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Jonathan Bernstein

Who Really Wants to Defund the Police?

Despite the slogans, Democrats in Congress have directed huge amounts of federal money to local police departments.

Inconvenient truths?

Inconvenient truths?

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty

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Okay, I’m cranky again. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki argued during her briefing that Democrats have supported police departments and that Republicans are the ones who have actually defunded them. The reality is complicated; in fact, this is probably a topic that would demonstrate the limits of fact-checking, because both parties could make reasonable arguments. 

It’s true that some activists, including a small number of Democratic politicians, support the abolition of police departments. A much larger group of activists and politicians has advocated for something called defunding the police, but that has in context meant a variety of things, some relatively radical and some not at all. On the other hand, as Psaki pointed out, Democrats in Congress have recently secured massive amounts of funding for state and local governments, over Republican objections, with a fair amount of that money specifically intended for local police departments that pandemic-strapped cities couldn’t afford.

So why am I cranky? Certainly not because politicians spin; I expect both parties to make their strongest case, deploy facts selectively and stretch the truth. No, I’m cranky because Republicans reacted to Psaki with ... I don’t quite know how to describe it. Outrage? Disbelief? They’re just incredulous that Democrats could consider their support for directing federal funds to local police departments — and Republican opposition to those efforts — relevant to the question of defunding the police. They aren’t claiming that the money didn’t actually go to the police; they just seem to consider “defunding the police” a sort of metaphysical position that has nothing to do with actual police-department budgets. Sure, symbolic politics can be important, but here symbolism is blocking out everything else.

All of this is, to be sure, related to the Republican Party’s difficulty in fashioning public policy. It’s also related to the Republican war on budgeting; having classified aid to state and local governments during the pandemic-induced recession as some sort of boondoggle intended to support Democratic politicians (even though the aid is flowing to states, counties and cities led by officials from both parties), they seem incapable of treating it as actual money that can pay for officer salaries and other such expenses, or indeed for any number of mundane things that governments do. In other words, funding they oppose is, by definition, waste. (There are Democrats who feel that way about military spending, but most of them understand that such funding actually pays for real military functions, even if they oppose some of those functions.)

At any rate, Michelle Goldberg has a nice column that touches on similar themes but in a different policy area — the quasi-fight over critical race theory. In both cases, there’s a reasonable argument to be had, but Republicans aren’t holding up their side of the dispute. Instead of specifying what they oppose and coming up with policies that would address it, they’re playing word games, followed in some cases with nonsense legislation that doesn’t address what’s happening in reality. This kind of rejection of real-world questions makes both meaningful politics and effective policy difficult.

And that makes me cranky.

1. Julia Azari at Mischiefs of Faction on political mandates and Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

2. Sarah Binder at the Monkey Cage on the state of play with infrastructure.

3. Steven S. Smith on U.S. House reapportionment.

4. Donald F. Kettl and Paul Glastris on rebuilding the federal government.

5. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Amanda Little on droughts and water disputes in the U.S. West.

6. Aaron Carroll on vaccine mandates.

7. And Stephania Taladrid on Lina Hidalgo.

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