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Study: Support for defunding the police a 'luxury belief' held by white Democrats gripped by 'collective shame'

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Photo by: Michael Siluk/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A report published last month by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research indicated that even in areas rife with high levels of violent crime, white Democrats are more likely than their nonwhite ideological peers to support defunding the police. The author attributes white leftists' advocacy for policies that not only adversely impact minority communities but even themselves in part to "unique group-based moral pressures, including collective moral shame and guilt."

The study

Amid the 2020 George Floyd riots, there were repeated calls to defund or abolish the police. These calls predominantly came from self-identified Democrats. A 2020 Cooperative Election Survey indicated that over one-third of Democrats (35.4%) wanted their state legislatures to reduce spending on law enforcement. Even more Democrats (53.6%) expressed support for reducing the number of police on the streets by 10%. This support was articulated despite skyrocketing rates of violent crime across the United States.

While some ascribed the tendency of certain Democrats to "sanctimoniously" support reductions in crime-fighting measures to "limousine liberalism," whereby the rich and affluential peddle progressive policies that do not ultimately affect themselves, others posited there may be another explanation behind their support, particularly when they do indeed personally reap the consequences of the resultant spikes in crime.

In this report, Paulson policy analyst Zach Goldberg sought to use empirical data to test Rob Henderson's "luxury beliefs" thesis.

Henderson defined luxury beliefs as "ideas and opinions that confer [social] status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class." Whereas in previous eras, wealth tended to be exhibited with physical status symbols, nowadays, with trendy material goods having been diminished in perceived value owing to their ubiquity, luxury beliefs have "arisen as a new status symbol."

As Goldberg channeled Henderson in saying: "Support for defunding the police is an example of a luxury belief that the socioeconomically advantaged adopt as a means of signaling membership in a higher or 'enlightened' social class."

Since rich and affluent leftists have more resources and enjoy "relative insulation from crime," they are not harmed by their beliefs, "'and if they are, the damage they incur is not as severe.'"

Goldberg noted that this evolution in what others have called "virtue signaling" and the theory around it comport with earlier theoretical frameworks such as Maslow's "hierarchy of needs."

The findings

Goldberg observed that "greater household income is found to significantly increase the odds of supporting defunding and depolicing policies — though these relationships are substantially confounded by educational attainment."

White and Asian Democrats, who score highest on all available indicators of socioeconomic status, are far more likely than black and Hispanic Democrats to support these policies.

One might suspect that these leftist racial groupings have the requisite status to advance such luxury beliefs, yet Goldberg noted even more significant a bearing on an individual's likelihood to support these policies is "ideological self-identification." White and Asian Democrats are far more likely than blacks and Hispanics to identify as liberal.

When Democrat racial groups are matched on socioeconomic and demographic variables, the difference in levels of support for the policies between "Asian vs. black and Hispanic Democrats nearly vanishes." However, white Democrats remain an outlier.

In areas plagued by high rates of violent crime, support levels for defunding the police drop for all racial groups except for white Democrats, irrespective of socioeconomic status. "White Democrats in zip codes and counties with the highest relative levels of violent crime are actually more likely to support these policies."

Goldberg accounted for the possibility that "local residential segregation," whereby white Democrats may have geographically or structurally isolated themselves from the consequences of the polices for which they advocate, may account for their unaffected support.

He noted, "The data demonstrate little to no evidence for this theory."

Goldberg cautioned against ruling out the possibility that residential segregation (i.e., " limousine liberalism") is a factor, stating that the "most that can be said is that the relationship is not clearly manifest in the present data." He stated that white Democrats who advocate for depolicing and defunding in high-crime areas may be "socioeconomically better off than their nonwhite counterparts in ways that are not captured by conventional measures of family income, education, and stock and home ownership."

The reason for this committed stance by white ideologues, suggested Goldberg, was, in part, the influence of "unique group-based moral pressures, including collective moral shame and guilt."

"Collective shame," although linked to guilt, "is a more ingroup-focused emotion that relates to a global negative description (e.g., 'racist') of an ingroup's moral character or to the perception that an ingroup is a serial violator of important moral values."

This emotional, moral pressure, which feeds into a "white savior" moral ideology, may be what has prompted so many white Democrats, specifically, to "support equity-oriented pro-black policies, such as affirmative action, reparations, and race-based government assistance."

Goldberg distinguished between guilt and shame, indicating that while the former is self-focused and motivated by a need for personal psychological relief, the latter is "further reaching and more enduring because the moral 'mission' isn't complete until white America's racist character ... is fully corrected or neutralized." That is to say, the shame factor displaces personal blame and externalizes the ideologue's focus.

Accordingly, white Democrats, so influenced, are pressured to "constrain the expression of self-interested policing policy preferences while promoting those that are perceived to protect people of color from institutional racism." When threats to self-interest and personal safety increase, so do the pressures to support defunding and depolicing.

This is not true of nonwhite Democrats, who "do not confront the same group-based moral pressures."

As violent crime levels increase, "the positive effects of racial liberalism on support for defunding and depolicing become ... weaker for nonwhite Democrats."

Luxury beliefs and their consequences

Regardless of whether white Democrats are attempting to signal their virtue to their peers or to themselves, the policies they advocate for "disproportionately harm the socioeconomically disadvantaged, many of whom are 'persons of color.'"

In December 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported by "pretending that the police are a bigger threat to society than the criminals, progressive policies are making the country demonstrably less safe than it's been in decades."

Republican Sen. John Thune (S.D.) noted last summer that crime rates had "surged since 'defund the police' became a rallying cry."

Thune said, "It's no coincidence that cities that have slashed their police budgets have seen huge increases in violence. As of the end of May, Portland, Oregon, was on track to exceed 1,000 shootings for this year. In the first 14 weeks of 2021, New York City shootings were up 81 percent."

After the Los Angeles Unified School District voted in February 2021 to cut the number of school police officers by roughly 40%, crime skyrocketed. There were 108 assaults between August and October. Sixteen students were hospitalized and 44 weapons were recovered. Several teachers were injured.

Despite claims that defunding would serve black students, it just permitted criminals to victimize more black children.

The Los Angeles Police Department had its budget cut by $150 million in July 2020. Homicide went up 26.5% that year, 44.9% over 2019. Aggravated assault climbed by 12.8%.

In Democrat-run Seattle, where leftists "envisioned a world without police," the city council cut police funding in 2020 by nearly 20%. That year murders went up in the city by 48.57%, a 26-year high.

Despite protests from Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, the Democrat-run Austin City Council cut its police budget. Austin's murder rate in 2020 hit a 10-year high.

Democrat-run New York City, which cut its police budget by over $1 billion, saw a 41% spike in homicides in 2020.

Some anti-police activists had to reverse their stances upon seeing the negative effects of their policies. That was the case of defund advocate and Democrat Mayor Libby Schaaf, who changed tack after overseeing a spate of murders and a massive spike in violent crimes in Oakland, California.

As the defund-the-police movement began to take its toll in 2020, Kevin Brock, former assistant director for the FBI's Office of Intelligence, wrote in The Hill that "efforts to defund the police are truly racist policies, in implementation and in impact. Affluent communities will not feel the effects of reduced policing."

Then observing the result Goldberg referenced in his recent report, Brock noted, "Poorer communities already are reeling from higher crime that has gone unchecked — in some cases, by design, it seems — by politicians who want to restrict police actions."

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