The New and Improved ACLU

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.


29 thoughts on “The New and Improved ACLU

  1. PseudonymousKid

    Dear Papa,

    You can’t be surprised. You’ve been singing the dirge for the ACLU of yore for some time now.

    Thanks for pointing out these new age fucks are trying to co-opt not only the ACLU’s history, but our precious history of socialism too. They didn’t evolve from the IWW or Mr. Debs, though they may have been more sympathetic once. If there is a lineage, they’ve regressed. I really tried not to bite, but my eye wouldn’t stop twitching.


    1. SHG Post author

      But I was wrong all this time. I thought it was just a slide down the slippery slope, when it turns out it was an intentional shift to the dark side. They fooled me. I feel so foolish.

      1. PseudonymousKid

        So it wasn’t Col. Mustard in the kitchen with a knife. It was the revolver. The ACLU is dead nonetheless.

      2. Nemo

        Dear PK,

        Your metaphor is understandable, from a lawyer’s perspective, but in this case, it’s incorrect. There are other mysteries of death than murder, and some of them place the fact that the victim died is of secondary importance. From a medical perspective, f’rex, figuring how and why the patient died can be far more important than the fact that she died.

        Be cautious of your assumptions, for they can get you to follow all the facts to the wrong conclusion.

        Best regards,


        1. PseudonymousKid

          Hi Nemo,

          I try my very hardest not to make assumptions. Our Host was just overly concerned with getting things exactly right. He was mostly there, but he made a mistake when he thought the ACLU was on a backslide rather than a concerted effort at changing for the “better.” I have this habit of exaggerating for effect, you see. It wasn’t a slow bleed from a wound, but a bullet to the head that murdered the ACLU.

          The analogy is apt for the situation, but not perfect. Perfection isn’t something we ought to pursue. It’s impossible. You grok?


      3. Nemo


        Point taken, and while I don’t fully agree, refining the understanding between us isn’t relevent to this venue. Call it close enough for gov’t work, and I fully agree that chasing perfection is a trap. All utopias are ultimately dystopias, when examined closely.

        Peace and long life,


  2. B. McLeod

    It has become a selective defender of constitutional principles, but for only some. Ultimately, those principles are unlikely to prove very firm, because the underlying allegiance is not to the ostensible principles, but only to their momentary usefulness in furthering partisan goals.

    1. SHG Post author

      I guess they hope the occasional thrust toward rights will be sufficient to sustain the legacy until they’ve milked every donation dollar possible and their supporters are dead broke. It shouldn’t take too long.

  3. Jeff Gamso

    You might want to go back and read the news stories about the ACLU’s national board fracturing over the appointment and early days (years) of Romero as Executive Director. The Board essentially self-purged, the long-time committed civil libertarians quitting (there was some talk of them being forced out). Much of it played out in the pages of the NY Times and a fair amount is summarized in this piece from New York.

    Romero is not and was not a civil libertarian. He is an old-fashioned (as in left and right, not philosophical/Lockian), liberal do-gooder who came to the ACLU from a position with the Ford Foundation. His first, immediate, post-9/11 pronouncement was to applaud the government’s actions in response. (He properly changed gears after a day or two under pressure from – maybe Ira Glasser, maybe some Board members.)

    Ira Glasser, the prior ED, and a strong civil libertarian who’d resigned after decades in the job, was disgusted, and rightly so, and even joined in creating an anti-Romero rump group on the outside.

    Romero and a few of the affiliates (including Ohio’s where I was a Board member before I became Legal Director for a few years) had some ugly feuds. My understanding (but I’m on the outside now, and don’t fully trust my understanding) is that there are still some tensions with some affiliates but that they’ve all agreed to keep them under wraps.

    ​I’ve still got a lot of affection for the ACLU. I remain a member and am sometimes consultant, speaker, and cooperating counsel, but I also keep my distance.

    Anyway, just offering a bit of historical ​context (and a hint of anti-Romero rant – he and I had a couple of fairly vicious arguments, though he probably, and as a practical matter he wasn’t wrong, saw me as a gnat rather than someone of consequence to deal with.)

    1. SHG Post author

      While us old guys aren’t good for a lot, institutional memory is a strength. I had my eye off the ball back at 9/11. Thanks for the history lesson.

  4. MonitorsMost

    Our ideals and institutions die around us. Amazing how eager these stalwarts are to abandon their principles and missions all because of a lousy and ineffectual president.

    Jaded mandarin.

    1. SHG Post author

      In a few years, we all be saddened by how little it took to undermine our “bedrock” principles. But we’ll have to be sad in private, as it will probably be a crime.

  5. Anonymous Coward

    So that vibration under SHG’s office is Jerry Gutman spinning in his grave. My father was very active in the NYCLU so I grew up in this world and it saddens me to see the spirit of the adamant Bill of Rights defenders snuffed out by a generation of swine.

  6. JRP

    If the ACLU has sold out who or what can take there place?

    Sure some will contribute to ACLU still based on name recognition or belief in the resistance. The silent majority however actually like bedrock principles and no longer have an organization to believe/ donate to.

    New market?

  7. DaveP

    Sorry, but I remember seeing publications from the ACLU throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s explaning bluntly that their official policy was, no matter what the Framers said or wrote, there was no 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms. Period. If any of those storied Skokie Nazis had been protesting against a gun related law, the ACLU would never have represented them.
    I have never believed that the name American Civil Liberties Union was anything but false advertising.

    1. SHG Post author

      And “throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s,” that was the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment. It didn’t change until Heller, so you can’t blame them for that.

      1. Keith

        It was also their interpretation post-Heller.

        Blame away.

        Email I received on 10/12/10
        Dear Friend,

        The ACLU’s position on the Second Amendment is based on the ACLU’s reading of the Second Amendment and in addition the fact that there are other organizations that focus solely on this issue. The ACLU’s concern is what is allowable under the Constitution, not where or when the Second Amendment applies.

        Thanks for getting in touch.


        Kitt Abad
        Associate Manager, Member Services
        American Civil Liberties Union
        125 Broad Street, NY, NY 10004
        212-549-2545 – [email protected]

      2. DaveP

        Is it your stance then that the ACLU cannot support any position that the Supremes haven’t endorsed yet? Because if so, you’ve got a ton of ACLU cases to explain away.
        Besides, I was under the illusion that my civil rights came from the Constitution. Not from the Supremes.

      3. James

        Under Miller the ACLU’s position was the court agrees with us and there is no individual right to own a gun. Under Heller the ACLU’s position is the court is wrong and there is no individual right to own a gun. The ACLU has been extremely consistent on the topic. The ACLU simply does not support that civil right. Baring a change in the opinion of their donors, there is nothing that will change the the ALCU’s mind.

  8. ezra abrams

    this post would be useful if it mentioned where one could donate money to if one wanted an old style ACLU
    I know there are other legal orgs focused on civil liberties; why don’t you mention them ?

  9. John Thacker

    David French on Twitter discussed how when he led FIRE, he always had to watch out for a certain type of conservative donor who really cared about exposing and fighting progressive “lunacy,” but not really free speech. So they wanted FIRE to only fight for free speech when it affected conservatives on campus, but not stand up for liberal faculty.

    FIRE has been able to remain a civil liberties organization, but gave up opportunities to get cheap money and grassroots support by doing so, and other organizations and media source went into the vacuum that they left by standing on principles. (Those principles get occasional grudging support from progressives, but not always. Virtue is, as always, it’s own reward.) The ACLU faced a similar test, and it seems that they chose differently.

    1. SHG Post author

      Nice plug for FIRE (I saw David’s twit as well). But this isn’t a post about FIRE, is it? Focus.

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