ACORNization: Smashing ACORN

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” — Mark Twain

Although he’d already been at it for some time, it was James O’Keefe’s notorious ACORN video that started the clock ticking on his 15 minutes. And it was also his grandest triumph, as it helped bring about ACORN’s collapse.

ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) was a coalition that worked on behalf of low-income citizens on such matters as health care, housing, legal issues, and labor. Obviously a bunch of commies, eh?

But it also did at least one other important thing: it conducted voter registration drives. And since its base was the urban poor, a demographic that votes solidly Democratic, this was a serious offense in the eyes of right-wingers, who had been conducting a smear campaign against ACORN for quite some time. (Al Franken once commented that Democrats try to win elections by getting people to vote, while Republicans try to win by preventing people from voting. Even discounting the assault on ACORN, there’s plenty of evidence he might have a point.) Another offense was pushing for stricter gun laws; the gun lobby is a major string puller of the Republican Party.

After the 2008 election, there were claims of voter fraud against ACORN, and it was even a common soundbite that the organization “stole” the election for Obama. To bolster this claim, the accusers pointed to a few instances in which registration workers had submitted phony names. Which ignores three facts:
1. Voters are registered by independent workers who are paid a pittance for each name they collect. There will always be a few such individuals who pad their paychecks with a statistically insignificant number of phony names.
2. There are procedures for weeding out such false registrants. Ironically, if it hadn’t been for ACORN’s own efforts to purge its rolls, the phony names might never have come to light and garnered such media exposure.
3. There is a vast difference between submitting Mickey Mouse as a potential voter and having Mickey Mouse show up at the polls and cast a ballot. (Having been a poll worker myself, I think I can safely assure you that he wouldn’t be allowed to do so.)

So the “stolen election” gambit more or less blew over. But then along came O’Keefe and his video.

With an accomplice, he visited several ACORN offices with his camera, seeking comments from office workers that he could edit into the kind of damning piece of video propaganda he envisioned. And he got them. Sort of.

The savagely edited video he released apparently showed low-level ACORN personnel offering the pair advice on how to set up houses of prostitution and human trafficking. What actually happened is that the two were shown the door, or the employees thought they were joking, or played along with them until they left and then called law enforcement. The video depicted O’Keefe in a gaudy pimp’s wardrobe which he apparently claimed to be wearing on his visits; in fact, this footage was edited in later.

The video sparked a firestorm of media exposure and outrage, along with, of course, additional media outrage because the “liberal media” supposedly wasn’t covering it enough. As a result, federal funding to ACORN was cut off, and it was forced to close its doors. Depriving millions of citizens of the services the organization provided is a small price to pay for Republican supremacy.

In retrospect, there are three things we should bear in mind about this whole sordid affair:
1. Some of the workers recorded in the video were fired, even though their actual impropriety was questionable.
2. ACORN was in operation for over 40 years, and had some 1200 chapters nationwide. It’s inevitable that such an organization would occasionally be subject to employee misconduct. In fact, considering how long and hard right-wingers have tried to dig up some dirt clinging to ACORN, it’s astounding how little they were able to find. If only Republicans themselves (or Democrats) could be that clean. (Not to mention Fox “News”.)
3. At least 5 investigations, including one by the Government Accountability Office, cleared ACORN of any wrongdoing. But by then, of course, it was too late.

Hopefully, you are well enough informed that most of this is old news to you. But it bears repeating, because the myth of ACORN’s supposed corruption is still very much with us. And there is absolutely no doubt that O’keefe’s tactic will be used again and again and again.


  1. ACORN’s demise was arguably the single greatest success of right-wing propaganda in our time (even worse than Birtherism in terms of the actual damage done, though without Birtherism Trump wouldn’t’ve become politically relevant). Losing ACORN’s inner-city voting registration and GOTV efforts was a major factor in the Great Shellacking of 2010 (a Census year) because the DNC and DCCC had let their own inner-city registration and GOTV infrastructure atrophy precisly because ACORN was so very good at it.

    A whopping eleven State legislatures fell to GOP control in both chambers that year, giving the GOP a substantial majority of state legislatures for the first time in decades, which they have held onto ever since and added onto in 2014 and 2016, bringing them to within just one state legislature from the ⅔ supermajority needed to unilaterally invoke a Constitutional Convention! In all, the GOP gained over a thousand seats at all levels of government nationwide in that and subsequent elections, and the loss of ACORN which l

    In your James O’Keefe article that linked to this one, you said that this was his one success, and it was a smashing one. Yeah, it very nearly smashed the Constitution itself, and still might (the 2018 midterms did pull us back a bit from the brink, but for awhile there was only three individual state legislators

    One of my big disappointments with Obama was that he signed that unconstitutional Bill of Attainder that defunded ACORN. Even he, and the many Democrats in Congress who voted for it, believed O’Keefe’s lies and tried to do the right thing (even though the Constitution explicitly forbids punishing a person [and remember, corporations, including not-for-profit ones such as ACORN, are legally persons] through legislation without due process conviction of a crime, which is exactly what a Bill of Attainder is), even knowing that it would really hurt them in the coming Census-year midterm elections. Boy howdy did it ever!

    Samantha Bee has called 2010 “the most important election in history that you didn’t vote in,” but I wonder if even she realizes how many may have wanted to vote in it but couldn’t due to the sudden loss of ACORN, all thanks to Backpfeifengesicht Boy and his video editing software?

  2. It a shame that once these scams are disproved it’s usually too late, (because voters have already allowed them them to take root in their memories). Remember the Swift boating of Senator Kerry, and the scare about the supposed barbarism permeatiing abortion clinics?

    Because many Republicans are such good liars, and because the public tends to believe the worst about their elected leaders, voters (in effect) often elect conmen, and let the innocent pay for the GOP’s fraudulently disseminated propaganda.

    We all need to get wise to these kinds of scam, and not accept anything Republicans say based only on their words alone.

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