The right's Planned Parenthood trap: Manufactured controversies, pliant Democrats and the decades-long plot to "defund the left"

Planned Parenthood non-troversy is the latest chapter in a 40-year crusade to cut the left off at the grassoots

Published September 19, 2015 10:30AM (EDT)

  (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
(AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

As an election season lurches into gear, surreptitiously recorded videos targeting a left-leaning organization appear on an obscure right-wing website. Soon, the videos are spread by the conservative blogosphere, denounced on right-wing talk radio, broadcast by Fox News and its cable news counterparts and debated in Congress. Within days of their first appearance, the videos become pretext for Republican calls to defund the targeted liberal activist group.

The liberal group in question this time, Planned Parenthood, became one of the stars of Wednesday night's GOP debate as the Republican presidential candidates fell over one another proclaiming their support for defunding it.

Though Planned Parenthood is the right's current target, this plan of attack found its first success six years ago with conservative provocateur James O’Keefe’s undercover footage of ACORN offices. When Congressional Democrats caved to GOP pressure and voted to defund ACORN in late 2009, it proved to be a historic success for the right. For decades, conservative activists and their Republican allies have been working to undermine financial and organizational support for the Democratic Party by “defunding the left.” The result has been a steady erosion of the Democratic Party’s base, part of a larger shift in the political playing field that has empowered conservative interest groups and activists.

The question remains whether the Democrats’ recent efforts to beat back the GOP’s attempts to defund Planned Parenthood will mark a turning point in the party’s halting efforts to defend its grassroots supporters, or whether Planned Parenthood, like ACORN, will fall to the combination of Republican assertiveness and Democratic acquiescence. That answer will determine whether the Democratic Party can be a viable ally to today’s progressive social movements – from labor unions to Black Lives Matter activists to LGBTQ groups – or whether the efforts of conservatives and the timidity of centrist Democrats will render the party inhospitable to anything but the most tepid reforms.

Like so many of today’s political skirmishes, the proximate roots of Republicans’ attacks on – and Democrats’ retreat from – left grassroots groups like ACORN and Planned Parenthood can be found in the 1970s. During that decade, ACORN and Planned Parenthood were cast as nearly omnipotent bêtes noires in the conservative imagination alongside longtime enemies like civil rights groups and labor unions.

Fueling conservatives’ fears, ACORN had its roots in several progressive traditions. In the 1960s, ACORN’s founder, Wade Rathke, had moved from the student and antiwar movements into the National Welfare Rights Organization, which had been founded by former Congress of Racial Equality leader George Wiley in 1966. Wiley himself had been influenced not only by his experiences in CORE, but also by the tactics of the United Farm Workers and famed community organizer Saul Alinksy and the theories of social movement scholars Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. In a 1966 Nation magazine article that has since become widely exaggerated in conservative political lore, Piven and Cloward called for left-leaning activists to help the poor to register for Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The resulting strain on the budgets of states and localities, Piven and Cloward predicted, would push the federal government to intervene and create a national guaranteed income. The strategy nearly worked during Richard Nixon’s first term in the White House, but conservative Republicans and business-friendly Democrats like Senate Finance Chair Russell Long ultimately defeated Nixon’s basic minimum income bill.

The failure of guaranteed income gave rise to a “majority strategy” on the left. Wiley and Rathke, like many on the left, decided that viable progressive grassroots strategy had to unite the middle class and the poor, rather than organize the poor alone. Spurred by this realization, Wiley sent Rathke with $5,500 to Arkansas in 1970 to begin organizing the group that would become ACORN. By the mid-1970s, ACORN would count 5,200 families in Arkansas – 60 percent white, 40 percent African-American, most making less than $7,000 per year – among its members. ACORN spread to other states and, in the years that followed, would peak at between 175,000 and 250,000 members in hundreds of chapters across the country. In the often-fractured landscape of the American left, ACORN proved to be a rare bright spot of interracial organizing and a consistent source of grassroots successes throughout the 1970s and 1980s, focusing on issues from affordable housing to living wages to taxes and beyond. However, as ACORN gained strength and influence, it also courted resistance from both conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats.

