House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), arguably the country’s most powerful Black lawmaker, doubled down this weekend on centrist Democrats’ claims that calls to “defund the police” cost the party crucial seats in this year’s elections.
The comments, made on CNN’s State of the Union and NBC’s Meet the Press fanned the flames of a heated debate that broke out among Democrats last week, as progressives and moderate Democrats clashed about what the results of the 2020 election meant for the party going forward.
On Thursday, as votes were still being counted in key battleground states, Rep. Clyburn warned that if Democrats ran on socialized medicine and defunding the police, “we’re not going to win” Senate runoff races in Georgia come January.
He returned to that talking point on CNN, imparting that he and the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) had concluded that calls to defund the police “had the possibilities of doing to the Black Lives Matter movement and current movements across the country what ‘Burn, baby, burn’ did to us back in 1960.”
“We lost that movement over that slogan,” said the veteran politician and former activist. “Burn, baby, burn,” was a popular refrain during the 1965 Watts Riots, and in the unrest that followed the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., USA Today notes.
On NBC, Clyburn said he believed the slogan cost freshman Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.) his bid for reelection this year, despite the fact that Cunningham didn’t run on that message. That didn’t stop Cunningham’s Republican opponent, Nancy Mace, from implying otherwise, running Facebook ads rallying her supporters to “defend, not defund the police.”
He also blamed Jamie Harrison’s loss to longtime South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham on the abolitionist slogan, despite Harrison explicitly saying he opposes “all of these efforts to defund the police.”
“Defund the police,” a slogan popularized this year during months of nationwide protests against racist, unjust policing, is rooted in the prison abolition movement. In order to end the country’s bloated mass incarceration problem, public safety itself must be reimagined to be less reliant on policing, activists say.
The disagreement on what policies the party should support will likely not be resolved any time soon. As the Washington Post reported last Thursday, a conference call among congressional Democrats saw centrists, stung by underwhelming performances in House and Senate races across the country, blamed progressive stances like police abolition and universal healthcare for costing the party seats. However, the vast majority of candidates who lost their races did not support these policies, while several who did—members of “The Squad” for instance—cruised to reelection.
Multiple polls throughout the year have shown that calls to abolish police didn’t resonate with a majority of Americans, even at the height of racial justice protests over police brutality. However, many did support “major changes” to policing.
Even if candidates didn’t personally vouch for defunding the police or other “far-left” policies like “Medicare for All” (which several surveys have shown to be quite popular among Democrats and the wider electorate), moderates fear that the prevalence of such slogans could make it easier for Republicans to smear them as “socialists.”
This may be true, but it’s also important to weigh how much this can actually be avoided. Former President Barack Obama was routinely called a socialist by Republicans during his 2012 reelection bid. The same was also true of Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris, both of whom were accused of being socialists despite their mixed legislative and professional records. Their ticket won the most votes out of any other in presidential history.