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.
The organization and those supporting it also used the controversy to educate the public on the importance of Komen funding for breast cancer screenings for low-income women (especially in rural and underserved areas), and more generally about how abortion services comprise such a small percentage of Planned Parenthood’s healthcare, education and counseling services. A solidarity between women across the socioeconomic spectrum emerged, even local Komen chapters expressed outrage and a top official at the foundation resigned. In short, women everywhere refused to be bullied, and political leaders responded as well.
A flat-footed and overwhelmed Komen was forced to reverse its policy so that Planned Parenthood is once again eligible for funding. But that doesn’t mean Planned Parenthood necessarily will receive it, and though an outpouring of public support more than offset any loss of resources from Komen this year, there’s a need for continued vigilance to ensure that the conservatives’ war on women’s health doesn’t put Planned Parenthood in jeopardy moving forward.
Last week was frightening—and inspiring. Over the past year a similar pushback has been seen in Ohio, where citizens mobilized against a vicious proposal to gut union rights, and at the ballot box overcame millions of corporate dollars spent in support of it. In Wisconsin, more than a million citizens have signed a recall petition to strip Governor Scott Walker of his job because he stripped state workers of their collective-bargaining rights.
But there have also been some real losses, like the right-to-work law signed by Indiana Republican Governor Mitch Daniels last week, or the Virginia bill expected to be signed into law that would require women seeking an abortion to first undergo an ultrasound. Recent progressive victories are mainly defensive ones, and maybe it’s too much to hope for big progressive wins in the current climate. But there are some key campaigns that hold promise for important advances, like raising the minimum wage, and paid sick days for working people.
In that context, the outpouring of support for Planned Parenthood last week demonstrated once again the power of organized outrage—people coming together to say simply and loudly and in no uncertain terms, “Enough.” It’s a refrain and a kind of people power that will likely be needed again and again, until there is a level playing field in this country.