Don't Let Tucker Carlson Shift the Overton Window on Police Reform

by Michael C. Dorf

At the height of the racial justice protests last summer, many activists were demanding that states and localities "defund the police." Although that phrase has no universally agreed upon meaning, virtually no proponents of defunding the police advocate anarchy. Rather, they would shift many of the responsibilities now undertaken by armed police officers to unarmed social workers and others. They would also decriminalize (or in some jurisdictions, further decriminalize) drugs and various other matters, in keeping with a broader program of reducing the role of the carceral state while increasing social support for neglected communities.

None of these ideas is especially radical or even very new. For example, twenty years ago, Prof Colb proposed eliminating traffic stops for minor offenses as a means of limiting both racial profiling and the opportunities for deadly police/civilian confrontations. The movement for drug decriminalization is even older. So are critiques of over-criminalization in the U.S.

Nonetheless, the urgency of last summer's protests provided an apparent opportunity to combine the best progressive ideas for criminal justice reform. Defund the police was not just a slogan, and it remains a powerful movement. However, whether it or even a more modest package of reforms will succeed remains very much an open question.

In the balance of today's essay, I want to talk about how the extreme reaction of the right-wing commentariat to the Derek Chauvin verdict and the broader reactionary trend on the right could, but should not, limit the discussion of reform.

Even as someone whose exposure to Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham is limited to what appears in my Twitter feed and the clips that Trevor Noah and John Oliver play of the FoxNews talking heads, I have to admire (while despising) what they have managed to accomplish in the last few days. They have staked out such an extreme position as to make what would otherwise seem like an extreme position appear moderate. Let me explain.

When "defund the police" first began to appear as a platform last summer, the moderate conservative response took the form of what might be called mend-it-don't-end-it. In this view, yes, there are systemic problems in policing, but the best way to respond is not to withdraw or redirect resources away from the police. Instead, police should be better trained in de-escalation, racial sensitivity, etc. The much more strongly conservative position at the time was to deny that systemic racism exists or that police forces around the country routinely adopt policies that lead to the use of excessive force. Rather, in this view, there were "a few bad apples" among the police, as there are in any large institution, but that, contrary to the adage, they didn't spoil the bunch.

No doubt on the fringes there were also open racists and fascists who thought that there aren't even any bad apples or, more likely, that they liked their apples bad, thank you very much. Moreover, given that for the four years ending barely three months ago, the president himself was one of those open racists and fascists, the number of people in the not-even-any-bad-apples-here-and-we-like-our-apples-bad-anyway camp was shockingly large. Still, if we discounted the 30-35% of the country who were completely uninterested in reforming the police (except perhaps by giving them more military-style equipment they don't need), that left a working majority of progressives, moderates, and moderate conservatives that might have come together to decide on a reform program.

Put graphically, here's what the spectrum from left to right looked like last summer:


Given that spectrum, one would have thought that nationally and in many states and localities, reform would have had a fair chance of success. In some locations, even defunding efforts would make progress, as they have, albeit in some places in ways that seem reckless. In any event, my goal here is not to argue for any particular set of reforms (however labeled), but to describe how the recent right-wing freakout has potentially shifted the Overton window.

Exhibit A is Tucker Carlson, who described the Chauvin verdict as motivated by the jurors' fear that an acquittal would have led to violence. As I said above, I don't watch any of Carlson's show, so perhaps I'm missing context, but from what I've seen, Carlson's performance appears to cast doubt on the verdict itself, not simply the process. Here's how a fair-minded person might have raised a version of the point that Carlson was trying to make:

There was clear evidence of Chauvin's guilt. Based solely on the evidence, this is the correct verdict. However, I worry that the result might have been over-determined. Given the fraught atmosphere, including generally peaceful protests that occasionally turned violent, statements by politicians, and more, one could understand how one or more jurors might have voted to convict in order to keep the peace, even if they were not persuaded of the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Thankfully, that risk does not seem to have materialized here, because of the one-sided nature of the evidence, but it is a legitimate worry in other high-profile cases, regardless of the race of the victims or defendants.

So far as I'm aware, however, Carlson said nothing like that, instead going on about rioting and looting, while laughing maniacally. In essentially ignoring the evidence and displaying callous indifference to the loss of George Floyd's life, Carlson made clear that in his view, police use of as much force as they want to use against unarmed and indeed unconscious Black civilians is just fine.

Carlson's views are grotesque and do not even seem to have been mimicked by everyone in the rightwingoverse. However, in order to accomplish their basic purpose, they don't need to. What Carlson has done is to add an option to the right side of the menu, thus effectively pushing DEFUND outside the Overton window. Post-Carlson-rant, the "reasonable conservative" position is no longer mend-it-don't-end-it, which is now the left-most option. Post-Carlson, the reasonable conservative position is "a few bad apples" or, as it gets applied to the particulars of this case: "See, the system worked; therefore there's no systemic racism or other problem with policing in America."

In other words, instead of:


we now have a spectrum that looks like this:


Don't fall for it. Don't let the addition of a grotesquely offensive option from a bowtied zombie (because he was killed off by Jon Stewart in 2004 but somehow was reanimated) shift the terms of debate so that a Justice Department inquiry into Minneapolis policing practices or bills that would reform policing are now cast as the radical option.