Friday, September 18, 2009

ACORN, American Politics, & the Conservatives Who Make 'Em That Way

One of American conservatism's favorite targets, in recent years, has been the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN. ACORN is, as it describes itself, "the nation’s largest grassroots community organization of low- and moderate-income people." They help poor people. They've been doing it for nearly 40 years now. Some of their work has received federal funding. One aspect of their activities--their voter registration efforts--has become a flashpoint for right-wing ire in more recent years, particularly in the last two, as those efforts are, like everything else ACORN does, aimed at those of moderate income, who, of course, tend to vote Democratic.

The conservative critics have drawn from their usual playbook in smearing the organization, layering lies upon lies in the hope that they can bury ACORN before any glimmer of the truth is able to penetrate. Alleged involvement of a dozen ACORN volunteers in voter registration fraud--fraud committed against ACORN--is used as "evidence" of the corruption of the entire enterprise. ACORN's forwarding of phony registrations to state governments is used in the same way. Omitted from the conservative accounts: the fact that those states legally require ACORN to do this and the fact that ACORN does make efforts to flag, for those states, registrations they believe phony. "ACORN" has been adopted by internet conservatives as shorthand for "voter fraud,"intentionally conflating registration fraud (the actual charge falsely imputed to ACORN) with vote fraud.

Right-wing activists recently set up a "sting" against ACORN. On the pretense of posing as a hooker and her pimp, they entered various ACORN offices seeking tax advice on how to set up a brothel staffed by underage girls. They carried hidden cameras, recorded the whole thing and, a week ago, released edited versions of their work to various right-wing outlets. This has caused a sustained furor on the right, with the standard ever-escalating rhetoric. This "proves" the irredeemable corruption of everything ACORN touches, proves that everything its right-wing critics have said about it is true, etc.

Despite worming its way into the mainstream press, a lot of this story has fallen apart in the last few days. The activists involved, who have appeared regularly in conservative press outlets, have studiously avoided any appearances in non-conservative forums. They've failed to release complete videos. They've claimed the four ACORN offices at which they allegedly succeeded were the first ones they visited and that they'd never been turned away by any office. When an ACORN official disputed that, saying they'd approached her in Philadelphia and she'd sent them packing, they went on Fox News to call this a lie and to demand ACORN apologize. As it turns out, the official in question had actually called the police after her encounter with them; she's now released the police report on the incident for all to see.[1]

That's funny.

What isn't funny is that the Senate, a few days ago, reacted to the story of the "sting" by voting to cut off federal funding of ACORN.

Now, ACORN, in spite of some insane conservative claims to the contrary[2], never got much from the feds and a loss of those funds probably won't make that big a difference to the organization but the whole affair is illustrative of the Alice-in-Wonderland nature of contemporary American conservatism and points to some larger fundamental problems with American politics.

Rock-solid Glenn Greenwald wrote about this yesterday:
"ACORN has received a grand total of $53 million in federal funds over the last 15 years--an average of $3.1 million per year. Meanwhile, not millions, not billions, but trillions of dollars of public funds have been, in the last year alone, transferred to or otherwise used for the benefit of Wall Street. Billions of dollars in American taxpayer money vanished into thin air, eaten by private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, led by Halliburton subsidiary KBR. All of those corporate interests employ armies of lobbyists and bottomless donor activities that ensure they dominate our legislative and regulatory processes, and to be extra certain, the revolving door between industry and government is more prolific than ever, with key corporate officials constantly ending up occupying the government positions with the most influence over those industries.

"So with this massive pillaging of America's economic security and its control of American government by its richest and most powerful factions growing by the day, to whom is America's intense economic anxiety being directed? To a non-profit group that devotes itself to providing minute benefits to people who live under America's poverty line, and which is so powerless in Washington that virtually the entire U.S. Senate just voted to cut off its funding at the first sign of real controversy--could anyone imagine that happening to a key player in the banking or defense industry?"
Stirring up anger against some powerless, relatively insignificant entity like ACORN is a standard practice of the American conservative elite It's a tactic and it's no accident that it keeps people battling among themselves in order to prevent them from uniting and presenting a potential threat the the prerogatives of the wealthy, the powerful, the corporate interests who actually control the U.S.

Nearly every "issue" that has made conservatism a mass movement in the U.S. is of this nature. Some enemy is identified, usually something or someone of no real consequence, and the full venom of the right is unleashed against it. We're told the real problem with America is illegal immigrants with brown skin and a different language, baby-killing abortionists, pointy-headed intellectuals at colleges, hedonistic homosexuals, welfare recipients, godless heathens who remove prayer from schools, socialist would-be dictators, liberals and the Hollywood "elite." At this rhetoric's most extreme, we're told there is, being waged against the U.S., a "culture war," a phrase and concept lifted directly from the Third Reich.

The effectiveness of those who respond to this sort of rhetoric is usually minimal, insofar as the phony "issues" they've adopted are concerned. Abortion remains legal, government continues to stay out of the business of endorsing religion, homosexuals are not officially condemned by the State, etc.

Organization around these issues is, however, remarkably effective at implementing policies that are to the benefit of the, broadly speaking, money elite in the U.S.. Vote for a candidate who promises to ban abortion, all you get is an elected official who votes for trade policies that deindustrialize the country to the benefit of that elite. Vote for someone who promises to keep the homos in line, all you get is an elected official who votes for tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. Vote for the candidate who promises to ban flag burning, all you get is an elected official who votes to take away your right to sue your doctor when he goes into surgery drunk and leaves you a quadriplegic. And so on. Often the populations affected the worst by these policies are the very ones that react most strongly to the wedge issues and empower these policies' implementation.

The conservatives go after ACORN because ACORN's voter registration efforts are aimed at demographic groups who tend to vote Democratic but liberals and the left in general are challenged by them much more broadly--to the point that words like "liberal" and "socialist" have become curses--because the left is seen as a potential challenge to the prerogatives of the money elite. The economy is said to function like a force of nature. Deindustrialization is, in this view, like a flood or a hurricane or an earthquake, rather than a predictable consequence of entirely intentional right-wing policy. Worse, any sort of progressive policy proposals are presented as "socialist" intrusions, the actions of a Bolshevist state. When the U.S. government began its run of massive bailouts of failed businesses last year, there was public anger. When it turned out the executives at AIG were getting huge bonuses, even while being bailed out, there was even more anger. The conservatives have worked tirelessly to harness this anger and redirect it away from businesses and toward the government, constructing a scenario wherein the bailouts aren't a consequence of the total domination of Washington by business interests but are, instead, a socialistic power-grab by the would-be Bolshevist in the White House (and that all of these bailouts were actually undertaken by Obama's conservative Republican predecessor is quietly buried).

These aren't insignificant matters. The intensity of the conservatives' focus on ACORN in recent days and the remarkable degree of hatred and bile poured upon what is, in the end, a small, relatively insignificant entity is inexplicable without an understanding of them. American conservatism itself is inexplicable without that understanding.



[1] The ACORN employee they caught on camera at one of their "successes" said she saw through their ruse immediately, didn't take anything they said seriously and plied them with ridiculous comments. She told them she'd murdered her husband and this was picked up by those pimping the story as a shocking revelation and actually spurred an investigation by law enforcement. As it turns out, her ex-husbands are all alive and well.

[2] Sean Hannity put the amount in the "trillions." The actual amount is a little over $3 million/year for the last 15 years.

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