Conservatives were determined to beat back the advances made by groups like ACORN. As soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell put it in his famous 1971 memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “There should not be the slightest hesitation to press vigorously in all political arenas for support of the enterprise system. Nor should there be reluctance to penalize politically those who oppose it.” In addition to a renewed effort to fund conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, the business-backed right of the 1970s began a campaign to defund the left. Conservatives believed that grants awarded to left-leaning groups through programs like Legal Aid and Title X of the Public Health Service Act, along with the tax exemption afforded to groups engaged in limited political activity under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, had created a permanent apparatus antithetical to the right’s political goals. Conservative activist Howard Phillips emblazoned a large red zero on his Conservative Caucus’s stationery, symbolizing the amount of federal funding he hoped would be available to progressive groups when the right had its way, and conservative direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie’s Conservative Digest castigated the “175 leftist groups that get your money.”

By the late 1970s, ACORN was feeling the pinch of the “defund the left” movement. Though much of ACORN’s revenue came from its dues-paying members, ACORN would prove to be highly successful at securing federal grants from a wide variety of programs. As part of a crackdown in what both Republicans and conservative Democrats saw as lingering Great Society bloat in President Jimmy Carter’s budget, the House Appropriations Committee launched an investigation into alleged waste in ACTION, a community organizing-oriented outgrowth of AmeriCorps’ VISTA program. Released in 1979, the committee’s report singled out ACORN for special scorn. It claimed that VISTA volunteers placed with ACORN had engaged in prohibited activities, including registering voters, which was somewhat controversially labeled a political activity under VISTA’s rules. ACTION took ACORN’s side, arguing that the committee misrepresented ACORN’s actions and misunderstood ACTION’s guidelines.

The Appropriations Committee’s report also mounted a larger -- and downright bizarre -- critique of ACORN. Committee investigators claimed that the group did not evince sufficient “concern” about “reaching a poverty constituency.” Though it conceded that such a judgment was “subjective,” it cited ACORN’s concern with building a “majority constituency” as proof that the group was not focused on helping the poor, claiming that the neighborhoods to which ACORN assigned VISTA volunteers were “more middle class than poor.” Later, the report critiqued ACORN for failing to usher in a “community takeover” by the poor, in line with VISTA’s goal of building “self-reliant communities.” That imperative, the committee noted paradoxically, would be “satisfied only if ACORN attains its implicit goal of becoming a mass populist movement and no longer requires federal money for its support.” In other words, if ACORN failed, it was proof it did not deserve a VISTA grant. If it succeeded, it was proof it did not need a VISTA grant. Both ACTION and ACORN dismissed the committee’s accusations, with ACTION claiming they were based on a “lack of understanding of the intricacies of the community organizing process.”

While the Appropriations Committee’s investigation turned up little of substance, its hearings gave ACORN’s conservative opponents ample opportunities to stoke the right’s fears. Ohio Republican John Ashbrook, who was beloved by movement conservatives for challenging Richard Nixon from the right in 1972, characterized ACORN and its affiliates as “interlocking directorate operating to take advantage of the government.” He called VISTA’s funding of ACORN “one of the most blatant abuses of power and misuses of public funds I have encountered,” arguing that it displayed a “contempt for public opinion and the public welfare” that rose to a “conspiracy” to “defraud” the public.

Under attack from the right, ACORN found little solace in the Democrats, even in its home state. ACORN founder Wade Rathke had first met Bill Clinton during the Clinton’s work for George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972, and the two remained friends. Clinton and Rathke, however, were moving in opposite directions. While Rathke envisioned ACORN pulling the Democratic Party to the left, Clinton and other post-Watergate “New Democrats” believed the party needed to move to the right. In 1978, ACORN pushed a referendum in Arkansas that would have exempted food and drugs from the sales tax -- hardly a radical proposal. It was a tax cut, albeit one that would benefit low-income Arkansans more than the well-off, and a large majority of states already exempted food, drugs, or both from their sales levies. However, the state Chamber of Commerce opposed the measure, fearful that any lost revenue would be made up for in higher taxes on business. Clinton sided with business, and when Clinton wrote to Rathke to explain that even though he opposed the sales tax cut he would still be “the best governor the working people of our state ever had,” Rathke responded, “A working people’s governor with a fixation for the sales tax is not likely under any condition to be the best of anything we have ever had in Arkansas.”

