How a 77-Year-Old Visionary Author Became the Target of a Far-Ranging Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory
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In their 6,327-word Nation article, Cloward (a professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work at the time ) and Piven (an anti-poverty researcher and activist who joined the Columbia faculty later that year), proposed organizing the poor to demand welfare benefits in order to pressure the federal government to expand the nation's social safety net and establish a guaranteed national income. To put their strategy into practice, Cloward and Piven worked with George Wiley to create the National Welfare Rights Organization, which at its peak in the late 1960s had affiliates in 60 cities and had some success increasing participation in the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program by organizing protests at welfare offices and pressuring politicians and welfare administrators to change the rules.
Because it focused exclusively on welfare recipients, however, NWRO's narrow constituency base guaranteed that it would remain a marginal force in the nation's politics. In 1970, NWRO organizer Wade Rathke moved to Arkansas to start ACORN, which he hoped would build a broader multi-racial movement for economic justice. In its early days, Cloward (who died in 2001) and Piven served as unofficial advisers to the group. ACORN eventually grew into the nation's largest community organizing group, with chapters in 103 cities in 37 states.
Cloward and Piven soon concluded that a successful anti-poverty movement had to combine grassroots protest with electoral politics. During the Reagan years in the early 1980s, they wrote a widely-read book, Why Americans Don't Vote, which examined deliberate efforts throughout the 20th century to deny the franchise to immigrants, the poor, and African Americans. They also used their contacts among unions, community groups, and social workers to help build a movement to expand voting among the poor. Their idea led to the National Voter Registration Act, usually called the "motor voter" law, which President Clinton signed in 1993, at a White House ceremony at which Piven spoke and received one of the president's pens.
Cloward and Piven were obviously committed to combining scholarship and activism. Not surprisingly, conservatives have been attacking their ideas for decades. But the demonization of the couple by the extreme Right has escalated since Obama's election.
A few weeks after Obama's victory, James Simpson penned an article for the right-wing American Thinker entitled, "Cloward-Piven Government," describing their "malevolent strategy for destroying our economy and our system of government." The right-wing echo chamber has transformed the duo into Marxist Machiavellis whose ideas have not only spawned an interlocking radical movement dedicated to destroying modern-day capitalism but also, in their minds at least, almost succeeded, as evidenced by what they consider Obama's "socialist" agenda
Conservative radio jockeys Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin have, on multiple occasions, warned their listeners about the nefarious sociologists. "The Cloward-Piven strategy is essentially what Obama and a number of these people are following," Limbaugh told his listeners on December 18, "and its ultimate objective is to have everybody in the country on welfare, by destroying it."
Conservative journalist Stanley Kurtz has been digging into Piven's papers, held at Smith College, looking to connect the dots between the prolific professor and left-wing movements. His articles in the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and the New York Post fed anti-ACORN talking points to the right-wing echo chamber and the McCain campaign, including the absurd notion that ACORN's advocacy to make banks more socially responsible, and its support for the Community Reinvestment Act, led to the nation's financial crisis.
FrontPage editor David Horowitz called Cloward and Piven the "architects" of "radical change." Other right-wing outlets, including American Spectator, The Washington Times, The American Thinker, Free Republic, NewsMax, and WorldNetDaily, have all educated their audiences about how the Cloward-Piven has infected society like a dangerous left-wing virus.