How politics became a battle for your attention

If politics is about democratic self-government — a community’s effort to enact policies that concretely improve its members’ lives and ameliorate injustices — it’s hard to see how the undeniable viral potency of “Defund the Police” had anything other than a negative political effect, since in addition to giving ammunition to the right, it may well have contributed to the weaker-than-expected showing for Democrats in House, Senate, state, and local races around the country in 2020.

But if politics is about enhancing the power of left-wing activists to command attention — to get them seen and heard, to shape the national conversation, even in a way that ultimately yields electoral and policy setbacks in the short term — then the slogan was remarkably successful.

That’s the politics of sloganeering in a nutshell, and it obviously works exactly the same way on the right, transforming the ability to grab attention (positive or negative) into the most salient measure of political power, regardless of ideology. In such a political ecosystem, generating outrage and disgust can be as potent as inspiring respect or adulation. And the worst thing of all — the most egregious fault by far, the surest sign of political powerlessness — is to inspire boredom or indifference.