Though Planned Parenthood had a longer history and a more secure organizational foundation than ACORN, Planned Parenthood’s receipt of funds under Title X likewise came under attack by conservatives. In 1978, for example, right-wing California Rep. Robert K. Dornan publicized a column by Chicago Tribune columnist Joan Beck, which denounced a satirical cartoon made by an employee of a Chicago Planned Parenthood office. The cartoon lambasted religious leaders for attempting to “control” Americans' sexual activity and opposing abortion. In a letter to other congressmembers, Dornan compared the cartoon’s “anti-Catholic prejudice” to the bigotry that precipitated the Holocaust and called for an investigation into Planned Parenthood before Congress continued its “public funding of tax dollars” for the organization.

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the “defund the left” movement found a foothold in the White House. The Heritage Foundation’s thousand-page blueprint for the administration, Mandate for Change, called for the administration to “limit the circumstances under which grants and contracts can go to groups organized primarily for lobbying and advocacy.” Just which groups Heritage meant was clear. In a multi-part 1982 report, “The New Left in Government,” Heritage characterized VISTA’s grants to ACORN and similar groups as the government subsidization of “New Left radical activists” who advocated “programs and strategies basically antithetical to American political and economic usages.” Following Heritage’s calls, the Reagan administration appointed several prominent “defund the left” advocates to the Office of Management and Budget.

Not surprisingly, the Reagan-Bush years proved to be ones of pervasive attacks on groups like ACORN and Planned Parenthood. Senate hearings on family planning programs undertaken in 1981 by the Committee on Labor and Human Resource Committee showcased Republican attacks on Planned Parenthood. Committee chair Orrin Hatch charged that Planned Parenthood did not simply want to disseminate health information and services, but to “change the behavior, the attitudes, and the social values of our culture” to Planned Parenthood’s “antipregnancy, antifamily, and antibaby” outlook. Sen. Jeremiah Denton, an Alabama Republican, claimed that Planned Parenthood educational materials encouraged masturbation, homosexuality, and “marital infidelity,” among other things. Planned Parenthood’s message of tolerance for “sexual desires,” he warned, would have grave consequences. “[M]assive studies in primitive and civilized societies revealed a distinct correlation between  increased sexual freedom and social decline,” Denton said. Oklahoma Republican Don Nickles argued that Planned Parenthood was “blatantly” pushing abortions upon its clients and encouraging promiscuity among young girls by including “value-laden questions” in its sex education materials, such as “What is the best kind of birth control for a teenage girl?” As a result, Nickles suggested that funding to Planned Parenthood, even for ostensibly non-political services, should be terminated. As if the GOP senator's pile-on was not enough, Hatch’s committee also gave time at the hearings to far-right critics who accused Planned Parenthood of “population control.” Planned Parenthood saw the writing on the wall. Noting that no other recipients of Title X family planning funds were present at the hearing, Planned Parenthood president Faye Wattleton quipped, “It appears that this is a committee hearing to examine the policies of Planned Parenthood.”

ACORN saw increased scrutiny during the Reagan-Bush years, too. The George H.W. Bush administration’s Department of Labor claimed that ACORN’s relationship with SEIU Local 100 was illegal and began a long and costly grand jury investigation into ACORN that was ultimately dropped after Clinton’s victory in 1992.

With Clinton in office, one of the animating motivations of the “defund the left” movement came to a head. While many Republicans and conservatives opposed the actions of ACORN and Planned Parenthood, as well as federal funding of such groups, for simple ideological reasons, movement conservatives were primarily concerned with the boost -- financial, organization, and electoral -- that such groups gave the Democratic Party. Conservatives feared that the registration of more low-income Americans and people of color would aid both Democrats’ policy preferences and their fortunes at the ballot box. As Ronald Reagan put it in 1977, writing in his political action committee’s newsletter, such voters could “get a whole lot more from the federal government -- in various kinds of welfare -- than they contribute to it.” Such voters, Reagan noted, were likely to cast their ballots for Democrats, spelling electoral disaster for the GOP. Indeed, during the 1979 Appropriations Committee hearings, Ashbrook had voiced concerns about ACORN’s electoral efforts, citing a New Republic report that ACORN had the power to determine the outcome of local elections.

