The notion that Democrats can wrest the pro-police mantle from Republicans is far-fetched. The contours of the debate right now have little to do with staffing levels during economic recessions or how much police officers’ lives are respected or honored as they navigate their very difficult jobs. In reality, the debate is about what role the police should play in our society and what communities they’re meant to be protecting.
The heart of the matter is a racialized culture war over “law and order” — a reactionary concept with deep roots in American history that was popularized by Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential run. Under the law-and-order ethos, aggressive policing represents a bulwark against social change and struggles for racial equality, and is seen as a way to deal with poverty and social dysfunction through imprisonment and surveillance. The law-and-order ethos was a critical tool in the Southern Strategy toolkit, an electoral strategy that sought to win over white voters in the South by appealing to racism against Black Americans.
Democrats simply cannot win the “who’s more aligned with the police” debate unless they want to lean into the kind of white racial resentment politics that Republicans have mastered to monopolize the white conservative vote. That would mean giving up any ambition of reforming policing, dropping their commitment to multicultural democracy and turning their backs on anti-poverty programs as a way to deal with inequality. Fortunately, the Democrats are not going to do that. But that’s bad news for this new pro-police pivot.