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organize or die

An Idea for Democrats: Reboot ACORN

As the GOP continues its multipronged offensive on free and fair elections, democracy desperately needs an army of its own in the field.

Volunteers from ACORN join a 2007 Service Employees International Union protest for better working conditions on Fishers Island, Florida.
Jeffrey Greenberg/Getty Images
Volunteers from ACORN join a 2007 Service Employees International Union protest for better working conditions on Fishers Island, Florida.

On Wednesday, Politico’s Heidi Przybyla reported on the Republican Party’s latest venture on the voter subversion front. According to leaked video recordings, GOP operatives have been developing a “multi-pronged strategy to target and potentially overturn votes in Democratic precincts” with the support of “grassroots activists,” who plan to recruit true believers to serve as “regular poll workers”—with a direct line to Republican lawyers to aid in the blocking of Democratic votes in swing states. Matthew Seifried, the RNC’s election integrity director in Michigan, says that he’ll have “an army” of lawyers ready to stage “real-time interventions” based on what the GOP poll workers bring them.

It’s apt that Seifried is using martial metaphors. The Republican Party’s only real policy proposal these days is the destruction of free and fair elections. This isn’t a secret: As the Brennan Center for Justice has spent the past year and a half documenting, the GOP is going after voting rights with a zeal that borders on the elemental. It is fighting a well-funded battle on as many fronts as it can imagine; this most recent disclosure feels like another fail-safe it’s building into its plan to destroy democracy.

It’s been an asymmetric battle. While there are many people participating in the effort to preserve democracy, it’s clear that the Democrats aren’t treating it like the existential threat the GOP absolutely intends to unleash. Multiple efforts to pass voting rights bills that might protect voters from Republican predations have failed because several Democratic senators believe that preserving the Senate filibuster is more important than protecting the right to vote. The White House has said it will be necessary for voters to “out-organize voter suppression.” How they will pull that off is anyone’s guess, but it sure looks like Democrats could really use the help of some kind of association of community organizations for reform—now.

Of course, there used to be an organization with this very name: ACORN, which played a vital role in liberal grassroots organizing and voter registration. It’s also best known for being the victim of the first “sting” operation of Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe, whose now-familiar deceptively edited videos captured members of the organization in seeming flagrante delicto, aiding and abetting O’Keefe in a series of lurid schemes. Later investigations found that no one at ACORN had, in fact, violated the letter or the spirit of any law, but it didn’t matter—ACORN did not survive the scandal.

O’Keefe may never get as big a scalp, but even if he spends the rest of his career face-planting, his ACORN takedown looms as a big kill—one that decisively affected the trajectory of contemporary politics. But it’s worth noting that O’Keefe didn’t pull the idea to target the organization out of the ether: ACORN had long been a bedevilment to the GOP; years before Donald Trump’s Big Lie, ACORN was the target of John McCain’s equally flamboyant deceptions. The now comparatively revered Republican made a habit of accusing the organization of phantasmal election treachery and stealing races for the Democrats; his accusations seeded more than 1,700 newspaper stories in the October before the 2008 election, according to The Huffington Post. ACORN’s eventual demise was so meaningful to the GOP that it continued to insert language into budgets banning the federal government from contributing to ACORN’s nonexistent coffers many years after the organization ceased to exist in 2009. Republicans were worried enough about the work ACORN was doing to make sure that once it died, it stayed dead.

As The American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson wrote, one year after ACORN’s demise, it wasn’t as if community organizing died as a result of O’Keefe’s actions, but the combination of a decline in unions and ACORN quitting the scene led to liberal grassroots organizing losing a lot of cohesion. “ACORN’s decomposition still leaves many community organizations in the field,” wrote Meyerson, but they were a comparatively “balkanized lot.” Meyerson also fingered Democrats for being “complicit in their own decline” for their “failure to defend ACORN.”

Describing their actions as a “failure to defend” the organization is putting it kindly. As The Huffington Post’s Zachary D. Carter and Arthur Delaney reported, it was the Democratic-controlled Senate and House that passed the first votes to defund ACORN. “Democrats don’t like to talk about that vote,” Carter and Delaney reported in 2018: “Several told HuffPost they didn’t remember how they voted or why they voted the way they did, other than to note the vote occurred amid a rash of scandalous ACORN headlines.” As Representative Raul Grijalva, who didn’t join the Democratic Party’s rush to judgment, recalled, “Democrats panicked and felt like they had to be a part of that.”

The “panic” isn’t completely inexplicable: O’Keefe’s brand of ratfuckery was novel, tailor-made for the emerging social media landscape, and it caught the political class off guard. What’s less easy to explain is why Democrats have been averse to rebuilding this kind of ground-level organizing since, and getting their own “armies” of activists ready to confront the GOP’s very public efforts. As Micah Sifry wrote for The New Republic back in 2017, one of the most painful legacies of the Obama era is that they allowed their own two-million-strong organizer base to wither and die instead of being put to work. (That Obama has spent his political capital creating podcasts with Bruce Springsteen and not returning to his community organizing roots, it must be said, was also a dreadful miscalculation.)

As I noted a few weeks ago, the way that the Biden administration has supported labor organizers has been a welcome break in this trend. It’s also very forward-looking: As Democrats face the prospect of being locked out of power in Washington, manifestations of progressive political power will only be possible far from the Beltway. Democrats, who now command the affection of the college-educated and few others—a phenomenon that French economist Thomas Piketty refers to as the “Brahminization” of the party—seem far from the communities that ACORN once knew well. A revival of the party’s electoral fortunes may well require Democrats to reboot ACORN or something like it. They’d better get a move on: As The American Prospect’s Alexander Sammon reported this week, Republicans are now aggressively moving in to fill the vacuum ACORN has left. Even now, it seems like only the GOP truly respects the work of the organization it helped kill off.