Capitulating on policing and violence was among the greatest blunders of the 2022 midterms.
By the time election day rolled around on November 8, the narrative was unavoidable: Democrats were hurting their chances by being too soft on crime. Almost no one did more to reinforce that narrative than Democrats themselves, who engaged in endless public hand-wringing and were often at pains to emphasize just how eagerly they wanted to fund the police. Aside from candidates who ran on criminal-justice reforms, Democrats showed very little interest in meaningfully shifting policies or even the conversation around cops, incarceration, and violence.
This lack of will and strategy only helped to fuel a trope Republicans spent good money to promote through a barrage of racist attack ads, including quite a few aimed at Mandela Barnes’ Senate campaign here in Wisconsin. Democrats came through the midterms much better than expected, but as always, one suspects they would have felt more at home in the fug of defeat.
Back up a bit and consider what a catastrophic and avoidable failure this represents. This is a live issue in American politics because police murder people. And yet, as Kandist Mallett concluded in a prescient analysis for Teen Vogue, “As far as I can tell, the real winners of the midterm elections will be the police, no matter which party ends up in power.”
Since the uprisings of 2020, Democrats have utterly failed to tap into the energy of a historic mass movement, and often participated in the backlash to that movement. They failed to hold cops accountable for abusing the American public with chemical weapons, projectiles, war tactics, and their own vehicles. Democrats were so preoccupied with activating change-averse milquetoast white liberals that they forgot people willing to take to the streets could, just maybe, in theory, be activated too, if only they’d lead. They missed an opportunity to bring more radical and more cautious voters into some kind of coalition around the issue of policing and prisons. It would have been an uneasy, fractious coalition, but a hell of a lot better than fumbling the issue entirely. Instead of any number of productive courses of action, Democrats have kept up their eternal search for some elusive, perfectly tepid setting on the political thermostat.
More than two years out from the murder of George Floyd, we’ve got very little substantive change to show. What we do have is a pernicious, completely fabricated narrative that non-existent “defunding” of cops has caused a spike in violent crime, attributing an effect to a cause that never actually happened. It’s bad enough that right-wing voters are irrevocably lost to these false narratives, and even worse that Democrats somehow think it’s politically wise to help fuel them.
Both before and after Barnes’ loss to incumbent Senator Ron Johnson, we’ve heard no end of bleating about the fact that he’s occasionally signaled support for cutting police budgets and abolishing ICE. To hear it from a whole assortment of Wisconsin’s most tedious blowhards—Tom Nelson (a self-serving horse’s ass to the end), Charlie Sykes (Stop! Rehabilitating! This guy!), Dave Ciezlewicz (Who dwells in a reality where the “hard left” or “far left” has more influence than it does over here in our reality)—this, plus talking like a grown-up about slavery and genocide, ruined Barnes’ chances.
The air has been thick with advice. “Obviously, [Democrats] should respond if attacked, demonstrating respect for the police and rejecting defunding. But they should move as quickly as possible to change the subject, preferably to the cost of living, where Democrats have a real policy offer and pose a real electoral choice,” Stanley B. Greenberg wrote in The American Prospect five days before the election. “Democrats won’t figure out how to square electoral imperatives on crime with moral ones in time for the 2022 election, and they will suffer for it at the polls,” David A. Graham wrote in The Atlantic, correctly identifying feckless, indecisive handling of the crime issue as the real problem. A couple days after the election, a fellow with the right-wing Manhattan Institute offered some undoubtedly good-faith pointers on “How Democrats can win back trust on the issue of crime” in the Washington Post.
Writing in The Appeal a few days after the election, journalists Jerry Iannelli and Nick Wing offered a compelling case that the crime issue did not actually turn out to be the fatal liability so many people across the political spectrum made it out to be. Some Democrats who ran on criminal-justice reform did surprisingly well in state and local district attorney and attorney general races around the country, though as Lauren-Brooke Eisen of the Brennan Center explains, that’s still a mixed bag. Certainly crime ended up being a big factor for a lot of voters, but some exit polls show that abortion and inflation were far more decisive issues in the midterms. And even if crime is a big liability for Democrats in the way a lot of people portray it, they can overcome it by appealing to voters on other issues. People will support a candidate with whom they disagree on given issues, even ones important to them, if they’re on board with that candidate’s overall platform.
Barnes came very close to winning an extremely tough race, one where state and national Democrats made some terrible decisions that might have impacted turnout in a close election. There are too many factors at work to blame it all on Barnes holding a T-shirt one time. And sure, there’s some fault with Barnes, a very good candidate who’s at his best when he’s not equivocating about things. “The biggest problem with these two stances was that Barnes waffled trying to appeal to moderates,” Tone Madison‘s Christina Lieffring correctly pointed out about the police funding and ICE issues.
To his credit, Barnes did a much better job staying consistent on his proposal to eliminate cash bail. This was actually a pretty middle-of-the-road proposal. It would have given a judge the ability to keep a potentially violent person charged with a crime in custody. Johnson and his supporters blatantly lied about this, claiming that Barnes’ approach would have freed Darrell Brooks Jr., who was out on bail when he drove his car through a crowd at a Waukesha Christmas parade in November 2021, killing six people. Republicans have tried to whip up an entire scandal out of Brooks getting out on bail, exploiting a horrific tragedy in the most grotesque possible way.
