This article originally appeared in Philanthropy Daily on September 10, 2018.
I always had a soft spot in my heart for the 20th-century version of the American Civil Liberties Union. They always were a little tweedy, but one had to admire their steadfast, rock-hard commitment to free speech. They realized that the cutting edge in the wars over who could speak was speech that was obnoxious or unpleasant, but they knew that once you start censoring someone somewhere you censor everyone everywhere.
But, as Joel Lovell notes in the New York Times Magazine, the Trump Administration has radically changed the ACLU, so that they’re more of an immigrants-rights organization and more politically active than they used to be.
Prior to the 2016 presidential election, says Lovell, online donations to the ACLU were between $3 and $5 million. Between November 2016 and March 2018, the ACLU raised $120 million online. Donors encouraged people to give in a variety of ways:
Radiohead announced that anyone who gave $10 to the ACLU could enter a raffle where they could “hang out with the band and get V.I.P. tickets to a show.”
In March 2017, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, and Tom Hanks were some of the hosts of a telethon that raised $500,000 for the ACLU on Facebook Live. The telethon was subsequently nominated for an Emmy.
Also in 2017, German house DJ Zedd organized a giant concert for the ACLU at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. ACLU lawyer Lee Gerlernt said he spoke to the crowd after Imagine Dragons finished their set. “I go backstage, and these musicians who are practically my kids’ age are partying and asking what we’re doing to resist Trump,” Gerlernt said. “I was like, ‘Well, there’s an en banc hearing in the Fourth Circuit coming up.’”
Membership in the ACLU rose from 400,000 in November 2016 to 1.84 million by February 2018. “Until Trump,” said ACLU executive director Anthony Romero, “most of our support came from people who have been with us since we challenged Nixon. Now we’re kind of cool. Cool’s not a word generally associated with us.”
Most of these donors are small ones. There’s no evidence that big-money donors are cutting seven or eight-figure checks.
But these new donors don’t want the ACLU to file arcane precedents that might be cited frequently in law review articles. The donor pressure, Lovell reports, has caused the ACLU to shift its mission. Their goal is to be the left-wing National Rifle Association—an organization that will constantly mobilize its members and makes sure that its foes are punished at the ballot box.
In 2016, ACLU national legal director David Cole published Engines of Liberty: How Citizen Movements Succeed. In his book, he quotes former NRA president David Keene as saying “the power of the National Rifle Association doesn’t come from money. Which doesn’t mean we don’t have to spend money, because we do. But it comes from votes. It comes from the people.” Cole interviewed another former NRA president, Kayne Robinson, who spoke about the need for fear for motivating members, what he calls the threat. “The most important thing in motivating the members is the threat.”
In the NRA’s case “the threat” is the fear that the government will take away or severely restrict gun use. What the ACLU wants to be is an organization that acts on the idea that the government is going to take away people’s civil rights. They also want to be a group that constantly motivates its members to action.
Go to the ACLU’s website for activists, People Power and you’ll see a list of 15 things the ACLU believes in. Free speech is now #14, above ending mandatory minimum sentences and below “reproductive freedom,” restoring net neutrality, and legalizing marijuana.
The ACLU is also getting more involved in electoral races than they used to be. Their first test came in 2017, where they weighed in an open contest in Philadelphia for district attorney. While not endorsing a candidate, they had released felons talk about the barriers they faced after they were released from prison. The result was that the winning candidate, Larry Krasner, supported a “reform-focused approach to racial discrimination.”
After testing the waters in a few other races—a state supreme court seat in Wisconsin, the Democratic primary for sheriff in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina—they’ve decided to spend a lot of money on referenda, including $5 million on a proposed change in Florida that would give 1.1 million released felons the right to vote and $3 million on a Michigan measure that would loosen registration requirements for voters.
This increased political action has bothered long-time ACLU members who think the organization should be a non-partisan one devoted to defending the Constitution.
Ira Glasser, who headed the ACLU for 20 years, told the New Yorker recently that entering individual candidate races would be “a departure which has the capacity to destroy the organization as it has always existed.” Anthony Romero responded that the ACLU is not endorsing candidates, and is not forming a PAC, but is “operationalizing,” he said, “Just like the NRA. It’s time. If anything, the ACLU has been too reluctant to involve ourselves in the political process.”
I’d like to make two points. First, if the ACLU has mostly become an organization of anti-Trump forces, what will happen to it when Trump leaves office? Will it shrink back to its pre-2016 levels?
Second, one consequence of the Trump administration is that there are far too many people who have politics occupy too much of their time. The non-political parts of civil society—helping the poor, keeping neighborhoods safe and clean, making sure kids get a good education—are being neglected by people who, fueled by social media, spend too much of their day being outraged and not enough time on the simple, nonpartisan tasks that make our country better.
Liberals who worry about the NRA ought to answer this question—is our country helped or harmed by having two organizations like the NRA?