To be sure, the grassroots left’s registration and get-out-the vote efforts expanded dramatically throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s. Using a strategy ironically similar to one being pursued by the grassroots right, Rathke and ACORN hoped to defeat Republicans and pull the Democratic Party to the left by registering large numbers of the poor and people of color. To achieve this goal, ACORN partnered with Project VOTE, a new left-leaning voter advocacy group founded in 1983. Just as conservatives had feared, ACORN and Project VOTE called for the use of social service centers as registration sites and explicitly encouraged the poor to “register and vote” in order to prevent Republican cuts to “welfare, food stamps, unemployment benefits, Medicaid, Social Security, disability, legal services, [and] housing,” as one Project VOTE leaflet put it. ACORN and Project VOTE were joined by a variety of like-minded groups in their efforts. Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Research Group, the Women’s Vote Project, and the NAACP all undertook their own registration efforts. In 1984, the NAACP’s “Overground Railroad” campaign reportedly registered more than 35,000 voters, mostly in black neighborhoods. Moving on from their welfare rights activism, Piven and Cloward founded Human SERVE in 1983 to push for expanded voting rights. Human SERVE’s board of directors included a bevy of conservative enemies, including Planned Parenthood, which also encouraged its affiliates to undertake voter registration drives.

With the passage in 1993 of the National Voter Registration Act (commonly known as the Motor Voter Act), one of the right’s worst fears came to fruition. Not only did the act embody many of the policies that Reagan had warned of in 1977, President George H.W. Bush had vetoed a similar measure just two years earlier. Many of the measures included in the NVRA had been pushed by groups like ACORN and Human SERVE for years. When Clinton signed the bill into law, Piven and Cloward stood behind him, and Piven spoke at the ceremony. When states resisted implementing elements of the NVRA, ACORN staged protests and filed lawsuits to force compliance. Not surprisingly -- given the roles played by Piven, Cloward, ACORN and Planned Parenthood -- the left’s voter registration efforts proved a perfect recipe for years of conservative conspiracy mongering.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the right’s attacks on Planned Parenthood and ACORN moved along parallel tracks. Claims of ACORN’s malfeasance were an omnipresent fixture on the right during the George W. Bush years, part of a larger attempt by the right to roll back the advancements in voting rights embodied in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the NVRA. As Ari Berman argues in his recent book, the historically close presidential contest of 2000 demonstrated to conservatives the electoral value of voter suppression. After Bush took office, conservatives moved to make “voter fraud” into a national scandal. The right accomplished this, in part, by eliding the difference between the virtually nonexistent crime of voter fraud and the more common, but essentially harmless, crime of voter registration fraud. The Bush administration, for example, fired eight U.S. attorneys for allegedly failing to prosecute cases of voter registration fraud. One of the spared attorneys, Bradley Schlozman, had prosecuted four people hired by ACORN to register voters in Kansas City for registration fraud. Schlozman’s prosecutions were criticized as purely political by one of the fired U.S. attorneys, who explained that ACORN was actually the victim of the fraud, not the perpetrator. ACORN, in fact, had fired the employees and alerted law enforcement to the fraudulent registrations.

In the years that followed, conservatives continually claimed that the left, in general, and ACORN, in particular, were perpetrating widespread fraud. In 2003, the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern wrote a long critique of ACORN, which warned of ACORN’s successful voter registration drives. A 2006 report by the Employment Policy Institute cataloged ACORN’s government grants and how its registration and get-out-the-vote efforts helped liberal Democrats. Making the point as clear as possible, the title of a 2008 article by a fellow at the Heritage Foundation declared, “Motor Voter + ACORN = Vote Fraud.” When Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination in 2008, focus on ACORN only intensified. Conservatives noted Obama’s links to both ACORN and Project VOTE. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page outlined the Democratic candidate’s links to ACORN while excoriating the group for “getting American taxpayers to foot the bill” as it pursued its “great hobby” of “electing liberals,” which the Journal suggested was achieved through voter fraud. Talking head Glenn Beck used his Fox News show to broadcast a seemingly endless series of conspiracy theories about ACORN, which he claimed was part of a “Tree of Revolution” whose roots included both Saul Alinsky and Che Guevara. Conservatives now blamed ACORN not only for various “socialist” policies and voter fraud, but also, implausibly, the 2008 subprime crisis. ALEC launched a “Cracking ACORN” website cataloguing its many alleged sins. Giving the allegations mainstream respectability, the GOP and its nominee, Senator John McCain, consistently echoed conservative charges against ACORN and attacked Obama for his ties to the group. One McCain advertisement accused ACORN of “forc[ing] banks to issue risky home loans -- the same types of loans that caused the financial crisis we’re in today” and perpetrating “massive voter fraud.” As a result of the repeated attacks, Obama distanced himself from ACORN.