Some of the media coverage around the bail issue was helpful and clarifying, and some of it was ridiculous. A Time Magazine article published on November 4 gave Johnson lots of space to bloviate about crime. An incredible 47 paragraphs in—yes, I counted—its author, Molly Ball, finally points out that Johnson’s claims about Barnes’ bail proposal are inaccurate. Meanwhile, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels was advancing an arbitrary and illegal proposal to suspend parole, a far more outrageous adjustment to our carceral system.
The real scandal here is not that “crime is up”—a generalization that we must always take with a barrel of salt—or that violent offenders escape the system’s clutches only to hurt and kill more people. The scandal is that we don’t have an actual public-safety apparatus worthy of the name in this country. Our leaders have failed to think about all sorts of different interventions throughout a person’s life that could have steered them away from harmful and destructive behavior and instead invest billions upon billions in the absolutely wrong tools for the job. We keep making the same decisions on crime while expecting different outcomes. Meanwhile, politicians knowingly abandon people to death or grievous injury at the hands of the cops.
Oh, and the people they’re abandoning are largely people of color and poor people in cities. The very people who save Democrats’ ungrateful asses in high-turnout elections with razor-thin margins when the elusive moderate swing voter—who exists more in theory than in practicality—once again fails to come through. These absolutely crucial Democratic voters, of course, have a wide range of opinions about crime and policing. Treating them as monolithic would be a mistake. There’s a complexity we’ve got to wrestle with there. But it is absolutely unconscionable and politically destructive to give into racist right-wing political messaging that dehumanizes city dwellers and encourages police violence.
There is a question here of what we accept as a fixed condition and what we think we can change. It only makes sense for Democrats to go along with tough-on-crime hokum if one A.) is a craven ghoul and B.) assumes that the majority of the public is locked into thinking about crime in the most simplistic terms, not open to looking at it in a different light, completely hostile to changing up the policy approach.
Our national obsession with crime and punishment is not an organic or inevitable thing. It came about because politicians, cops, prosecutors, and establishment media outlets have invested a great deal of time, money, and energy into advancing certain narratives about crime on a daily basis throughout the history of this country. Liberal and leftist politicians are not powerless to challenge those narratives.
It’s an uphill battle, and yes, it comes with some risk of electoral backlash. But capitulating and failing to lead guarantees defeat in the long run. So would repeating President Joe Biden’s mistakes on crime. Acknowledging the obstacles to change is reasonable. Surrendering to those obstacles preemptively is just silly.
If Democrats are serious about confronting threats to democracy, they must acknowledge the role cops play in those threats. Police and prosecutors will be the ones enforcing abortion bans. They’ll help Republicans suppress the vote—already are doing that in places including Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis created an election-specific police force, and in Wisconsin, where Assembly Speaker Robin Vos assembled a fake election investigation that, thankfully, was too unhinged and inept to end up doing much real damage. Wherever right-wing politicians manage to enact increasingly extreme, repressive policies, police will be there. When people form fascist, white supremacists groups or try to violently overturn elections, it turns out a lot of cops are in the mix there too.
No amount of compromise and moderation will change the fact that police and police unions are, overwhelmingly, aligned with the political right. Police are functionally ungovernable and they know it. Caving to them over and over again will not somehow get them on board with incremental reforms. Time after time, police and police unions have responded to even the most modest checks on their authority with lies and tantrums. Sure, plenty of police officials out there have expressed openness to reform and positioned themselves as more enlightened, even endorsing Democratic candidates with whom they find common ground on issues like gun control. Even they will ultimately end up enabling the most violent and regressive tendencies of policing. A Democratic Party worth supporting would find some leverage and exact some concessions. You know, confront police like the actual political opponents they are.
The only way out is through. Police are going to rant and rage for greater power and more funding no matter what Democrats do, just as Republicans will continue to paint even the most conservative Democrats as radical leftists (ah, if only) no matter what Democrats do. Right-wing politicians will continue to attack press freedom no matter how pliantly some media outlets advance fearmongering narratives about crime or unquestioningly repeat the claims in police reports. Cops and the right will continue to portray cities as crime-ridden hellholes, including cities where the mayors are former cops and sure act like it, namely Chicago and New York. There is no placating them, there is no winning through weakness, and there is no way to out-“tough on crime” a Republican Party that openly embraces authoritarianism, racism, and political violence.
I’m not suggesting that a majority or even a plurality of Democratic voters will come around to supporting full-on abolition of police and prisons anytime soon. I am suggesting that a majority of Democratic voters would respond well to some actual leadership on this issue, that even a lot of people who support the police will be amenable to a more balanced approach in our public budgeting, and to greater checks on police impunity.
Show people a real plan for investing in their safety and well-being. Insist on real, robust funding for health, housing, and education. Build systems for holding people accountable without the involvement of police and prisons, using the extensive work abolitionists have done to develop those approaches. And yeah, take some of the money to do that from cops, and don’t apologize for it. Put Republicans in the position of having to explain, at every turn, why they think we have to fund cops to the max and can’t do anything else. Force them to try and justify a stance that cuts off even the possibility of exploring different solutions. Draw attention to the success stories of alternate models. Build more successes. Draw attention to them. Proudly, without apology. Shift the frame of debate, and maybe some day the carceral right and its liberal accomplices will find themselves, finally, at a disadvantage.