Forty years ago, a band of neo-Nazis contrived a plan to march through Skokie, Illinois, a Chicago suburb that was home to many Holocaust survivors. It was a publicity stunt in which the Nazis intended to strike fear in the hearts of the very Jews who had been directly victimized by Hitler’s regime. Most Americans were outraged, and advocates set out to deny these anti-Semites a permit to march. But one group defended the rights of the Nazis to protest as guaranteed by the First Amendment: the American Civil Liberties Union
Historically, the ACLU has been single-minded in its determination to protect free speech—no matter how abhorrent the underlying words might be. They defended American flag burners and others on the left as consistently as they represented the Nazis and others on the right. In other words, the organization was without an ideological bias. No political agenda could interfere with its overriding commitment to the Constitution—particularly the First Amendment. The ACLU endured harsh criticism for this but never buckled.
The ACLU’s leaders recently announced their intention to spend $25 million to support issue-based electioneering during the 2018 campaign cycle. Why? The organization’s fundraising has grown exponentially in the wake of President Trump’s election and many of the group’s donors are demanding that the ACLU use its expanded coffers to bring the fight against the administration’s agenda, not just in the courts but in the political process as well. The ACLU has chosen to become a direct actor in partisan elections, morphing what was once a nonpartisan organization into what looks like another advocacy group on the left.
It’s not that the left shouldn’t have opportunities to speak up against the president’s agenda -- of course it should. But the ACLU shouldn’t be its political bullhorn. The organization’s legal independence gave it special standing. By falling in line with dozens of other left-leaning advocacy groups, the ACLU risks diminishing its focus on civil liberties litigation and abandoning its reputation for being above partisanship.
Nonprofit organizations are entitled to change course. The ACLU is perfectly within its rights to remold its mission. But this new turn to partisan politics by a venerated and important independent institution of American democracy is worrisome because it illustrates a larger trend in our public life -- the pull of hyper-partisanship on so many Americans and their associations.
The American political landscape was different back when the ACLU was defending the Nazis’ right to free speech. The divisions between red America and blue America was not nearly so stark. The Democratic and Republican parties each comprised coalitions of voters and interest groups that were themselves divided on some of the nation’s most contentious issues. The Democratic Party included both urban liberals and Southern segregationists. The GOP was home to both Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan. You could be pro-life and still find a place under the Democratic tent; you could favor stricter environmental regulation and still have a home among Republicans.
In recent decades, the essence of American politics has changed. The parties have become more ideologically pure, with progressives moving more exclusively into the Democratic fold and conservatives to the GOP. Even as the American people were becoming less partisan -- fewer felt any allegiance to either party or desire to register as a Democrat or a Republican -- Washington has become more tribal.
The ACLU’s decision to focus on electoral politics reflects the same shift. Much as the National Rifle Association has become something of an organ of the Republican Party, the ACLU leadership now apparently seeks to become a hub for liberal Democratic activism. Whatever you think of that desire, it cannot comfortably coexist with the ACLU’s historic mission. I regret that a swelling list of principled organizations now see a political party’s partisan electoral victories as the main thrust of their mission. Some principles -- like free speech -- should transcend party. It is bad for our democracy when groups like the ACLU are viewed through a partisan lens.
Say what you will about the challenges we face today as a nation, we need Americans to engage in ways that transcend the partisan divide, rather than widen it. The ACLU and other organizations like it were a respite from the partisan mudslinging that defines our political life today, particularly through its legal advocacy. They made a crucial contribution to our democracy, one we’ll surely miss as the drumbeat of political polarization overwhelms yet another hallowed American institution.