People for the American Way (PFAW) was established in 1981 as a Tides Foundation project designed to counteract the allegedly growing influence of what its founder, television producer and political activist Norman Lear, denounced as the "religious right." In one 1982 speech, Lear lamented: "[T]here are now more than 1,300 Christian radio stations broadcasting religious programing—with one new station being added each week … There are also scores and scores of local television and radio evangelicals ... espousing the same far-right, fundamentalist points of view—while attacking the integrity and the character of anyone who does not stand with them." Lear portrayed these religious conservatives as the blacklist-wielding avatars of McCarthyism who classify ideological dissenters as "poor Christian[s], or unpatriotic, or anti-family."
Lear also derided 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."
PFAW has been a leading force in the movement to scuttle the nomination of conservative judges to America's highest courts. In 1987, PFAW helped derail the nomination of the Reagan administration's Supreme Court choice Robert Bork, depicting him as someone who "defended poll taxes and literacy tests, which kept many Americans from voting"; "opposed the civil rights law that ended 'white only' signs at lunch counters"; and had "opposed virtually every major pro-civil and Constitutional rights decision dating back to 1950s." In 2002, PFAW President Ralph Neas produced a report alleging that Charles Pickering, President George W. Bush's nominee for the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was a racist with a "well-documented record of hostility toward civil rights," and an "insensitivity and hostility toward key legal principles protecting the civil and constitutional rights of minorities, women, and all Americans."
In January 2003, PFAW partnered with leftist groups like NARAL, the National Women's Law Center, the National Organization for Women, and the NAACP to complain that the Bush administration was attempting "to pack the courts" with conservative judges, and implored Democratic legislators in the Senate to filibuster the confirmation vote of any conservative nominee approved by the Judiciary Committee.
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 leftist 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.
That same year, PFAW came to the defense of President Clinton, who was then facing potential impeachment. The organization 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." Insisted then-PFAW President Carole Shields, "… The American people want to move on." This PFAW campaign would later be formally appropriated by the Democratic activist organization MoveOn.
Following George W. Bush's victory over Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election, PFAW denounced the result as illegitimate. In a report called "Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America Today," the organization alleged that the election had been marred by mass disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida. (PFAW's depiction of the election as invalid echoed the opinion of one of its Board members, actor Alec Baldwin.)
Prior to the 2004 presidential election, PFAW joined a leftist coalition (which included, among others, the NAACP, ACLU, the AFL-CIO, and individuals like Jim Wallis of the Sojourners ministry) that initiated a nationwide outreach program called Election Protection, whose aim 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. With this end in mind, PFAW dispatched some 8,000 pro-Democratic lawyers and law students to battleground states to lend "their expertise to voters." Florida alone witnessed the influx of some 2,000 Election Protection attorneys, who lodged nine lawsuits alleging everything from discrimination against minority voters to problems with ballot counting—before the election had even commenced.
Among the Election Protection coalition members were the PFAW Foundation, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (now known as the American Association for Justice), the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, the League of Women Voters, the League of United Latin American Citizens, Project Vote, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the American Bar Association, the National Bar Association, Rock the Vote, and the AFL-CIO.
PFAW responded to the Bush victory in 2004 much as it had in 2000: by proclaiming that the voting process itself had been flawed and that Bush's victory was thus illegitimate. The organization immediately released a report titled "Shattering the Myth: An Initial Snapshot of Voter Disenfranchisement in the 2004 Elections."
Even as PFAW holds fast to its "non-partisan" tag, the Capital Research Center reported that, in 2003 and 2004, 98 percent of the organization's political contributions went to left-liberal Democratic candidates.
A major, ongoing project of the PFAW website is called "Right Wing Watch Online," which keeps a watchful, critical eye on the organization's political opponents. 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."
PFAW was instrumental in assembling the coalition of radical front groups and antiwar activists that operates under the banner United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ). In October 2002, PFAW convened a meeting in its offices from which that coalition would emerge. The idea was to portray the radical agendas of UFPJ as more moderate than those of International ANSWER. Leslie Cagan, a veteran of the Communist Party USA with longstanding sympathies for Cuba's Marxist dictatorship, was tapped to lead UFPJ.
Favoring amnesty and full civil rights for illegal aliens in the United States, in 2006 PFAW participated in the massive immigration rallies that were held in dozens of cities across the country. The organization called for "incentives for undocumented immigrants already working and residing in the U.S. to register, pay a penalty and provide a clear pathway to eventually earning permanent residency; [and] provisions to encourage family reunification and safeguard access to education for children of undocumented immigrants."
In July 2011, PFAW published a Right Wing Playbook on Anti-Muslim Extremism, whose theme is that: "Under the guise of defending freedom and American values, right-wing anti-Muslim activists are campaigning to prevent Muslim-Americans from freely worshiping and practicing their religion, curtail their political rights, and even compel their deportation." The contents of this publication are divided into the following sections: