept doing it, hiring dozens of people to knock on doors and pull out votes. Trump would obviously keep attacking her, she said, so the goal was to motivate the Democrats who were sick of it.
“The only way we make sure that he keeps that promise is that we utilize what we know to be true about the 5th: that it is the voter engine of the Democratic Party in Minnesota,” Omar said. “It is our votes, here, that keep our state blue. It is our votes, here, that are going to make sure not only do we strongly win this state, but that we don’t see his face ever again.”

Trump tried to make Minnesota competitive following the protests. A win there would have validated his “law and order” messaging. But he couldn’t, largely due to Minneapolis. Omar’s aggressive door-knocking effort and the resentment toward aggressive policing and racial injustice worked in tandem to draw out the vote and keep the state blue.

Detroit, Tlaib’s turf, also saw a massive increase in votes with her help and the tireless work of activists on the ground attempting to avoid a 2016 repeat. It appears that the oh-so-scary police defunders managed to bring out voters in droves where it mattered most.

But because some Congressional candidates lost their races elsewhere, these same people are to blame. It doesn’t track.

Ocasio-Cortez performed her own autopsy of the failed House races in a Twitter thread and came to a damning conclusion. “Almost all had awful execution on digital,” she wrote. “DURING A PANDEMIC. […] If I spent only $12k on TV the week before an election & then blamed others after, you’d ask questions. That’s how it looks seeing this.”

The idea that Democrats failed to defend and overtake seats due to overly leftist messaging doesn’t quite hold up considering those who did win. Several Democratic co-sponsors of Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal won their races in swing districts. This includes Ann Kirkpatrick in Arizona and Jared Golden in Maine. Susan Wild is leading in her race in Pennsylvania, and the whiteboard queen Katie Porter handily won re-election as well.

Republicans happily characterize the progressive health and environmental policy as Marxism gone amuck. But this clearly isn’t an inherently loosing message. Florida has only become more Republican in the last several years on the state and local level. And yet, the voters supported a $15 minimum wage increase during Tuesday’s election and granted formerly incarcerated people the right to vote in 2018. These are both causes that the left has championed, and they won in a state Donald Trump has carried twice.

Republican fixation on policing and socialism often act more as dog whistles of racial grievance than coherent objections to healthcare, cleaner air, and police accountability. Instead of falling for them, Democrats should focus on organizing on the ground and make these issues as popular as national polling suggests they already are, so that constituents won’t be susceptible to right-wing scare tactics.

But it’s easier for Spanberger and those like her to point the finger at the left than look inward. They’ll fall for the right’s fear-mongering just as easily as the voters they curse for doing the same. A candidate in favor of defunding the police might not always be the right candidate for every district, but it’s evident that when a middle of the road moderate like Spanberger and others reclaim their House seats by the skin of their teeth, there’s likely more than just the specter of The Squad to blame.

Unfortunately, this debate will only be rehashed all over again thanks to the upcoming Senate runoff races in Georgia. Get ready, it’s about to be a shitty ride.

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