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People For the American Way: History, Agendas, and Activities

By Jacob Laksin

People for the American Way was founded in 1981 on the pretext of counteracting the influence of what its founder, television producer and leftwing activist Norman Lear, repeatedly denounced as the “religious right.” In subsequent decades, however, PFAW has expanded the definition of “religious right” to encompass any groups and individuals that oppose PFAW’s intensely partisan leftwing political agenda.

From the first, the two primary weapons in PFAW’s political arsenal were exaggeration and inaccuracy. In one 1982 speech, for instance, Norman Lear portrayed religious conservatives as the blacklist-wielding avatars of McCarthyism.

According to Lear, “every generation must deal with its own Infallibles. In the 1950s, Joe McCarthy considered himself an Infallible…Today, the self-styled Infallibles are known as the Religious New Right, or the Christian New Right. To disagree with their conclusions on numerous matters of morality and politics is to be labeled a poor Christian, or unpatriotic, or anti-family.”

Second to the Christian Right, Lear considered American consumerism, which he defined as a corrupting fixation with economic concerns, as the greatest menace to the American way of life. “America,” the centi-millionaire Lear explained, “is strangling on its obsession with the bottom line. We have created a climate of opportunism in our country in which this obsession thrives, and all of us in leadership positions—as parents, teachers, employers—control our part of that climate.”

Nothing if not tendentious, Lear’s remarks prefigured what would become People for the American Way’s preferred tactic: pushing a baldly partisan political agenda while hurling charges of divisiveness at its political foes. Evidence of this tactic can be found in PFAW’s expressed mission “to counter the growing clout and divisive message of right-wing televangelists, including Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart.” Elsewhere, PFAW has argued that it stands against not only “right-wing televangelists” but all of the so-called religious right. “The Religious Right was determined to impose a radical and extremist agenda, one that acknowledged only its leaders’ religious beliefs, and that sought to diminish Americans’ fundamental freedoms,” states the organization’s Web site. As head of PFAW for many years, Norman Lear has echoed this theme. Expounding on the issues of morality and family values in a 1992 interview, Lear argued that “the religious right’s divisiveness may be another reason why schools and other institutions are afraid to deal with this issue.”

As a close
inspection of PFAW’s polarizing history reveals, however, the organization is hardly immune from charges of its own brand of “divisiveness.” Nowhere is this more evident in PFAW’s controversial record of judicial activism. A leading force in the ongoing leftwing movement to scuttle the nomination of conservative judges to America’s highest courts, PFAW has levied some of the most malicious smear campaigns in that movement’s history. In 1985, for instance, PFAW launched a highly misleading advertising campaign assailing the Reagan administration’s selection of federal judicial nominees. Omitting any mention of the fact that the President was empowered by the Constitution to nominate federal judges, PFAW’s ad campaign suggested that in appointing judges the “far right” administration was exceeding its mandate. Asked one disingenuous ad featured in the campaign, “Imagine if the Far Right had veto power over our judges. They do.”

PFAW would use a similar tactic the following year, when it challenged, and nearly torpedoed, the successful appointment of Reagan administration nominee Daniel A. Manion to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Though Manion boasted considerable qualifications for the post—in addition to his litigation experience, he enjoyed the support of the American Bar Association, which pronounced him qualified to serve as a federal judge—PFAW repeatedly assailed Manion’s “flimsy credentials.”

