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.