The ACLU and the New Politics of Civil Libertarianism


A few months ago, I pointed to a number of wrongheaded criticisms of the ACLU coming from the right. The criticisms were unfounded mostly because they accused the ACLU of being absent on issues where the organization has actually been quite active.

Over at the Atlantic, Wendy Kaminer makes a much sounder criticism of the organization (and not just because she plugs Reason). Kaminer writes that the ACLU is offering a subscription to the Nation as a premium to new donors and wonders why that is, given that magazine's conditional support for free speech (Kaminer is referring to the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which the Nation angrily and aggressively opposes, and which the ACLU supports).

Kaminer argues—correctly, I think—that the ACLU is blowing an excellent opportunity to forge new alliances, and to tap into the small but growing civil liberties contingent on the right. She also argues that too much of the left has become so blinded by hate for free marketeers that they'd rather write off the civil liberties stuff than soil themselves by associating with Cato or Reason on those issues.

That's also a fair point. Think back to the TSA backlash, where the Nation's first reaction to growing concerns among libertarians about the organization's new pat down and scanner policies wasn't to support the critics, but to question their motives. When the Heritage Foundation started making some noise about criminal justice reform, the first reaction from the lefty twits at Media Matters was to accuse them of being soft on crime.

But I don't think this criticism applies to the ACLU. I've spoken at several ACLU events, and have found them helpful on a number of stories. Cato has both put out several publications with contributions from ACLU officials and hosted events with ACLU speakers. I'd imagine that when the ACLU is looking to raise money, they're inclined to turn to campaigns that have been successful in the past. And yes, most of their donors have traditionally come from the left.

That said, I think it's good that someone like Kaminer is prodding the organization to broaden its alliances. It's worth noting that the only U.S. senator who publicly spoke out against renewal of the PATRIOT Act was Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ken.), the Tea Party-backed Republican who generally elicits nothing but contempt from the left. If Rep. Jeff Flake can pull out a win in the race to replace retiring Arizona Sen. John Kyl, you could make a strong case that come 2012, two of the stronger civil libertarians in the Senate will be Republicans. (That's a steep curve, of course. The American Prospect's Adam Serwer I think strikes the right tone on Paul's civil liberties pluses and minuses here.) There's also a growing sentiment on the right in favor of prison and criminal justice reform.

The ACLU would do well not only to reach out to the libertarian-oriented politicians on the right, but to more actively promote the work it has done on issues that crowd cares about, like its criticism of TSA, its support for Citizens United and opposition to other restrictions on political speech, its involvement in opposing zero tolerance policies in public schools, its opposition to the PATRIOT Act, and its opposition to unfair asset forfeiture laws.

Part of the right will always hate the ACLU, just out of dumb, blind partisanship. And part of the left will always question the motives of civil libertarians who also happen to support free market policies—and for the same reason. But this renewed interest in civil liberties in some conservative circles is encouraging. Kaminer is right. Genuine civil liberties advocates on the left ought to embrace it, and figure out where they can work together to effect some positive reform.