Political Culture: In Defense of … ACORN?

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

Glenn Beck scored another pelt for his demagoguery-fur coat this week, when Congress voted to cut all federal funding for the community-organizing group ACORN in the wake of those seedy undercover videos Beck has been pitching all month. (Hope Glenn realizes that demagoguery fur starts to smell like old tires when you weep on it too much.) I’m sure Beck is very proud of himself for finally landing a solid punch on this target, considering that his fellow conservatives hadn’t been able to lay a glove on the group despite flailing away at it for years. But I’d suggest that, in the context of all the other Republican ugliness of the last several months, their Javert-like pursuit eventually is going to wind up saying a lot more about them than it does about ACORN.

Mind you, I’ve got no sympathy whatsoever for those staffers who offered all sorts of untoward advice to a couple of right-wing David O. Selznicks pretending to be a pimp and a ho engaged in human trafficking. And the fact that similar scenarios played out in a couple of different ACORN offices suggests an organization with some serious boundary issues when it comes to dealing with the more illegal and/or despicable aspects of inner-city life. (I don’t care that surreptitious videotaping is a nasty thing to do, and I don’t want to hear about entrapment. Is there no clause in the ACORN training manual stipulating that staffers might occasionally use the simple phrase “I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave”?)

ACORN certainly deserves some time in the penalty box for its staffers’ transgressions – a nice grilling at a congressional hearing, perhaps, or a period of J. Edgar Hoover-like oversight of all the organization’s activities that receive federal funding. Unfortunately, de-funding the group entirely, and ending its participation in next year’s Census, will do considerably more damage to the cause of American democracy than it will do to ACORN. And the method used by Congress to implement that penalty – using legislation specifically to punish a single organization — reeks of Democratic flop sweat, not to mention a desperation to avoid the sorts of scandals that laid Republicans low in 2006.

The fact that we reached this point at all is a tribute to the Republicans’ obsessiveness, and their well-rehearsed ability to keep picking at a scab until it finally bleeds. Indeed, the ACORN brouhaha – in which years of fruitless attempts to tar the group with allegations of voter fraud have finally resulted in a scandal that has nothing whatsoever to do with votes or elections — is a slightly (but only slightly) less tawdry rerun of Ken Starr’s progression from Whitewater to Paula Jones to Monica Lewinsky. That, too, was a relentless quest to pin something – anything! – on an institution whose very existence offended the right wing.

At least the harassment of ACORN is slightly (but, again, only slightly) more rational than the pursuit of Clinton was. After all, while ACORN is not an arm of the Democratic Party, the constituency it serves is a key part of the Democratic base of voters, and ACORN’s success in registering millions of lower-income, inner-city, mostly African-American voters over the years has directly benefited Democratic politicians. Such voter-registration drives proved to be a sharp thorn in the side of Karl Rove’s push for a “permanent Republican majority” – to the point where Rove and his minions instigated a major scandal of their own by pressuring U.S. Attorneys to prosecute bogus allegations of voter fraud, then replacing prosecutors who refused to do so.

The “ACORN” acronym didn’t become a household word during the Bushies’ 2004-06 PR campaign – perhaps because ACORN’s reputation was sufficiently high, and the importance of its activism to America’s inner cities sufficiently well established, that the Bush administration itself steered more than $14 million to ACORN over its two terms in office. It wasn’t until after the U.S. Attorneys scandal had helped shame Rove and Alberto Gonzales out of the White House — and until an African-American and former community organizer had become a leading candidate for the presidency – that Republicans latched onto ACORN as a symbol of the sort of … how to phrase this delicately … black hooliganism that Democrats were counting on to wrest power from its rightful (and Right-full) owners.

Oh, I’m sorry – did I just accuse Republicans of exploiting racial insecurities in an effort to attract white voters?