By far the most controversial of the PFAW campaigns was its 1987 effort to derail the nomination of the Reagan administration’s Supreme Court choice Robert Bork. PFAW’s contribution to a mobilized leftwing lobbying effort was a now-notorious commercial. Narrated by the actor and activist Gregory Peck, the 60-second television spot (which was paid for by PFAW) aired a litany of unsubstantiated accusations arguing against Bork’s nomination: “He defended poll taxes and literacy tests, which kept many Americans from voting. He opposed the civil rights law that ended ‘white only’ signs at lunch counters. He doesn’t believe the Constitution protects your right to privacy.  And he thinks freedom of speech does not apply to literature and art and music,” the commercial intoned. The worrisome accusations bore little factual correspondence to Judge Bork’s actual record. Aside from misrepresenting Bork’s views on privacy and beclouding his long record of support for free speech, PFAW’s commercial abounded in errors: Contrary to its claims, Bork had supported neither poll taxes nor literacy tests, and had championed the cause of civil rights. Taking what may charitably be described as a cavalier approach to the historical record, PFAW instead asserted that Bork had “opposed virtually every major pro-civil and Constitutional rights decision dating back to 1950s.”

Nor did PFAW abandon such smear tactics following its success in defeating Bork’s nomination. When, in 2002, the Senate Judiciary Committee struck down the appointment of Charles Pickering, President George W. Bush’s nominee for the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, PFAW set about the task of pillorying Pickering in preparation for a second hearing. PFAW president Ralph Neas assembled a
report that ran the gamut of spurious charges, from Pickering’s alleged dealings with a racist Mississippi organization called the Sovereignty Commission, to his putative opposition to equal voting rights and his supposed refusal to uphold the separation between church and state.

Unsatisfied with such distortions, the PFAW report further attempted to make the case that Pickering was a closet segregationist. To this end, it included a 1959 law review concerning interracial marriage, which Pickering had written as a first-year law student. Absent from the PFAW report was any mention of Pickering’s well-documented efforts on behalf of civil rights, which included his testimony against the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s, a decision that would cost Pickering reelection as a prosecutor in Mississippi. Pointing to Pickering’s testimony against the Klan, Charles Evers, the brother of murdered civil rights icon Medgar Evers, came to his defense, praising “Pickering’s long and distinguished record on civil rights.” Blacks in Pickering’s hometown of Laurel, Mississippi, meanwhile, overwhelmingly backed his nomination. Even so, this testimony to Pickering’s pro-civil rights convictions did not prevent the PFAW from
claiming that Pickering had a “well-documented record of hostility toward civil rights.” Going still further, PFAW president Ralph Neas asserted that “Pickering’s record, especially as a judge, demonstrates insensitivity and hostility toward key legal principles protecting the civil and constitutional rights of minorities, women, and all Americans.” That Neas failed to cite any specific evidence in support of his defamatory charge made no impression on leftwing opponents of Pickering, who enlisted his comments in their relentless attacks on the judge.

PFAW’s enmity toward judges who do not subscribe to an activist interpretation of the Constitution regularly brings the organization into league with leftwing special-interest groups. In January 2003, for instance, the PFAW partnered with leftwing groups like NARAL, the National Women's Law Center, National Organization for Women, the NAACP, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights to make the plainly partisan case that the Bush administration was attempting “to pack the courts” with conservative judges, and to issue a summons to Democratic legislators in the Senate to filibuster the confirmation vote of any conservative nominee approved by the Judiciary Committee.

To advance its leftwing positions on legal matters, PFAW publishes numerous “studies.” Purporting to provide serious analysis of the state of the American court system, these studies are in fact little more than repositories for the organization’s anti-conservative prejudices. For instance, one such study, titled “Disorder in the Courts,” is described by PFAW as “an analysis of efforts by right-wing political leaders and groups to delay federal judicial confirmations.” Equally partisan is a PFAW study called “Courting Disaster,” billed as “an analysis of the devastating consequences for Americans’ rights and freedoms of additional far-right justices on the Supreme Court.” Being little more than compendiums of anti-conservative bias, the studies are avidly embraced by leftwing activists, and their “findings” are frequently amplified by Democratic politicians, who rely on them for ammunition against judges associated with conservative political views. But while even a cursory reading of PFAW’s studies is sufficient to reveal their partisan slant, the organization is not forthcoming about its intentions, presenting its appeals for judges congenial to its leftwing politics under the deceptive cloak of support for an “Independent Judiciary.”

