House Majority Whip James Clyburn criticized calls to “defund the police” during several media appearances on Sunday, saying that the phrase hurt Democratic congressional candidates and could potentially derail the Black Lives Matter movement.
Clyburn said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that he’d spoken with the late Rep. John Lewis about the phrase this summer, the two concluding “that it 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.”
Clyburn, a prominent student activist during the civil rights movement who has ascended to become the nation’s most powerful Black legislator, has repeatedly denounced calls to “defund the police” as “sloganeering” that harms the overall cause of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The South Carolina Democ points to his own generation of activists’ experience with provocative catchphrases for his reasoning.
“We lost that movement over that slogan,” he said of the phrase “Burn, baby, burn,” which became a popular song and chant during the 1965 Watts Riots, and later again during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Clyburn also cited calls to “defund the police” as a reason why Democrats lost races for Congress in the election, saying “these headlines can kill a political effort.”
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“I really believe that that’s what cost Joe Cunningham his seat,” Clyburn said on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” as to why the freshman Democratic congressman lost his bid for reelection. Cunningham’s Republican challenger, Nancy Mace, ran Facebook ads calling to “defend, not defund the police,” attempting to tie Cunningham to the phrase.
“Jaime Harrison started to plateau when ‘defund the police’ showed up with a caption on TV, ran across his head. That stuff hurt Jaime,” Clyburn also said of the South Carolina Democratic Senate candidate, who was a former aide and mentee of Clyburn’s. Despite record campaign donations, Harrison lost his bid to unseat Republican incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham by more than 10 percentage points.
Clyburn’s comments also come alongside a broader Democratic reckoning about why the party underperformed expectations in races across the country.
The anger among House Democrats came to a boil during a private caucus call on Thursday where some members insisted that calls to “defund the police” and attacks tying Democrats to “socialism” cost several members their seats in Congress.
Progressive Democrats have pushed back on the characterization, claiming that such attacks are inevitable or more easily blunted with stricter and bolder messaging.
Calls to “defund the police” gained prominence this summer during national protests for racial justice after the killing of George Floyd. The phrase varies in meaning from calls for police reform to the reallocation of resources from law enforcement to social services to the full defunding and abolition of police forces.
Clyburn has not been shy about the electoral consequences of the rhetoric, emphasizing in June during the height of the protests that “We need the police. We want the police. They have a role to play.”
Integral to Clyburn’s critique is the idea that the phrase distorts the intentions of many activists who support using the term.
“I don’t want us to allow sloganeering to hijack this movement & cause people of goodwill to resist making the changes we need to make,” Clyburn said on MSNBC in June.
Even as public opinion on police officers has fallen sharply, polls find that most Americans still oppose “defunding the police” when asked. Polling at the height of the protests this summer found only an average of 31% of respondents supported “defunding the police.”
Most Americans agree, however, that policing in the United States requires serious changes, according to a July Gallup poll. That same poll found 47% support reducing police department budgets and shifting the money to social programs versus 28% who oppose.
A July study from the Pew Research Center also found that three-quarters of Americans support keeping funding for their local police departments the same or increasing the budgets.
Black Americans and Democrats are the most open to sweeping police reform, though polls consistently show both groups are less enthusiastic about complete defunding.
Clyburn, who played a major role in changing the trajectory of President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign during the Democratic primary, has been an advocate for a more compromising approach to politics that he believes would better enable progressive change.
“I feel very strongly we can’t pick up these things just because it makes a good headline,” Clyburn warned. “It sometimes destroys headway. We need to work on what makes headway, rather than what makes headlines.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: James Clyburn: ‘Defund the police’ cost Democrats seats, hurt BLM