In 2010, when the right-wing echo chamber succeeded in destroying ACORN—a group Bill Moyers described as “more devoted to helping poor people become their own best champions” than any group he’d ever covered as a journalist—Senator Bernie Sanders offered this warning:
“These same forces drummed Van Jones out of the White House. The rightwing echo chamber is now two-for-two, and no one should have any illusions that it won’t be back.”
Sanders’ words proved prescient. Since 2010 Planned Parenthood—along with organized labor—has been a prime target of a well-funded and relentless effort by Republicans to dismantle and destroy progressive institutions. While the right might employ different tactics depending on the target, the goal is the same: take down progressive groups that have institutional strength.
This strategy was starkly revealed again last week when the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation announced its decision to end funding for Planned Parenthood based on a (bogus) investigation launched by House Republicans into whether taxpayer money is being used to fund abortions. Komen attributed its decision to an internal policy not to fund organizations under federal investigation. There are reports, however, “that the rule was adopted in order to create an excuse to cut off Planned Parenthood.”
The attacks on Planned Parenthood—and the way the organization fought back—made me think back to the battle that progressives lost over ACORN. It seems worthwhile revisiting a few lessons learned from that devastating loss.
In ACORN’s case, the right’s plan of attack involved playing distorted video footage over and over again on Fox, and then steamrolling an unconstitutional de-funding of the organization through Congress as too many feckless Democrats—even some normally good allies—capitulated. Only later did the public learn that the “shocking” videos were fabricated, and at least forty-six federal, state, and local investigations cleared ACORN of wrongdoing. (Much too late for ACORN to survive, though new groups are emerging to try to fill its void.)
In the aftermath, it was clear that when the right strikes, retreat and capitulation lead to tougher attacks. Instead, standing up for our principles and taking our own side in an argument seem to work time and again. What’s also key is a strategy for pushing back that actually builds activism and a network of supporters inside and outside the organization who won’t allow the right-wing echo chamber to frame or dictate media coverage.
Planned Parenthood turned out to be a much more formidable foe for the right, perhaps because it’s involved in the lives of one out of every six women, as the organization’s president Cecile Richards notes. Its savvy team and allies wasted no time in fighting back via social media, live media, and with Congressional and local allies. They engaged their followers—and others coming to Planned Parenthood for the first time—on matters of the heart and emotion as well as politics. There was a recognition that Komen’s decision impacted our mothers, our daughters, our friends, our sisters, our neighbors.