There is ample evidence that PFAW works in concert with the Democratic Party. One glaring example is furnished by the activities of a group called Expose the Right. Created by PFAW in 1996 to act as an anti-Republican spoiler during that year’s Presidential election, Expose the Right’s ranks were filled out by two-dozen leftwing activists, Democratic loyalists, and so-called “progressives.” Their task: to confront what PFAW disingenuously dubbed the “Religious Right’s grip on the Presidential nomination process.” The loaded phrase referred to nothing more than the Republican Party’s primary. Bent on disrupting the primary process and heckling Republican candidates vying for their party’s nomination, Expose the Right activists embarked on the political warpath, seeking to gain entrance into GOP events in Iowa.

A report in The New Republic magazine captured the group’s intentionally disruptive modus operandi: “Their job is to chant, wave signs and put a fine point on the views of all nine candidates on a range of social issues. An Expose the Right activist armed with a carefully prepared question infiltrates the audience of every public political event in Iowa and New Hampshire.” Similarly, a PFAW description of Expose the Right’s efforts hinted at its antagonistic approach, explaining that the group allowed “citizens” the “opportunity to question presidential candidates in early primary states, forcing them to take a stand for or against Radical Right positions.” In accord with PFAW’s undiscriminating opposition to conservatives, however, Expose the Right considered all Republican views, particularly with respect to social issues, to be “radical.”

It would not be the last time that PFAW became an agent of the Democratic Party. The 1998 mid-term elections saw the organization transform itself into a full-fledged apologist for President Clinton, who was then facing potential impeachment. Rallying to the embattled President’s defense, PFAW underwrote a national television campaign called “Let’s Move On.” Lambasting the President’s critics as the “Radical Right,” the campaign’s ads demanded that they cease their “scandal-mongering” and abandon their “assault on the White House.” Echoing the theme pushed by the President’s supporters, PFAW’s campaign portrayed questions over whether Mr. Clinton had committed perjury as partisan Congressional matters unworthy of serious attention. “Congress needs to tend to the people's business, not the parties’ business,” insisted then-PFAW President Carole Shields. “We're airing this commercial to make sure that message gets through. The American people want to move on.” Not coincidentally, the title of the PFAW’s campaign would later be appropriated by the Democratic activist organization MoveOn.

Following the Republican victory in the 2000 Presidential election, PFAW added its voice to the clamor of leftwing groups denouncing the election results (which gave the electoral college majority to George W. Bush over Al Gore) as illegitimate. PFAW accordingly published a trumped-up report called “Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America Today,”  which alleged that the election had been marred by mass disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida. But the inflammatory accusation, repeated by Democratic provocateurs like Al Sharpton, and granted supposed empirical imprimatur by Democrat-friendly organizations like the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, was unsubstantiated by the facts. Some 180,000 ballots had in fact been rejected on the basis of voter error; however, as was exhaustively detailed by several studies, including a dissenting report filed by members of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, there was no serious evidence for claims that black voters in Florida had been prohibited from exercising the franchise.

Not only did PFAW’s post-election report fail to acknowledge the distinction between intentional discrimination and voter error, it also contained blatant falsehoods, one of which would even resurface in a report that PFAW filed on the heels of the 2004 Presidential election. The 2004 report explained: “This year in Florida, the state ordered the implementation of a ‘potential felon’ purge list to remove voters from the rolls, in a disturbing echo of the infamous 2000 purge, which removed thousands of eligible voters, primarily African-Americans, from the rolls.” In fact, as members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights demonstrated, white voters were almost twice as likely as blacks to be mistakenly included on the purge list. To crown its list of distortions and inaccuracies, PFAW’s 2000 report featured a considerable amount of scurrilous innuendo. An example was PFAW’s assertion that the Republican Party habitually disenfranchised minority voters as a matter of strategy: “In recent years, many minority communities have tended to align with the Democratic Party. Over the past two decades, the Republican Party has launched a series of ‘ballot security’ and ‘voter integrity’ initiatives which have targeted minority communities.”

