While outside the area of climate change policy, the concept and slogan of “defunding the police” is revealing about important dynamics between progressive activist politics and policy-making by those who actually win power.
As The Economist reported in 2021:
The critical division is over whether or not the plan is a pretext to “defund the police”. Opponents insist it is sloganeering masquerading as policy. Shortly after Floyd’s murder, a majority of the city council appeared at a rally at Powderhorn Park on a stage in front of which “DEFUND POLICE” appeared in gigantic block letters. “The narrative all along until maybe five months ago, six months ago, was that they would be defunding the police and allocating the money elsewhere. The only thing that’s changed is the political winds,” says Mr Frey. He insists that alternatives to policing can still be funded without modifying the city charter, and that, if anything, more funding for the police is needed: “Right now, in Minneapolis, we have fewer officers per capita than just about every major city in the entire country.”
Advocates for reform have adjusted their language. As with the civil-rights movement, “those farthest on the left are what pushed the movement…we shifted the narrative from reform to defund,” says Sheila Nezhad, a community organiser running for mayor who is posing a stiff challenge to Mr Frey. Having contributed to a report on policing that argued that “abolition is the only way forward”, Ms Nezhad now avoids such rhetoric on the campaign trail, preferring words like “reinvest”. Kate Knuth, another candidate for mayor who supports the reform, says: “My vision of a department of public safety absolutely includes police,” funded at the same levels as today.
Public opinion in favour of “defunding” police departments was never high. The increase in violent crime has made it even less so.
In June 2020, 41% of Democrats told survey-takers for the Pew Research Centre that they wished to reduce local police budgets. By September 2021 that had shrunk to 25%. Among the general public, support declined from 25% to 15%.
I would say the dynamics of this movement mirror many of those in the progressive, intersectional, anti-capitalist climate justice movement. People who are sympathetic to the kind of analysis and solutions within the movement embrace them enthusiastically and selectively surround themselves to people who agree, losing touch with public opinion and losing the ability to influence people who don’t mostly agree with them already. This leads to policy proposals that over-reach what is politically plausible (abolish global capitalism!) but, because they feel swollen with moral superiority about their analysis and policy preferences, activists reject the public rather than revise their proposals. They end up powerless and isolated, but feeling like the moral lords of the universe. Because they see their opponents as so contemptible, the idea of developing an approach with broader electoral support is rejected both pragmatically and emotionally, in the first case because they can’t see how cooperating with such awful people will lead to an outcome they want, and in the second case because their revulsion and contempt makes them reject cooperation before even considering what it would involve.
The biggest thing we need to achieve to have a chance against climate change is to split the conservative side of the population between those with respect for empirical truth who won’t dismantle climate change protections to try to win popularity and the fantasists who either deny the reality of climate change altogether or dismiss the need to act on it. The latter would then hopefully be a small enough rump to be politically marginal. Something comparable on the left may be a helpful parallel development, characterized by the rejection of the idea that everyone who disagrees with progressivism can be ignored or converted. Recognizing that multiple political perspectives can be simultaneously valid is the basis of pluralism and the foundation of the central democratic concept that the defeated must acknowledge the legitimacy of the victors. Without that, politics becomes an anarchic ideological contest in which any tactic can be justified and where a coherent and effective agenda serving the public interest cannot arise.