Analysis: How Gov. Greg Abbott's attack on 'defunding the police' has divided Texas Democrats

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a recent news conference. - Courtesy Photo / Office of the Governor
Courtesy Photo / Office of the Governor
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a recent news conference.
Even before Gov. Greg Abbott made it official in his State of the State speech last month, it was clear that policing or, more euphemistically, “public safety,” was emerging as a major partisan flashpoint in the current legislative session.

Republican candidates pounced on the “defund the police” slogan that emerged from protests following the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police last summer, and it has become an article of faith among both Democrats and Republicans that this — and the “Back the Blue” response to it — contributed to GOP candidates’ ability to hold the line in the 2020 election in Texas.

Some fundamental premises about Democratic voters’ views of this are oversimplified or just plain wrong. Whether the assumptions result from poor political communication by hapless Democrats, opportunistic and effective framing by Republicans or some mixture, Democrats created an opportunity for Abbott to amplify a divide in their coalition. Before that, the overwhelming focus — in the wake of the GOP’s generally poor handling of the pandemic and Donald Trump’s graceless defeat — had been on the divisions within the Republican Party.

Pivoting from a focus on racism and policing to an emphasis on police funding and public safety creates cross-pressures for Texans of color — particularly those who are Democrats. Those voters’ attitudes, according to public opinion polling in Texas, are more mixed and complex than common assumptions about Democratic orthodoxy on police issues.

Texans of color, as a group, are more amenable to the Democratic Party on a number of issues that shape responses to police abuses, such as support for social justice and anti-racism policies.

However, casting Democrats as the party of ill-considered efforts to “defund the police” provided the governor and his party the obvious opportunity to portray the slogan as a threat to public safety. Abbott’s approach isn’t going to send Democrats flocking to the GOP, but it is likely to create serious cross-pressures among them — namely, a conflict between responding forcefully to racist and abusive police practices while at the same time holding a very real desire for the safety that accompanies effective law enforcement and policing where one lives.

The foundation for recognizing these cross-pressures is evident in a basic fact of public opinion in Texas: Democrats as a group aren’t clamoring for “defunding the police.” In fact, only 29% of Democratic voters in February 2021 University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling said they would decrease local police spending, while a majority would either leave police spending unchanged (39%) or even increase it (24%). Those are similar to October 2020 results, in the heat of the election and only a few months after George Floyd’s killing.

Where the rhetoric of defunding the police really places Democratic elected officials in a bind is within their coalition: While 41% of white, liberal Democrats say that they would decrease police spending in their communities, only 24% of non-white Democrats say the same. In October 2020 UT/TT polling, the share of white, liberal Democrats in favor of decreasing police spending surged to 60%, but the share of non-white Democrats who endorsed that position was significantly lower, at 23%. Together, these two groups make up 91% of Democratic voters (34% white liberal; 57% non-white Democrats).

The governor’s focus on crime and public safety also gains resonance from the documented tendency of Americans to believe there is more crime than actually exists. “Americans tend to believe crime is up, even when the data shows it is down,” a 2020 Pew report observed after looking at public opinion data in conjunction with crime data. The report cites two decades of data to this effect. “In 20 of 24 Gallup surveys conducted since 1993,” the authors write, “at least 60% of U.S. adults have said there is more crime nationally than there was the year before, despite the generally downward trend in national violent and property crime rates during most of that period.”

That common bias in perceptions of crime allows Abbott to talk about crime and public safety as major concerns in Texas — even when most Texans say they feel safe where they live when asked to focus on their communities. He finds a ready audience in Republican voters, who are much less likely to navigate cross-currents in their thinking: Only 4% say that they want police spending decreased in their communities, and a majority, 59%, want spending increased.

The internal conflict among Democrats around policing and safety should not obscure this: When issues of racism and social justice are explicitly at the forefront of the discussion, familiar partisan divisions reemerge around the underlying issues that motivated discussions of police funding in the first place.

If the policy discussion is rooted in the problem of racially disparate police practices instead of police funding, largely homogenous views only reinforce the attitudes Republicans hold about police spending. In addition to the 59% of Texas Republicans who would increase police spending, 85% hold a favorable view of the police, while 78% view the killings of unarmed Black men at the hands of police in recent years to be examples of isolated incidents as opposed to a sign of systemic problems.

But the governor’s shifting the frame from race to funding and public safety has additional political utility, dividing a Democratic coalition that is otherwise united. When the frame shifts to race and policing, for example, 76% of non-white Democrats and 97% of white liberals in Texas say that police shootings of unarmed Black men are signs of broader problems in society about how police function. They also hold reasonably similar attitudes toward the police, with 30% of non-white Democrats and 41% of white liberals holding negative views.

The powerful divisions present when the focus is on race suggest the limits of Abbott’s approach. It allows Democrats to claim that the GOP response to the social justice protests of last summer only includes protection of police budgets, punishment of cities that cut spending and bail reform that makes it harder to release unconvicted defendants on bond. Those were the main talking points of Abbott’s State of the State speech a few weeks ago, and the only items related to this set of issues to which he’s given pride of place as emergency items.

The success of a political push to wholly displace the emphasis on social justice that animated liberals and Democrats last summer hinges on being able to ignore or suppress the powerful racial politics that have increasingly defined discussions of policing. This may be possible in a Texas Legislature with significant Republican majorities whose members have persistently avoided addressing issues that involve recognizing a persistent history of racism.

In the short term, it has also been an effective strategy for Republicans to divide the Democratic coalition while delivering on campaign rhetoric that aligns with the views of the vast majority of their own base voters. But in time, it also has the potential to counter-mobilize and unite Democrats around an issue that will not go away by 2022. No matter how much Republicans roll their eyes at the idea, racism remains a structural presence in Texas and the nation, as many in the country were forced to rediscover last summer.

Texas Republicans, aided by the political advantages that come from their dominance of politics and public offices in the state, and from Democrats’ generally ineffective performance as an opposition party, will likely succeed in sustaining their argument on police in the constricted space of the Texas Legislature.

One lesson from the eruption of protests last summer is the power that attitudes toward racism hold to break the frames political actors construct to push the issue out of the picture. Texas Republicans’ successful effort to seize on “defund the police” is testament to one of the central features of the institutional racism they deny — the seemingly endless capacity to push racism back out of the discussion.

Disclosure: The University of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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