The director of the American Civil Liberties Union has now acknowledged what should have been obvious to everybody over the past several years: The ACLU is no longer a neutral defender of everyone’s civil liberties. It has morphed into a hyper-partisan, hard-left political advocacy group. The final nail in its coffin was the announcement that, for the first time in its history, the ACLU would become involved in partisan electoral politics, supporting candidates, referenda and other agenda-driven political goals.
The headline in the June 8 edition of the New Yorker tells it all: “The ACLU is getting involved in elections — and reinventing itself for the Trump era.” The article continues: “In this midterm year, however, as progressive groups have mushroomed and grown more active, and as liberal billionaires such as Howard Schultz and Tom Steyer have begun to imagine themselves as political heroes and eye presidential runs, the ACLU, itself newly flush, has begun to move in step with the times. For the first time in its history, the ACLU is taking an active role in elections. The group has plans to spend more than 25 million dollars on races and ballot initiatives by Election Day, in November.”
Since its establishment nearly 100 years ago, the ACLU has been, in the words of the New Yorker, “fastidiously nonpartisan, so prudish about any alliance with any political power that its leadership, in the 1980s and 90s, declined even to give awards to likeminded legislators for fear that it might give the wrong impression.” I know, because I served on its national board in the early days of my own career.
In those days, the board consisted of individuals who were deeply committed to core civil liberties, especially freedom of speech, opposition to prosecutorial overreach and political equality. Its board members included Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, right wingers and left wingers, all of whom supported neutral civil liberties. The key test in those days was what I have come to call “the shoe on the other foot” test: Would you vote the same way if the shoe were on the other foot, that is, if the party labels were switched?
Today, the ACLU wears only one shoe, and it is on its left foot. Its color is blue. The only dispute is whether it supports the progressive wing of the Democratic Party or its more centrist wing. There is little doubt that most board members today support the progressive wing, though some think that even that wing is not sufficiently left. There is no longer any room in the ACLU for true conservatives who are deeply committed to neutral civil liberties. The litmus test is support for hard-left policies.
To be sure, the ACLU will still occasionally take a high profile case involving a Nazi or Klan member who has been denied freedom of speech, though there are now some on the board who would oppose supporting such right-wing extremists. But the core mission of the ACLU — and its financial priority — is to promote its left-wing agenda in litigation, in public commentary and, now, in elections. If you want to know the reason for this shift, just follow the money. ACLU contributors, including some of its most generous contributors, are strong anti-Trump zealots who believe that the end (getting rid of Trump) justifies any means (including denying Trump and his associates core civil liberties and due process).
Anthony Romero, the current radical leftist who directs the ACLU, refers to those of us who favor the ACLU traditional mission as “the old guard.” The leading critic of the ACLU’s newfound partisan mission is Romero’s predecessor, Ira Glasser, who was the executive director of the ACLU from 1978 until 2001. Glasser believes that this transformation in the way the ACLU has operated since 1920 “has the capacity to destroy the organization as it has always existed.”
Glasser points out that some of the greatest violations of civil liberties throughout history have come from “progressive politicians, such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt who interned 110,000 Japanese-American citizens.” He worries, and I worry, that when the ACLU supports parties and partisan agendas, it will become less willing to criticize those it has supported when they violate civil liberties.
The presidency of Donald Trump has introduced a new dynamic. Trump himself has denied fundamental civil liberties by his immigration policies, his attitude and actions regarding the press, and his calls for criminal investigations of his political enemies. The ACLU will criticize those actions, as it should. But the president has also pushed the ACLU further to the left and into partisan politics. Trump is so despised by ACLU contributors that they have increased their contributions, but also demand the ACLU be on the forefront of ending his presidency, either through impeachment, criminal prosecution or electoral defeat.
The move of the ACLU to the far left reflects an even more dangerous and more general trend in the United States: The right is moving further right, the left is moving further left, and the center is shrinking. The center-left is losing its influence in organizations like the ACLU, and the center-right is losing its influence in conservative organizations.
America has always thrived at the center and has always suffered when extremes gain power. The ACLU’s move from neutral protector of civil liberties to partisan advocate of liberal politics is both a symptom and consequence of this change. If America is to remain strong, its major institutions must move closer to the center and reject the extremes of both sides. If the ACLU does not return to its core values, a new organization must be created to champion those values.
BY ALAN M. DERSHOWITZ, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR — 06/11/18 04:00 PM EDT 788
Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus, at Harvard Law School. He is the author of “Trumped Up: How Criminalizing Politics is Dangerous to Democracy” and “The Case Against BDS: Why Singling Out Israel for Boycott is Anti-Semitic and Anti-Peace.” You can follow him on Twitter @AlanDersh and on Facebook @AlanMDershowitz.