By 2004, PFAW, though still passionately anti-Republican, had reconsidered its opposition to such initiatives. Joining a coalition of leftwing groups that included the NAACP, ACLU, the AFL-CIO, and individuals like Jim Wallis of the Sojourners ministry, PFAW initiated a nationwide outreach program called Election Protection. The easily identifiable aim of the program was to mobilize supporters of the Democratic Party and assemble a network of lawyer-activists to contest the election’s outcome in the event of a George W. Bush victory.

Explaining the motivations for the program in a 2002 interview with The New York Times, Ralph Neas reprised charges of discrimination in the 2000 election. “Many Americans see Florida as a symbol of disenfranchisement and want to do something about it,” Neas said, adding, “The nature of the disenfranchise has been an incentive and inspiration to people to get involved.” Portrayed by PFAW as a “nonpartisan” effort to “protect voter rights,” Election Protection was in fact a vigorously partisan lobbying effort to prevent a Republican victory in the election. With this end in mind, PFAW dispatched some 8,000 pro-Democratic lawyers and law students to battleground states with the intention of lending “their expertise to voters .” Florida alone witnessed the influx of some 2,000 Election Protection attorneys, who wasted little time lodging nine lawsuits alleging everything from discrimination against minority voters to problems with ballot counting—before the election had even commenced. Over 2,000 college and high school students were pressed into the service of aiding the Democratic Party’s cause, traveling to polling locations across the United States to offer their “assistance.” 

Unfailing in its hostility to the Republican Party, PFAW responded to the electoral victory of George W. Bush much as it had in 2000: by proclaiming that the voting process itself had been flawed. The organization immediately released a report purporting to dispel the “myth” that the 2004 elections had run smoothly. Titled “Shattering the Myth: An Initial Snapshot of Voter Disenfranchisement in the 2004 Elections” the report  was so devoid of substantive evidence of voter discrimination that it was reduced to resting its case on anecdotal incidents of “complaints about lack of accessibility for voters with limited English skills,” and “long lines.” Trumpeting the report’s conclusions, Ralph Neas, in defiance of overwhelming evidence that the election had been a procedural success, stated, “The idea that the election ran smoothly, the idea that the problems we saw in 2000 did not recur in 2004, is simply a crock.”

Always on the lookout for the fortunes of the Democratic Party, PFAW also keeps a watchful, critical eye on its political opponents. That is the idea behind a feature of the PFAW Web site called “Right Wing Watch Online.” The PFAW research department daily compiles headlines concerning “right-wing groups and their views on the issues of the day.” By the estimation of PFAW, Right Wing Watch keeps tabs on over 800 groups and 300 individuals, all of whom seek to promote “regressive policies that seek to drive wedges between and among Americans.”  Lumping into the category of “right wing” anyone at variance with its leftist politics, PFAW makes no effort to distinguish between libertarian think tanks, economic growth advocates, religious groups, and conservative institutions. Even as it is engaged in the collective smearing of its political opponents as divisive agents of the “right wing,” PFAW has never shied away from hurling accusations of “McCarthyism.” A “Right Wing Watch Online” report from 2003 is a case in point. Titled “Right-Wing Religious McCarthyism,” the report was in actuality an attack on the Bush administration’s judicial nominees, to whom PFAW assigned the blanket disapprobation of being “the Bush Administration’s most ultra-conservative federal judicial nominees.”

