In the late 1960s, the ACLU was a small but powerful liberal organization devoted to a civil libertarian agenda composed primarily of devotion to freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, and the rights of accused criminals. In the early 1970s, the ACLU’s membership rose from around 70,000 to almost 300,000. Many new members were attracted by the organization’s opposition to the Vietnam War and its high-profile battles with President Nixon, but such members were not committed to the ACLU’s broader civil libertarian agenda. However, the organization’s defense of the KKK’s right to march in Skokie, Illinois, in the late 1970s weeded out some of these fair-weather supporters and attracted some new free speech devotees. But George H. W. Bush’s criticisms of the ACLU during the 1988 presidential campaign again attracted many liberal members not especially devoted to civil liberties.
To maintain its large membership base, the ACLU recruited new members by directing mass mailings to mailing lists rented from a broad range of liberal groups. The result of the shift of the ACLU to a mass membership organization was that it gradually transformed itself from a civil libertarian organization into a liberal organization with an interest in civil liberties. This problem was exacerbated by the growth within the ACLU of autonomous, liberal, special interest cliques known as “projects.” These projects have included an AIDS Project, a Capital Punishment Project, a Children’s Rights Project, an Immigrants’ Rights Project, a Lesbian and Gay Project, a National Prison Project, a Women’s Rights Project, a Civil Liberties in the Workplace Project, a Privacy and Technology Project, and an Arts Censorship Project. This loss of focus led Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz to waggishly suggest that “perhaps the Civil Liberties Union needs a civil liberties project.”
Since the George W. Bush administration, the ACLU’s dedication to its traditional civil libertarian mission has waned ever further. With the election of Donald Trump, its membership rolls have grown to almost two million, almost all of them liberal politically, few of whom are devoted to civil liberties as such. Meanwhile, the left in general has become less interested in, and in some cases opposed to, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the rights of the accused.