Republican voters support police reform. GOP elites are standing in the way.
Republican leaders have little reason to fear blowback from voters
The average Republican voter in America supports significant policing reforms, not that you'd know it from watching Fox News.
Monday night, primetime Fox host Tucker Carlson devoted nearly 10 minutes of his show to grilling Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana, the one GOP senator who has introduced legislation to reform qualified immunity, the Supreme Court doctrine which makes it very difficult to sue police (or any elected official) for civil rights violations by demanding the allegations meet an extremely strict and circular standard of legal precedent.
Neither man acquitted himself well. Carlson opened with flat lies — no, the Minneapolis police are not "being abolished entirely;" no, allegations of systemic racial bias in our justice system are not "totally bogus" — and Braun was easily browbeaten. He let Carlson drag the conversation through one half-truth and irrelevancy after another instead of presenting a tight case against qualified immunity. But what Braun has that Carlson doesn't is the will of the public, including the Republican public. Carlson's parting shot of, "I don't think the public supports you at all on this," is simply not true.
There seems to be a disconnect — on policing reform generally and qualified immunity specifically — between the average GOP voter and key members of the right-wing elite. There's Carlson, Fox's flagship commentator and a favorite of President Trump. There's Trump himself, who signed a skimpy policing reform order and categorically refused to consider changing qualified immunity. There's his attorney general, William Barr, who has opposed modifying qualified immunity. And there's Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), author of the idling Senate GOP reform bill, who said any alterations to qualified immunity would be a "poison pill on our side."
That's demonstrably true: High-ranking GOP senators have said there's no way a qualified immunity bill would pass, and only one Republican has cosponsored House legislation ending the doctrine. Though a few Senate Republicans have expressed openness to challenging qualified immunity, none have backed Braun's measure, nor do they seem likely to commit to legislation thus doomed.
But committing wouldn't be a poison pill for their base. Recent polls show most Republicans want meaningful changes to American policing, including reform or outright elimination of qualified immunity.
Polling on qualified immunity, especially with data on party differences, is in short supply, but a June survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found 55 percent of Republicans "favor allowing individuals to sue police officers when they believe excessive force has been used against them." Likewise, a Reuters/Ipsos survey published June 11 found six in 10 Republicans back "allowing victims of police misconduct to sue police departments for damages."
The Reuters also survey found most GOP voters endorse:
- "Banning police from using chokeholds to restrain civilians/suspects"
- "Banning police from racial profiling"
- "Requiring federal police officers to wear body cameras"
- "Requiring police officers to intervene when they see police misconduct"
- "Independent investigation of police departments that show patterns of misconduct"
An Associated Press-NORC survey published June 23 also found strong majorities of Republicans backing measures like body cameras, mandatory officer reporting of misconduct, strict use-of-force policies, and prosecution of cops who use excessive force. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll from June 1 showed similar results on a range of reform ideas, as did the Kaiser survey.
To be clear, this isn't evidence of a new GOP radicalism about cops. Republicans strongly and consistently oppose complete police abolition and do not like language of "defunding" or "dismantling" the police. They are skeptical of claims of widespread racial bias in law enforcement. When pollsters use vague, subjective terms, like asking about support for "major" vs. "minor" policing reform, GOP respondents tend to favor the more conservative option. Yet when asked to consider specific options, they seem demonstrably more comfortable with changing American policing than the loudest voices ostensibly representing them in government and media.
I don't have a provable theory of this disconnect. It could reflect generational differences. It could be that ordinary Republicans, especially those with police officers among their family and friends, believe reform will benefit the good cops. ("Even law enforcement in Indiana think that, in some of these cases, it's giving them a bad name," Braun told Carlson.) It could be a libertarian impetus for police reform, whether from folk libertarianism or national libertarian advocacy which has created intra-GOP division on criminal justice issues for the better part of a decade.
Or it could be GOP elites' elitism itself: Generally speaking, there's a correlation between being poor and being on the receiving end of abusive policing. (There are racial dimensions here, but this is true across racial lines.) Being able to afford a good lawyer matters when you're tangled up with the cops. Being subjected to policing for profit hurts more the less money you have, whether it's civil asset forfeiture or onerous court fees or hefty fines that effectively criminalize poverty.
Tucker Carlson won't have to take out payday loans to keep up with tickets for housing code violations like chipping paint or mismatched curtains. Poor and working-class Republicans might, and the GOP is increasingly the party of "the nation's most destitute counties — home to the poorest 10 percent of Americans."
Whatever the true explanation(s) may be, GOP elites wary of backing substantive policing reforms, especially changes to qualified immunity, are being too cautious. They're acting in fear of public blowback they'd probably never receive.
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