The uprisings that have swept across America in recent weeks have left the Democratic Party in a very tricky spot, because they underline the emptiness at the heart of modern American liberalism like nothing else in living memory.
People get very riled up when anyone suggests that Democrats and Republicans are, at a core level, working to uphold the legitimacy of the same political system, but it is hard to fathom how that can be denied given what we have all witnessed over the past few weeks. All over the country, police in cities run from top to bottom by Democrats brutalized protesters for days on end with the overwhelming support of the elected officials who are supposedly in charge of them. Even when the brutality reached levels that shocked even the wooliest moderate, Democratic mayors and governors stood firm.
For so many people in the streets, it is Democrats, not Republicans, who are the most direct source of pain right now. For so many people, it is Democrats, not Republicans, who oversee the police budgets that soak up astonishing amounts of available cash while other vital services are starved. It is Democrats, not Republicans, who have presided over generations of police criminality. (To name just one example: Chicago, a city whose police department implemented systems of torture and disappearance that could rival the CIA, has been run by Democrats continuously since 1931.) It is Democrats, not Republicans, who have led so many of the hollow police “reform” movements that tinkered around the edges while leaving the violent, racist structures of American policing fully intact. That’s all without even getting into the bipartisan expansion of the criminal justice system that Democrats happily embraced for decades. The American police state as it is currently constituted could not exist without the participation and support of the Democratic Party. It’s as simple as that.
Yet Democrats have also expended endless amounts of energy trying to show that they’re in solidarity with the current protest movement. Every Democrat is now dutifully saying words like “systemic racism” and “black lives matter,” and talking about “fundamental reform,” whether or not they are actually planning to make fundamental reforms. Every white Democrat knows they have to assure their audience that they are trying to work through their white privilege. This kind of gesture politics reached its possible apogee on Monday, when congressional leaders took a knee in honor of George Floyd while wearing Kente cloth. (The less said about that the better.)
To put it mildly, there is a fundamental incoherence between these two realities. Democrats are loudly talking about overhauling the system, but across the country, they are the ones upholding it, and this cognitive dissonance is becoming increasingly untenable. As a New Yorker, I have been focusing my rage on Bill de Blasio—a man who rose to power on the backs of the police reform movement but whose total embrace of recent NYPD violence has destroyed his reputation to the extent that even the people who work for him are stunned and appalled—but he is far from alone. Witness the thrilling moment out of Minneapolis this weekend, when Mayor Jacob Frey attempted to quell protesters by telling them how much the recent unrest in his city had torn him apart, only to be sent fleeing when he refused to commit to defunding the police.
Democrats have clearly sensed this anger, because they are rushing to try and respond. Unfortunately, they are mostly responding by pushing for—you guessed it—further police reform. House and Senate leaders unveiled a reform plan on Monday, and mayors across the country are sending similar signals. (De Blasio, for instance, has talked about shifting resources from the NYPD to youth programs without providing any further details whatsoever.) Meanwhile, a Joe Biden spokesperson told reporters that Biden does not support defunding the police, but instead wants to do—you guessed it—more reform. (The spokesperson even mentioned body cameras.) There are notable exceptions to this—the Minneapolis City Council pledged to “dismantle” the city’s police department, though how it’s going to do that remains unclear—but not many thus far.
People should see these moves for what they are: wholly inadequate attempts to harness the energy of the protests and redirect them onto more politically comfortable paths. It has been proven, time and again, that police “reform” is not enough, but Democrats, as ever, are trying to keep the system afloat. Meanwhile, familiar rumblings are stirring: the movement is going too far, white people will be alienated, the protests could even make Trump win.
It is crucial that protesters don’t give into any of this, and keep demanding that only defunding and/or abolishing the police will do.
The point of radical protest and organizing is not to hand elected officials a politically palatable menu of reforms they can use. It is to force an expansion of political space, to turn ideas that once seemed outlandish into ones that seem common sense, and to maintain relentless pressure on any political system that seeks to stand in the way of real change. No meaningful movement for social justice has ever started by making demands that the political class wanted to embrace right away. Universal suffrage, the end of slavery, women’s liberation, queer rights—all of these movements were told they were moving too fast, and all of them were only successful when they kept going anyway. There has already been a dramatic shift in what feels politically possible just because of the last couple of weeks of protest. Minds are being changed all over the country. Imagine what can happen if political leaders are not allowed to hide behind the cover of reform and call it a day.
Democrats must be made to understand that they are playing with fire here. The gap between the level of change that is needed in America and the level of change that Democrats are prepared to implement is dangerous for them—maybe not immediately, but certainly over time. When a political project is no longer able to show that it has any relevance to peoples’ actual lives, it is at risk of dying. Democrats should remember that. They must be told, over and over again, that what they are doing is not good enough. Only then will they even begin to approach what needs to be done.