In recent years, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has taken criticism for an increasingly partisan public persona at odds with its historical position as a nonpartisan champion of civil liberties. A damning new report suggests the organization was subsumed in culture war politics.
After 2017’s violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the organization indicated that going forward, it would attempt to soft-pedal its advocacy, to create a balance with its “equality and justice” goals. Many, including supporters and former directors alike, criticized the shift as unachievable and antithetical to the organization’s principles.
For its part, the ACLU insists that there was no major shift in priority and that it still vigorously defends free speech. ACLU National Legal Director David Cole wrote last month, “the First Amendment is the foundation of our democracy, and we defend it for precisely that reason.”
But according to an article by Molly Redden in HuffPost, the ACLU has indeed struggled, since Donald Trump’s 2016 election, to define its own identity. While it usually received around $6 million in donations per year, the organization brought in $40 million in less than three months, between Trump’s election and inauguration dates. Flagrant civil liberties violations by Trump’s administration led to further largess: After his “Muslim ban” went into effect in January 2017, the ACLU raised an additional $24 million in online donations in just 48 hours.
Facing this sudden influx of cash from progressives opposing Trump, ACLU director Anthony Romero capitalized on the moment by expanding its focus on political advocacy. In February 2017, the organization launched People Power, a “grassroots mobilization platform” that would “communicate with and help train volunteers to resist President Trump’s unlawful policies.” In January 2018, former ACLU National Political Director Faiz Shakir wrote that while the ACLU would be involving itself in politics in that year’s midterm elections, it would “not endorse or oppose specific candidates” or “tell people to vote for particular candidates.”
But that summer, the ACLU funded ads in local races, like sheriff and district attorney. It spent $800,000 promoting Stacey Abrams for governor of Georgia. Rather than simply “let[ting] civil rights and civil liberties issues drive its electoral work,” the organization explicitly endorsed candidates, despite Shakir’s assurances that “The ACLU takes its nonpartisan status very seriously.”
In time, funding was stretched too thin to have a long-term impact, and People Power stagnated. Ronald Newman, Shakir’s replacement as political director, focused on easier short-term goals over longer-term projects that may ultimately yield more substantive gains. For example, after a police killing, Newman reportedly declined to join the campaign to push for state legislation on police accountability because of the amount of time it would involve. Later, he would push for a Michigan ballot initiative protecting the right to an abortion, not due to an ideological commitment but to rack up a “win” for donors.
In trying to sustain the passion that drove its Trump-era record fundraising, the ACLU drifted from pure civil libertarian advocacy to culture war politics. Ironically, this was the same tactic that the NRA used and to similarly poor results.
Echoing the populist sentiments that would elect Donald Trump, in the 2010s the NRA branched out from Second Amendment advocacy to right-wing identity politics. It started NRATV, an online streaming service with programming geared toward gun owners but with broadsides against Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and the “violent left.” One host called the news media “the rat bastards of the earth” who should be “curb-stomped.”
In 2019, the NRA sued its longtime advertising firm, which oversaw NRATV, for lack of transparency over what it was spending on the channel. Ultimately, this became part of a larger episode that continues to threaten the NRA’s very survival. In the lawsuit, it alleged that some “stakeholders” were “concerned that NRATV’s messaging—on topics far afield of the Second Amendment—deviated from the NRA’s core mission and values.” It shuttered NRATV that same year.
Incidentally, despite his organization’s general opposition to gun rights for individuals, Romero commissioned a study on the NRA in 2013 to see how it functioned so well as an advocacy organization. “The big takeaway for me from that study was that they were able to talk about their work not in legalistic policy terms,” he told The New Yorker. “On their Web site you won’t find anything about the Second Amendment. It’s all about gun culture.”
So far, this shift in focus nearly brought the NRA to an end. And it could spell doom for the ACLU as well.