As the dust begins to clear from the controversy over the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation's decision to cut and then restore funds to Planned Parenthood for cancer screenings, it seems like a good time to step back and look at the larger problem—the modern-day McCarthyism that has put all of our institutions under attack from a set of right-wing aggressors set to remake everything in America in their own image.
Like Sen. Joe McCarthy, these right-wing forces practice guilt by accusation, followed by guilt by association. Like McCarthy himself, they often pick targets unprepared to defend themselves, and institutions unwilling to defend their own. Like McCarthy himself, in the name of defending American principles, they seek to bring down patriotic Americans and important American institutions. And like McCarthyism itself, they will continue to succeed in poisoning our civic culture until America’s broad mainstream is willing to help our institutions stand up to these attacks, even if taking a side invites controversy.
The effort to withdraw funding for Planned Parenthood that came to light in the last few weeks was just the latest symptom of this problem. Attacks on reproductive health care are nothing new, of course. Support for that basic health care used to be a bipartisan issue, and Republicans from Richard Nixon to Sen. Prescott Bush (father and grandfather to presidents) were staunch supporters. But for years, a concerted minority that is concentrated in—but not limited to—the Republican Party has made it their mission to politicize the issue at all costs.
But that’s only the beginning. While Planned Parenthood is a popular target of right-wing rage, the organization is not alone. More than ever, these brand bullies have come after all kinds of theoretically noncontroversial organizations. Current targets include JCPenney, for using Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson. They include the Girl Scouts, for a tenuous connection to a Planned Parenthood education project. They include the hardware chain Lowe’s, for the sin of advertising on a television show that provided neutral coverage of Muslim Americans.
And I’d even count the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation itself as a target—an organization with a great mission and a long history of doing good work, that believed it faced a calculation in which the political costs of funding worthy Planned Parenthood projects were higher than the social benefits of doing so.
Like the McCarthyists, these right-wing bullies believe that nonpolitical organizations are largely defenseless against political pressure. And too often, they’re right. Nonprofit organizations and corporations want to take on only the most noncontroversial of causes, which is becoming increasingly impossible as right-wing groups declare everything but their own agenda to be “controversial.”
We live in a broad, diverse, and complicated society. If our institutions are going to do any good against our difficult modern challenges, we need them to be spending their time pursuing their missions, not toeing a partisan party line, and certainly not fending off political attacks.
Donating to Planned Parenthood during the recent dispute was more than just a gesture of support to an organization doing good work. It was a call to arms that this modern McCarthyism has to stop.
The key actors in our civic life—politicians, corporations, nonprofits, the media—need to know that there is nothing to be gained by caving to these right-wing bullies. It’s not just because buckling under pressure compromises their brands and their missions and weakens them for the next challenge. It’s because these right-wing pressures will no longer go unchallenged by mainstream Americans of goodwill.
The attacks on Planned Parenthood were a symptom of a broader effort to delegitimize good organizations doing good work. Let’s hope that the outpouring of support for Planned Parenthood, and the quick restoration of the organization’s eligibility for further funding, is a symptom as well. The right-wing bullies hope that you aren’t paying attention. We all know better, now.