I’ve been pretty harsh on the ACLU here. There were clues that I should have seen, but didn’t. An upcoming article in The Nation, however, has enlightened me, and now I realize the error of my criticism.
People Power emerged out of the ACLU’s sudden, explosive growth in the wake of Trump’s election. In Arizona, statewide membership jumped from 5,500 to more than 22,000; nationwide, it soared from 450,000 to 1.84 million. Followers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram quadrupled. Donations skyrocketed, from less than $5 million annually in online contributions in recent years to $86 million in the year after the 2016 elections. Meanwhile, the ACLU went on a hiring spree—116 new positions at national offices around the country. Many new staffers are supporting People Power, which now has 250,000 members in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
People Power. It’s not just a cute slogan to suck in donations, but an entirely new direction.
When Anthony Romero became the ACLU’s executive director in 2001, just a week before 9/11, he envisioned moving the organization away from “checkbook participants,” who donated money but were not active, to “bring[ing] the ACLU back to the bosom of the American people.”
It largely went nowhere until Trump was elected president, and the old ACLU plodded on as before, litigating in support of constitutional rights. Until 2015, when Romero decided to take the dive.
Faiz Shakir, then a staffer for US Senate minority leader Harry Reid, interviewed for the job. “I argued for the ACLU being much more of a grassroots organization than it was in the past—and using the membership to be political agitators,” Shakir, now 38, recalled of that interview.
Defender of constitutional rights and grassroots political agitator are two very different animals. Then came Trump and Romero was pushed over the edge.
Romero picked up the phone.
“I went back to Faiz and said, ‘OK, now is the time for the fresh blood, the new perspective,’” Romero recalled. “‘Shame on us if we cannot find substantive things for people to do in a civil-liberties crisis.’”
Much as Trump may be denigrated as the “populist’s choice,” the ACLU’s new People Power program was the other side of the same populist coin.
He began by rolling out exactly what he’d pitched to Romero: a bold 50-state plan for what he called “People Power.” The ACLU e-mailed members to organize a nationwide “resistance training” that would be livestreamed from Miami on March 11, 2017. More than 200,000 people watched this webinar in more than 2,200 homes and in public spaces all over America.
This is no civil liberties program, prepared to stand up for constitutional rights no matter whose are at risk. This is a progressive political group, riding the legacy coattails of a group that may still be called the ACLU but has made the active decision to change its mission from the defense of civil liberties for all to promoting a distinct political ideology for its adherents. And it’s gotten fat and rich as a result.
The ACLU has the infrastructure in place to support People Power members, which sets it apart, Ganz continued. “I think their challenge is to move beyond just being an electronic list to effectively organize local and state groups so that they can begin to wield more power. The impression I have is that it’s begun to happen.” The ACLU has local chapters already in place, as well as funding for a long-haul effort, Ganz said.
The old organization had an infrastructure the new one can exploit. The old organization had a brand the new one can enjoy. The old organization had substantial credibility, still riding its glorious defense of neo-Nazis in Skokie in 1978. The old group was beloved by people who believed in constitutional rights and civil liberties. None of its fans want to admit that the old ACLU is dead, having sold its soul and name to People Power.
The argument is that the ACLU is merely returning to its roots.
People Power echoes the ACLU’s activist roots. Although it became known over the decades as the domain of Ivy League–educated First Amendment defenders, the ACLU started as “an adjunct of the radical labor movement,” as Laura Weinrib, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, writes in her book The Taming of Free Speech: America’s Civil Liberties Compromise. In this early activist cosmology, free speech was a “tool of social justice”—a means to an end, not the end itself, as it became in later years.
This is the new spin, and I hadn’t realized at the time that Weinrib was shilling so flagrantly for the shift from civil rights to social justice. It wasn’t a persuasive argument, but then, few people know enough about the early days of the Wobblies to realize they’re being played.
The old ACLU tried to co-exist with the new People Power for a while, but tensions came to a head following Charlottesville, where the ACLU defended the right of the Naxos to march.
But after the protest exploded in violence—and 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed—the newly revved-up resistance wasn’t standing for it. “The ACLU Has Blood on Its Hands in Charlottesville” ran one outraged headline.
Within several days, the ACLU had moved to cauterize the wound by announcing that it would no longer represent white supremacists wishing to protest with firearms.
A choice had to be made. A choice was made.
Is the ACLU a vehicle for progressive change, or is it a defender of constitutional principles?
There are still state organizations, old-time members and staff, who have a certain lust for constitutional rights. When they can support them, stand up for them, without offending their groundlings and piggy banks, they will likely do so. But they will not defend the Constitution if it conflicts with the popular whims of progressive change.
In the past, I saw this as a fundamental flaw, an outrageous conflict, in their mission. Now I recognize the error of my views. The ACLU has sold itself to People Power and my expectation that it would be the ACLU was misguided. It’s now a social justice organization that may, at best, be fair-weather defenders of the Constitution when SJWs find their positions inoffensive.