Here’s what ACORN actually does. Founded by a group of lower-income Arkansas mothers in 1970 to press for subsidized school lunches, veterans’ rights and funding for hospital emergency rooms, ACORN has blossomed into the nation’s biggest community-organizing group. It has half a million dues-paying members, and chapters nationwide that employ more than 1,000 staffers. In the last four years alone, ACORN has designed, and lobbied successfully for, minimum-wage increases in five states, and is currently active in seven more. The organization also has led legal efforts in several states that have forced major banks to limit the interest and fees they charge to homeowners, and ACORN has spearheaded legislation in nine states to end predatory-lending practices.

Compared to all that, it seems an afterthought to mention that during the last election cycle alone, ACORN registered 1.3 million new inner-city voters. But as far as Republicans are concerned, voter registration may as well be all ACORN does, because it has the most immediate impact on their electoral prospects. Since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, it has been no secret that Republicans are desperate to drive down the African-American vote By Any Means Necessary. In 2000, those means included purging 50,000 registered voters off the rolls in Florida – a key element in Bush’s “victory” there. In 2004, those means included Ohio’s Republican secretary of state arranging for far too few voting machines in African-American precincts, resulting in long lines and thousands of voters either turning away in frustration or being locked out of their polling places at the end of the night. All of that doesn’t even take into account robocalls that lie to inner-city voters about changes in the locations of polling places or in the dates for voting; rumors that are planted about police looking for parole violators at the polls, and documented cases of “security guards” being paid by the GOP to intimidate black voters; and, of course, the Republicans’ repeated efforts to impose enhanced voter-identification requirements without providing poor people with sufficient means to obtain such IDs.

And now ACORN. The group seemed last year like a useful tool for Republicans attempting to belittle Barack Obama’s own work as a community organizer; this year, the continuing drumbeat of criticism of the group served mostly as one more means (among many) of de-legitimizing Obama’s victory among the ever-shrinking, yet ever-more-rabid Republican base. The trouble for the GOP, however, has been that ACORN never was shown to have engaged in significant voter fraud. In the isolated cases of false names being registered by ACORN “stringers,” who were paid by the number of signatures they obtained, ACORN itself reported the violations and threw out the improper registrations.

Of course, none of that has mattered to Beck and the other Fox News blowhards, who diligently search for fresh meat for the baying teabaggers. They’ve kept up their attacks, and finally they’ve found a way to document an ACORN impropriety. And … nobody’s surprised. Nobody’s surprised because the relentlessly bad press ACORN has received over the last year – for no good reason except Republicans playing politics – had left it, even before this month, with a soiled reputation and few vocal defenders. The American public, which famously can’t even place Iraq on a map, knows nothing of ACORN except what the Republicans have told them (enabled, of course, by the mainstream media, which played the voter-fraud allegations for considerably more than they were worth last fall). And when ACORN employees finally did do something worthy of those attacks, Democrats overreacted in a craven effort to save themselves from being tarnished along with the group.

So, fine. ACORN now is crippled in the public eye (and deservedly so, at least for a while), but more importantly it is crippled in its financial ability to engage in the laudable activities that have served inner-city communities for 40 years. And now Glenn Beck, and the Republican Party that steps to his tune, can go off in search of other people and institutions to toss into the coliseum with their ravenous beast base.

But in the context of “he’s an Arab” and “palling around with terrorists” and the birthers and “you lie!” and the Joker-face posters and the assault weapons at town halls and all the rest of it, the Republican Party’s ACORN obsession sure looks like it’s grounded in something uglier than pure, zero-sum partisan politics. President Obama, for obvious reasons, isn’t allowed to agree with Jimmy Carter, but if you don’t think there’s a racial component in the tactics and language of the disloyal opposition, you’re kidding yourself. Is power so important to the GOP that it’s worth engaging in morally repugnant and even illegal activities to ensure that Americans of a particular race don’t get a chance to vote (or hold high office)? And does the vitality of conservative ideals require politicians and pundits to stoke racial fears, and to convince millions that their own president is somehow the “other,” in a way that utterly shreds our character as a people?

And, most frighteningly, now that you’ve done all this (and finally succeeded in bringing down one of your targets), what’s your next move?

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