Social activism, the law, and the 501(c)(4) route

Many groups on the left, following the example of the right, have been de-emphasizing or even abandoning the old 501(c)(3) format of tax-deductible charitable endeavor in favor of the 501(c)(4) format, which has fewer tax advantages but allows a wider range of frankly political activity.

For some on the progressive side, writes David Pozen, who teaches law at Columbia, this is in part a matter of giving up on the Supreme Court as an engine of far-reaching social change. “The 501(c)(3) form fit snugly into the postwar theory of legal liberalism, in which the federal courts were seen as the key agents of social reform and professionally managed nonprofits as their partners in that effort.” [The Atlantic]

I would add one observation, which is that this shift of focus from strategic litigation to electoral politics and organizing is exactly what many legal conservatives have been urging the left to do for two generations: if you want the law to change, don’t take your case to an unelected caste of elite judges, take it to the people.


  • Sometimes the question comes up, why the Republicans felt entitled to block Obama from shifting SCotUS to the left (replacing Scalia with Garland), when Democrats allowed Nixon, Reagan and Bush Senior to push it to the right.

    Arguably, it was the same issue Walter mentions here– that even after Nixon nudged the court rightwards (mainly on law-and-order issues), progressives still supported judicial power, for which acceptance would vanish if Democrats blocked Republican nominees on explicitly political grounds. For example, the Nixon-Burger court issued Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion nationwide. Also in the early 1970s, Nixon’s law-and-order agenda (as it related to judicial appointments) was a formidable vote-winner.

    In recent years, however, progressives have noted that judicial boldness has become more likely to reinforce the right, eg revival of the Second Amendment, and “Citizens United”, vs legalization of gay marriage.

  • I would favor total abandonment of tax advantaged giving of all kinds. If you want to fight some disease, support your local ballet company, or just go to a party under the guise of a charity function, please indulge your interests without involving the tax man. If you want to support a politician, not only shouldn’t you get a tax break, a penalty might be in order.

  • I would favor total abandonment of the IRS. đŸ™‚

  • Part of the problem of government is that it has too much money to do as it please. Less money==less government interference. I concur, axe the IRS.