How Newt Gingrich Taught Me Why We Don’t Have An ACLU Any More


Many years ago, when I was just a little tiny ethicist and ran a research foundation for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, I was invited to a Chamber executive retreat. By far the most interesting feature was a working lunch with young Congressman Newt Gingrich as the speaker. This was long before most American knew about Newt, who was considered something of a wonk and proved it that afternoon.

Rep. Gingrich gave the clearest presentation of organizational structure and function I had ever heard or have read about since as part of his seminar on long-range planning. He handed out a chart showing a pyramid with “MISSION” at the point, “GOALS” beneath, “OBJECTIVES” beneath that, “STRATEGY” next going down, then “TACTICS,” and finally OPERATIONS as the long base. He went through many examples of failed and successful organizations, making many fascinating points, including (I still have my notes somewhere):

  • You can’t have a strong organization without a strong and clear mission.
  • An organization in which the goals start to become inconsistent with the mission will lose its integrity and direction.
  • If the organization’s strategies are polluted by parochial and personal goals of staff and leadership, the goals will become eccentric and scattershot, and mission will become meaningless.
  • Even the best mission cannot survive inadequate operations, which is why idealists and ideologues so often make poor leaders.
  • The best operations imaginable won’t save flawed mission (Newt’s example: Nazi Germany), and
  • “If you don’t know where you’re going, it’s easy to get there, but it won’t be worth the trip.”

I hadn’t thought about Newt’s private seminar for a long time, but it popped back into what passes for my head when I read this piece, “Once a Bastion of Free Speech, the A.C.L.U. Faces an Identity Crisis.”

None of the macro revelations in the article were surprises, of course; readers here know Ethics Alarms has long bemoaned the ACLU’s obvious abandonment of it devotion to protecting freedom of speech and expression, notably here, where we discussed a smoking gun internal memo in 2018. My assessment of the memo at the time:

“Wading through the many ‘but ifs” and “on the other hands” that make the memo a masterpiece of equivocation, a careful reader can only come to one fair conclusion: the current ACLU staff and leadership have a crippling conflict of interest, and rather than effectively eliminating it, has chosen to rationalize it. The conflict of interest is that the ACLU is now a full-fledged progressive advocacy organization that views maintaining its ideological allies in the political culture wars a co-equal objective to protecting the rights of all Americans. That means that it cannot be trusted to exercise non-partisan, unbiased judgements regarding whose rights to protect”

Indeed, the Times article makes it clear how this came to pass. The ACLU hired lawyers and staff who did not accept or feel committed to the group’s core agenda, and in turn, allowed board members to grab control of the organization for the purpose of ensuring that it had partisan rather than ethical goals. David Goldberger, a Jew who defended the free speech of American Nazis in the famous Skokie case, sensed the organization was unraveling as he listened to ACLU speakers at his own testimonial in 2017.


“I got the sense it was more important for A.C.L.U. staff to identify with clients and progressive causes than to stand on principle,” he said in a recent interview. “Liberals are leaving the First Amendment behind.”

That’s exactly what’s happening. And because defending free speech regardless of the speaker would often align the ACLU against those it regarded as “right thinking,” it stopped hiring anything but political progressives. That was what Newt would call an operational blunder, shifting the base of the pyramid sharply to the left, leaving what was above unbalanced and only shakily supported. The Times investigation, moreover, shows an organization that is debating goals and objectives that have nothing to do with the ACLU’s traditional mission, like “defunding the police.”

No wonder the ACLU is dysfunctional and drifting. It doesn’t embrace its own mission, and thus cannot develop coherent strategies to support it.

Another organization in the throes of the same problem: The United States of America.

12 thoughts on “How Newt Gingrich Taught Me Why We Don’t Have An ACLU Any More

  1. As with colleges and universities, this development makes one wonder if there are any adults left in any of these institutions and enterprises. Can’t anyone say “No, that’s a stupid idea”?

  2. When a company loses its way another will supplant it. It seems to me that a group of enterprising lawyers could find a massive opportunity by appropriating the original mission and running with it.

