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The Misguided Urge to Declare Victory Over Progressive Ideas

Moderate and centrist Democrats who triumphed in the recent mayoral elections have been too quick to adopt Republican attack points, particularly when it comes to calls for reforming policing.

The runoff race for mayor in Atlanta features the more conservative City Council President Felicia Moore (left) against the more progressive citywide Councilman Andre Dickens (right). (AP)
Democrats who won this month’s mayoral elections should not declare their victories to be referendums for or against socialism or “defunding the police” — two bogeymen that conservatives have tarred and feathered. These declarations by some Democratic candidates, including African Americans, have steadily gained traction since the election of President Biden and have intensified Republican attacks on critical race theory and voting rights. Given the fact that many Americans are still without adequate health care and paid family leave, and are continuously being victimized by the police, it is particularly unwise and politically naïve for Democrats to be celebrating their victories as triumphs over liberalism or progressive politics.

What is needed instead is for Democratic public officials, at all levels, to develop a clear message to help everyday Americans realize that programs that expand the social safety net, such as the president’s Build Back Better Act, serve their needs better than the austerity measures and obsession with peripheral issues like CRT offered by Republicans. Adopting the attack points of the opposition party, though it may be helpful in the short term, will have disastrous consequences in the long term.

To be sure, all of the mayors who were elected or re-elected will be met with difficult times. But they need to govern in a serious manner and leave the defining of their victories to journalists and historians who cover and study local politics.

In many cases this has not happened. Long-time Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, a write-in candidate after he was soundly defeated in the June Democratic primary by socialist India Walton, proclaimed victory in the general election after a major effort by conservative and moderate Democrats to defeat Walton. Brown declared that his apparent win was a harbinger of the coming deaths of socialism and calls for defunding the police. Mayor-elect Eric Adams of New York said pretty much the same after his razor-thin primary victory back in August, when he won only 31 percent of the first-place votes in the city’s ranked-choice balloting.

In the Atlanta mayoral election last week, all of the major candidates except one pledged to hire more police. Former Mayor Kasim Reed, who finished third in a race that attracted 14 candidates and who was endorsed by the police union, emphasized the need to provide more “due process rights” to police officers accused of wrongdoing. What a change from the historic protests we witnessed little more than a year ago when millions took to the streets and demanded justice and protection from police abuses after several high-profile killings of African Americans.

I do not believe that the slogan of defunding the police has utility in today’s debate over police reform, and its meaning has been manipulated and made toxic by the opponents of progressive politics — the same ones the Democratic moderates are following now. But as confusing as the slogan is, it represents a siren blaring out for reform and eradication of aggressive policing, not a call to leave communities defenseless from criminals, as detractors claimed. The deliberate obfuscation of police reform in the wake of a spike of violence led, for example, to the defeat of a Minneapolis ballot initiative to replace the police department with a department of public safety — something some cities did nearly 50 years ago.

I am not unaware of the fact that communities that were once predominantly Black working-class ones that tended to support more-progressive Democrats have, due largely to gentrification, become more diverse racially, economically and politically. Many whites who are moving into cities and close-in suburbs are younger and usually less tied to Democratic Party politics. And it goes without saying that many of them are concerned about escalating crime that has engulfed cities and suburbs alike. It’s not surprising that many of the residents in these areas want more, not fewer, police.

But the problem with the abandonment of serious efforts to reform policing and settle instead for simply hiring more police officers is that it does not change the structural problems or culture of policing. The importance of the DFP movement was that it called attention to the need to radically reform policing from its roots up and, in the South, disentangle it from its dodgy links to slavery. Recent commitments to train new officers and retrain current ones in what some have referred to as a post-George Floyd manner have yet to be fulfilled. Only time will determine the efficacy of this promise if it ever gets to the stage of implementation.

The recent string of moderate mayoral victories has also caused many to claim that the progressive calls for major structural changes across the country are out of touch with what the majority of the American people want. And although I doubt that this can be substantiated, it has devolved into efforts to curtail the need for radical reforms in general, such as Medicare for all, free public higher education and paid family leave. Most of these reforms have implications for local government, but none like that of police reform.

It’s true that the fight for political victory is usually a fight to win the center. This is how we ended up with a President Biden instead of a President Sanders. It’s why centrist candidates won in both Buffalo and New York City over both more conservative and more progressive ones. But there have been notable exceptions to this trend, such as in St. Louis, where progressive Mayor ​​Tishaura Jones won in April.

The runoff race for mayor in Atlanta features the more conservative City Council President Felicia Moore against the more progressive citywide Councilman Andre Dickens. What happens in the Nov. 30 runoff in the cradle of the civil rights movement will say much about the state of Black politics in America and whether the links between those politics and progressive and grass-roots democracy have been weakened or broken altogether.

Whatever the outcome in Atlanta and elsewhere, the rush to find meaning in the recent victories by moderates is misguided and insulting to large swaths of progressive citizens who merely want to be safe in their communities, earn a living wage and enjoy the benefits of living in an advanced democracy. My advice as a long-time participant and student of local politics, someone who has seen the political trends ebb and flow, is for victorious candidates, if they have to say anything, to merely say this: “Thank you for giving me the honor to serve as your leader. I will never betray your trust.”

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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