Grassroots conservatives achieved the breakthrough they had been looking for in 2009 when James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas released videos purporting to show ACORN employees helping O’Keefe and associate Hannah Giles evade tax, prostitution and human trafficking laws. A few years earlier, O’Keefe and another compatriot, Lila Rose, had released undercover videos shot inside Planned Parenthood offices. Though they revived conservatives’ longstanding calls to defund Planned Parenthood, the controversy quickly evaporated. The ACORN videos were different. Images of O’Keefe, dressed like a suburban kid’s idea of a pimp (complete with fur coat and cane), and the scantily clad Giles, posing as a prostitute, sauntering into ACORN offices were played ad nauseam not only on friendly outlets like Fox News, but also on its too-credulous competitors, like CNN, which had been primed by years of attacks on ACORN to take the accusations at face value. Eventually, virtually everything about the heavily edited videos -- including O’Keefe and Giles’s wardrobe -- would be disproven in numerous investigations by state attorneys general and a report by the federal General Accounting Office, which would “vindicate” ACORN in its report. But before those investigations could be conducted, the GOP called for the federal government to end funding of ACORN.

Even though Democrats had benefited greatly from ACORN’s voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, most quickly condemned ACORN on the basis of O’Keefe’s videos. President Obama called the actions of the ACORN employees in the videos “inappropriate,” lumping them in with “folks in the Democratic camp or on the left who haven’t always operated ways that I'd appreciate.” When it came to the termination of federal grants to ACORN, Obama declared that it was “not something I'm paying a lot of attention to.” With few Democrats willing to step to ACORN’s defense, both the House and Senate voted to block funding for ACORN in 2009. Large majorities of Democrats in both chambers voted for the measure.

Now, the same playbook that defeated ACORN is being executed against Planned Parenthood, which, perhaps not coincidentally, still encourages its health centers to undertake voter registration drives. Following the release of Center for Medical Progress’s undercover videos, some Democrats initially moved to distance themselves from Planned Parenthood, just as they had done with ACORN. Hillary Clinton, for example, called the videos “disturbing.” This time, though, Senate Democrats blocked a GOP measure to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood, with only two Democratic defections. Since that early-August vote, state investigations into the videos have cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing.

But the battle isn’t over. Conservative activists have staged anti-Planned Parenthood protests across the country, while conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and publications like the National Review have continued their attacks on Planned Parenthood. Nor have elected conservatives given up. Weeks after the Senate Planned Parenthood vote, Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican, compared the GOP’s current attempts to defund Planned Parenthood to its 2009 campaign against ACORN. “When we saw what ACORN was doing inside the offices across the country from the videos that were put out there by Hanna and James, that was enough to be convincing for Congress to shut off all money to ACORN, which was far more complex than shutting off the money to Planned Parenthood because they had affiliates that were different names,” King told a conservative talk show host last month. Now, conservative Republicans, like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, are threatening to force a government shutdown to block funding for Planned Parenthood.

If the Democrats capitulate once again, Planned Parenthood will be just the latest element of the grassroots left to find itself severely weakened by the combination of Republican tenacity and Democratic frailty. The great irony of the “defund the left” movement has been that at the same time that conservatives have attacked government subsidization of progressive groups, Republicans have bolstered the ability of conservative groups to draw strength from government coffers. The GOP’s attacks on the IRS’s scrutiny of Tea Party-affiliated 501(c)(4) groups largely has been an attempt by Republicans to provide conservative organizations with the type of taxpayer subsidization that the “defund the left” movement attempted to deny to progressive groups. In a final twist, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which opened up the floodgates of corporate money into 501(c)(4) groups, was made possible by the appointment of justices steeped in the conservative legal movement, which was itself influenced and funded by the post-Powell memo increase in business funding of right-wing organizations.

The right’s 40-year effort to defund the left has done immeasurable damage to the political left and the Democratic Party. It remains to be seen whether the Planned Parenthood controversy will mark the beginning of the Democrats’ counterattack, or whether Planned Parenthood will join the ranks of ACORN as a defunded and discarded piece of the Democratic Party’s base.

By Josh Mound

Josh Mound is a doctoral candidate in history and sociology at the University of Michigan.

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