    • A suggestion, Chris:
      Foundation For Individual Rights In Education Inc
      Location: Philadelphia, PA | Year Founded: 1999
      Mission: The mission of FIRE is to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience – the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity. FIRE’s core mission is to protect the unprotected and to educate the public and communities of concerned Americans about the threats to these rights on our campuses and about the means to preserve them.

      Programs: Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE Litigation, The FIRE Student Network, Public Awareness Project, Policy Reform Project, Speech, Outreach, Advocacy, and Research Project

      • Joe

        I am aware of and support FIRE. I would contribute more if they decided to expand into other areas.

        As with private or commercial activities if they build on core strengths and use their competitive advantages then they may be successful. Unfortunately, when organizations branch out into other markets, too often the missions get confused (Mission Creep) and they begin to lose the brand appeal among the original constituencies. I would assume that would have been included in Newt’s message.

        I believe it would be a wiser strategy to create a separate organization dedicated to preserving Constitutional and civil rights. This would allow the new group to tag team with Fire without any loss of brand appeal.

  3. The ACLU’s trouble is that it’s mission is too diverse. Free speech, equality, LGBTQ rights, religious liberty, women’s rights, immigrants rights, prisoners’ rights, capital punishment, privacy, voting rights, racial justice and more. Often these rights come into conflict with each other and when an they hire someone with expertise in one area, that person is likely to attach more importance to that right and disagree with or devalue other rights. America would be better off with one (or more) groups for each right.

    • NOW it’s too diverse, allowing the First Amendment to be low priority. That wasn’t the original mission.
      The name aside, the ACLU has never cared about the 2nd amendment, for example.

  4. The ACLU does not mention the 2nd amendment amongst it’s issues so it shouldn’t be expected to be involved with those issues. Leave the 2nd amendment to the NRA. It should reduce the issues it is involved with and hopefully other organisations will pick up the slack.

    • The NRA is wildly mismanaged and facing bankruptcy. This probably had an effect on the 2020 election. The demonizing strategy of the anti-gun Left has worked, and the NRA has helped by being incorrigible assholes.

  5. The NRA is certainly struggling at present. The NRA’s troubles are aggravated by the fact that they have received about the same degree of objectivity from the news media as Donald Trump, so I have to “dig deep” on any reported news concerning the organization to learn what’s really happening. I have been a NRA Life Member since I was fifteen years old, so they got their last dues money from me when Nixon was President.. After George H.W. Bush resigned his life membership in 1995 (he only joined in 1988 during his presidential campaign) it became common for a time for politicians to distance themselves from the organization which had hyperbolically and stupidly characterized the ATF as “jackbooted thugs” in a fund-raising ad after the WACO debacle. (Of course, an accurate accounting of past ATF abuses and overreach would fill a book.) Many so-called conservatives politicians (like Bush the elder) actually have sketchy records in regard to gun rights, and have often used their NRA membership to deflect criticism from the “gun culture” and signal support for gun rights.
    The NRA has recently balanced its books and is currently operating in the black. The organization has added over 225,000 members since January, with membership topping 5 million. The national election for Board of Directors is going on now, and I am joining many others in supporting a slate of candidates that pledge to move the “incorrigible assholes” out, require greater accountability and transparency and get the organization back on track. There has long been an internal struggle in the NRA between those members who believe the organization should spend more on gun-rights issues (as opposed to civilian and law enforcement firearms marksmanship training, firearms safety programs, personal safety courses and hunting / conservation issues, among other efforts) and those members who believe they should spend less. I am sure this will continue. I wouldn’t count the NRA out just yet. But regardless of the NRA’s troubles, they aren’t the only game in town. Even as the NRA had been shrinking after Trump’s 2016 election (and less urgency in the public’s concern over gun rights than during the Obama yeas), other organizations grew and have continued to grow rapidly, like the Second Amendment Foundation, National Association for Gun Rights, and the Gun Owners of America. These organizations are even more focused on protecting gun rights than the NRA. My local gun club (over 500 members) is very active in gun rights issues in my state. Our members regularly contact state and federal legislators directly to express their concerns on gun rights issues. We have seen the focus of pro-gun-rights legislation shift from DC to the states, on issues such as constitutional carry and second amendment sanctuary laws. There are hundreds of clubs similar to ours all across the country. The “gun lobby” is so much bigger than the NRA.

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