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From the Center

Politicians have been using short, snappy sentences to motivate their followers since… well, forever.  Long before Donald Trump promised to “Make America Great Again” and Bernie Sanders’ supporters said they would “Feel The Bern”, voters were chanting “I Like Ike”, “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry” and “Keep Hope Alive”. (Go back even further to find further evidence of such practices with “Remember the Maine”, “The Redcoats Are Coming”, and for that matter, “Let My People Go”)

But in addition to the stirring effect these types of catchphrases can have on the hearts of their intended audiences, they can also be very polarizing, creating a similar motivating impact on the opposition.

As they prepare for this November’s midterm elections, present-day partisans on both sides of the aisle are currently attempting to calibrate the benefits and backlash of their more contemporary slogans. It’s entirely possible that years from now, historians will look back at the decisions to use the declarations “Defund the Police” and “legitimate political discourse” for clues on how our nation’s politics were conducted in this almost-post-Trump era.

As I’ve discussed in this column recently, “Defund the Police” came first, as a reaction to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the spring of 2020. During the rallies and protests that dominated that summer’s public dialogue, the most fervent advocates for police reform began using that phrase as the theme for their movement. The distinction between the small group of progressives who wanted to eliminate police funding altogether and the much larger number who called for redirecting a portion of existing law enforcement funds toward preventive and community-based programs was soon lost, as a result of deliberate blurring by advocates on both sides of the debate. But over the last two years, that rallying cry has become politically toxic to the point that most mainstream Democrats are renouncing the message – whether for completely abolishing police departments or redirecting small amounts of their budgets.

Just as Democrats began to realize the political troubles that “Defund the Police” sloganeering was causing them with swing voters, GOP leaders were busily creating an almost set of identical self-inflicted problems with a messaging challenge of their own. Because the Republican National Committee is still devoted to cleaning up former president Donald Trump’s messes, they took it upon themselves at their recent winter meeting to pass a resolution condemning Representatives Lynn Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for participating in the congressional investigation into the January 6 Capitol riot.

The two Republican rebels’ decision to join the oversight committee infuriated Trump, so the RNC felt obligated to officially censure Cheney and Kinzinger. In their frenzy to pass the resolution, party leaders referred to the January 6 protests as “legitimate political discourse.” Given the violence, injuries and deaths that resulted as rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, even many Republican officeholders who disapproved of Cheney’s and Kinzinger’s roles in the investigation harshly criticized RNC chair Ronna McDaniel and her leadership team for appearing to minimize the impact of the insurrection.

When McDaniel did speak out, she argued that the resolution was referring only to those who attended the non-violent protest on the Capitol Mall at which Trump spoke, and not the mayhem that occurred in the Capitol building itself that day. But no such distinction is made in the written text of the document itself, and while that may have been because of an oversight in the late-night drafting efforts in which the resolution was hastily written, it’s just as likely that such nuanced language was left out because it would have been less inspiring to Trump’s most ardent supporters (and less helpful to Trump himself).

The backlash was predictable, and just as many Democrats are now running away from “Defund the Police” as quickly as possible, leading Republican are equally frantic to clarify the seemingly indisputable belief that the type of vicious and brutal activity that occurred at the Capitol last January 6 is certainly not legitimate.

On both sides, the end result was a tradeoff: short-term motivational gain in exchange for ongoing political backlash. The only question is which of the two double-edged swords will cut more deeply in November.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by AllSides Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).

Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his webinar "Politics In The Time of Coronavirus." Or read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.

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