American public opinion is undergoing a transformative change in the wake of the George Floyd protests. Three-quarters of the country supports the demonstrations. An equal percentage believe Floyd’s death is a sign of broader problems in how police treat black Americans. A new poll by HuffPost finds broad support for a wide array of police reform measures.
The only policy HuffPost found clear opposition to was defunding the police:
Some activists have framed the divide in racial terms. There is some racial difference in opinion on defunding the police, but it is relatively small. Black people hate the idea (29 percent favor, 49 percent oppose) somewhat less than white people do (29 percent/60 percent), but both groups register clear opposition:
This lack of a racial split may seem surprising given the tenor of the commentary around the issue. In some ways it reflects the same divide that took place during the Democratic primary, when Twitter magnified the impact of young, college-educated progressives and minimized the beliefs of older and working-class Americans. Many black voters have seen under-policing and over-policing of their communities as linked problems, rather than as alternatives.
HuffPost also found most people understand the slogan to mean significant reductions in police budgets, rather than the more radical meaning of complete abolition that was proposed by activists in Minneapolis:
Of course, activists don’t always have a strong incentive to follow public opinion or to form demands that have clear definitions. They are often calculating slogans designed to bring together factions of the most committed activists within their coalition. “Defund the police” allows both advocates of reduced budgets and advocates of eliminating all policing to believe the movement is endorsing their position.
Indeed, people who work in protest movements on the left or the right have an incentive not to align with majority public opinion. Their incentive is to distinguish themselves from mainstream opinion as authentic voices of the movement. A policy demand that presidential candidates or congressional leaders can easily take up is almost by definition not radical. Conservative grassroots politics often organizes around demands like shutting down the government or defunding Obamacare that are designed to force leaders to take unpopular stances. The goal is to test the depth of commitment by political leaders by forcing them to adopt unpopular positions.
Many progressives have allowed some of these arguments to persuade them that defunding the police is actually a popular idea. “The movement to defund the police is gaining significant support across America,” reported the Guardian. Numerous left-wing critics have lambasted Democratic elected officials for rejecting the demand to defund the police. The Intercept described Joe Biden’s call for more police funding along with deep reforms “a striking rejection of the growing movement demanding better use of public dollars.” The New Republic laments, “As the momentum behind the demand grows, policymakers struggle to accept it at face value.”
It is entirely possible that activists are pursuing a correct strategy, by outlining a radical stance that allows Democratic leaders to reject their demands and position themselves in the center of public opinion while still proposing serious reforms. The activists may be playing a kind of kayfabe role, which requires them to flout public opinion and for political leaders to flout their demands.
The risk of this method is that some activists will take the rhetoric seriously and actually believe that the politicians who oppose defunding the police are reactionary impediments to change, rather than accepting that they are doing what their constituents want.
In any case, the overall shape of public opinion is quite favorable for the left. The protests have helped create widespread demand for real change to police practices. The end result may feel like a defeat to protesters because their primary slogan will be rejected, but the end result may be a lot of good that not long ago would have seemed inconceivable.