In recent years, ACORN and Planned Parenthood faced relentless attacks by Republicans, Tea Partiers, and the Religious Right. ACORN disappeared. Planned Parenthood came out stronger. What happened? And what lessons can progressives learn about dealing with right-wing political assaults?
The conservative offensive against these two groups was no accident. In 2001, Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, penned an American Spectator magazine article that outlined a strategy to undermine the Democratic Party and block progressive taxes and regulations on businesses that upset his corporate clients. It called for destroying the "five pillars" of the Democratic Party—unions, trial lawyers, big city mayors, voter registration groups, and progressive groups that receive foundation and federal funding.
Both ACORN and Planned Parenthood fall into the latter two categories. Both organizations threatened the conservative movement's political influence. They have served poor and working-class Americans—black, white, and Hispanic—although Planned Parenthood also had a sizable middle-class constituency. Unlike charities, both groups combined their service work with a grassroots organizing strategy that emphasized the exercise of political power.
Both groups engaged in educational and electoral activity, including legislative advocacy. By establishing organizations not subject to the tax-exempt prohibitions against political activities, they both mobilized members to engage in elections and endorse candidates. [End Page 88] The three 2008 Democratic Party candidates seeking the presidential nomination sought their support.
Both groups were disparaged by Republicans, right-wing talk shows, columnists, and Tea Party activists, and targeted by the same conservative video-sting operations. These manufactured controversies and attacks subjected both groups to a torrent of media stories that required them to divert their staffs from their core work and spend considerable time and money defending themselves and rallying supporters. Each group's opponents sought to scare foundations and the government into cutting off funding.
For many of the three million people who visit its clinics each year, Planned Parenthood is the only place they can get testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and other health care matters. Some of its patients participate in Planned Parenthood's ongoing advocacy for greater access to health care, better family planning, and women's reproductive freedom. In November 2011, for example, Planned Parenthood led the campaign to defeat an anti-abortion referendum in Mississippi and has been on the front lines of that battle in other states.
For forty years ACORN was a strong and effective voice for low-income Americans, registering millions to vote, assisting the working poor with buying and keeping their homes, and fighting for fair treatment by employers, landlords, banks, mortgage companies and payday lenders. It played a leading role in organizing the victims of Hurricane Katrina to gain a voice in the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast.
By 2008, ACORN's family of organizations had an annual budget of $100 million, more than five hundred employees and four hundred thousand members, and chapters in thirty-eight states. Its affiliates conducted research, policy analysis, and leadership training. It had two labor locals, radio stations, and several publications; built affordable housing; and staffed support centers for its national campaigns to increase the minimum wage and end predatory lending.
ACORN spearheaded the living wage movement in more than one hundred cities and helped make the federal Earned Income Tax Credit an effective anti-poverty program. An independent study estimated that from 1994 to 2004, ACORN had redirected $15 billion in government benefits and corporate investments to improve the lives and neighborhoods of low-income families.
ACORN and Planned Parenthood had overlapping, but also different, allies and enemies. Unlike Planned Parenthood, ACORN was constantly attacked by business groups and their free market ideological soulmates, and then the object of a relentless assault by the Republican Party. These business groups spent millions attacking ACORN, alleging that it engaged in voter fraud, misused federal funds, and even caused the subprime crisis.
ACORN became a favorite target of right-wing ideologues. For example, a 2003 article in City Journal, published by the conservative Manhattan Institute, argued that ACORN promotes "a 1960s-bred agenda of anti-capitalism...