In addition to their tendency to paint political adversaries with a broad brush, “Right Wing Watch” reports suffer from flawed premises. A 2003 report entitled “Buying a Movement: Right Wing Foundations and American Politics” is an example of the genre. The evident aim of the 41-page report was to show that the popular success of conservative ideas can be explained by the fact that “Conservative foundations invest efficiently and effectively.” Alternatively, the report asserted, the failure of leftist ideologies to attract a popular following could be attributed to a paucity of powerful leftwing lobbyists to bankroll a “progressive agenda.” Thus the report concluded that “[w]hat makes the right-wing funding stream so significant is the absence of a parallel stream funding progressive organizations. While progressives fund a variety of causes, progressive and mainstream organizations simply do not have similar foundation support.” However, as J. Gordon Lamb demonstrated in an investigative article for Front Page Magazine, the PFAW report had it exactly backwards. As Lamb explained: “The efforts of the Left to propagate the idea that American social and political policy is masterminded at the highest levels by rich, right wing foundations and corporations is theater. Why? Because it’s simply not true. The fact of the matter is that the largest foundations and largest corporate donors overwhelmingly support leftist-liberal causes and organizations.” This can be checked by consulting the FUNDERS section of this website.

PFAW’s coffers have consistently benefited from the generous patronage of leftwing financiers. Among the sponsors of the PFAW, and its tax-exempt lobbying arm, the People for the American Way Foundation, are such leftwing philanthropies as the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Arca Foundation, the Bauman Family Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Lear Family Foundation, the Open Society Institute,the Public Welfare Foundation, the Barbra Streisand Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. That PFAW suffered from no shortage of leftwing financial support is further evidenced by the fact that the organization has consistently boasted revenues in the millions of dollars; in 2002, for instance, PFAW revenues exceeded $7 million.

A critical look into PFAW’s recent activities suggests that these charities are financing more than opposition to the “Radical Right;” they are also funding PFAW’s collusion with the farthest margins of the radical left. For example, PFAW was instrumental in assembling the coalition of communist front groups and antiwar activists that operates under the banner United For Peace and Justice. In October 2002, PFAW convened a meeting in its offices from which that coalition would emerge. The idea was to portray the radical agenda of UFPJ as moderate, and to cast its virulent opposition to the Iraq War, and frequently to the United States, as harmless protest. Both aims were undercut by the fact that Leslie Cagan, a veteran of the Communist Party USA with longstanding sympathies for Cuba’s Marxist dictatorship, was tapped to lead the group.

In 1998 PFAW established the People For The American Way Voters Alliance, a political action committee whose raison d'etre was to "fight the right" by giving financial support to leftwing political candidates and representatives. Between 1998 and 2004, this Voters Alliance gave $478,711 (99.3%) of its political contributions to Democrats, and $3,500 (0.7%) to Republicans.


In the post-9/11 era, PFAW has been a leader of the leftwing assault on government-initiated antiterrorism measures. For example, professing a dedication to the defense of civil liberties, PFAW has vocally condemned the Patriot Act. On its website, it posted this statement: “Just eight days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and before any investigation of what might have prevented the attacks, the Bush Administration sent Congress draft counter-terrorism legislation, which became known as the USA PATRIOT Act, and pressed for its immediate passage. While Congress altered some of the troubling provisions pushed by Attorney General Ashcroft, People For the American Way believes the legislation signed into law grants law enforcement sweeping new powers without adequately protecting our civil liberties.”

PFAW president Ralph Neas asserts, "As a nation, we need to stand up to terrorists. But we must also stand up for our Constitution and democratic principles. The USA-Patriot Act and other actions taken by the administration undermine our civil liberties and the constitutional system of checks and balances.” “Provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act,” wrote Neas on June 16, 2004, “have left individuals open to secret seizure of private data and individual records even when there is no evidence of a relationship with a suspected terrorist or criminal activity. The increasing practice of ethnic and racial profiling has created a culture of fear and suspicion within many immigrant communities, especially Muslim communities. This suspicion and fear discourages cooperation with antiterrorism efforts, and diverts resources from more targeted investigations that could lead to dangerous terrorist cells as opposed to innocent immigrants.”

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