“Rock of ages, cleft for me
Let me hide myself in Thee.”
The current intransigence infecting the Republican Party in clinging to the flotsam that remains of the Trump presidency has much deeper roots than Trump’s ego-driven tenure. Their demonising of Biden—and anyone who disagrees with them—as “socialist”, if not “communist” is hyperbole with a history. Its roots lie half a century ago, in the depths of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the Nixon presidency.
The Lewis F. Powell Jr. Memorandum
On August 23rd, 1971, prior to accepting Nixon’s nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), as a corporate lawyer, Powell was commissioned by his neighbour, Eugene B. Sydnor Jr., a close friend and education director of the US Chamber of Commerce, to write a confidential memorandum for the chamber entitled “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,”
American global hegemony, as the only power not devastated by WW2, had brought them widespread prosperity and influence through the 1950’s. America had risen to the challenges of Sputnik (1957) and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) and had hemmed in the Soviet Union with a ring of bases and allies. However, rising competition from Germany and Japan, domestic unrest in the shape of the Civil Rights movement, anti-war demonstrations and a rug-fuelled counter-culture among the youth had tarnished the clean-cut, crew-cut image of itself shared by what would be called “Middle America”. In 34 pages, Powell delivered what Sydnor and his contemporaries wanted to hear.
“No thoughtful person can question that the American economics system is under broad attack.”—Lewis Powell
The memo was intended as an outline philosophy of conservatism in the USA. Because the Founding Fathers had created the perfect Constitution, right-wing observers believed America’s adherence to it had slipped.. A corporate lawyer from Virginia who specialised in defending the tobacco industry, his conservative presence on SCOTUS was pivotal in decisions made during his tenure 1971-1987.
Part of the plan was to dumb down America – especially those college students protesting the war. Anti-science seems to be a part of that philosophy; science and reason vs. pro-business/pro-wealth. It was an anti-Communist and anti-New Deal blueprint for conservative business interests to retake America. It was based in part on Powell’s reaction to the work of activist Ralph Nader, whose 1965 exposé on General Motors, Unsafe at Any Speed, put a focus on the car industry and its putting profit ahead of safety. It was seen as the spearhead of an attack the American consumer movement, an undermining of the power of private business and a step towards socialism. His experiences as a director on the board of tobacco manufacturer Phillip Morris from 1964 until his appointment to SCOTUS made Powell a champion of the tobacco industry as they railed against growing scientific evidence linking smoking to cancer deaths. He argued, unsuccessfully, that tobacco companies’ First Amendment rights were being infringed when media did not give credence to cancer denials of the industry.
The Foundation Fathers
The memo called for corporate America to become more aggressive in molding society’s thinking about business, government, politics and law in the US. It inspired wealthy heirs of earlier American industrialists to fund Powell’s vision of a pro-business, anti-socialist, minimally government-regulated America. This was based on what he thought America had been in the heyday of early American industrialism, before the Great Depression and the rise of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He realised that, unlike political parties, private charitable foundations did not have to report their political activities, offering unlimited what is now called “dark” money.
Those sympathetic foundations responding to his call to provide funds, mostly for research in conservative think-tanks included:
- the Carthage Foundation (Richard Mellon Scaife—banking, metals)
- the Earhart Foundation (oil)
- the Smith Richardson Foundation (cough medicine)
The Powell Memorandum thus became the blueprint for the rise of the American conservative movement and the formation of a network of influential right-wing think tanks and lobbying organisations, such as The Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) as well as inspiring the US Chamber of Commerce to become far more politically active. The rise of neoliberalism in the US can be traced to Powell’s memo, where he argued:
“The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism came from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.”—Lewis Powell
First; Define Your Enemy
In the memorandum, Powell advocated “constant surveillance” of textbook and television content, as well as a purge of left-wing elements. He named consumer advocate Nader as the chief antagonist of American business. Powell urged conservatives to undertake a sustained media-outreach program; including funding neoliberal scholars, publishing books and papers from popular magazines to scholarly journals and influencing public opinion.
This memo foreshadowed a number of Powell’s court opinions, especially First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, which shifted the direction of First Amendment law by declaring that corporate financial influence of elections by independent expenditures should be protected with the same vigor as individual political speech. Much of the future Court opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission relied on the same arguments raised in Bellotti.
Though written confidentially for Sydnor at the Chamber of Commerce, it was discovered by the Washington Post, which reported on its content a year later (after Powell had joined SCOTUS). Anderson alleged that Powell was trying to undermine the democratic system; however, in terms of business’s view of itself in relation to government and public interest groups, it was a major force in motivating the Chamber and other groups to modernise their efforts to lobby the federal government. Following the memo’s directives, conservative foundations greatly increased, pouring money into think-tanks. This rise of conservative philanthropy led to the conservative intellectual movement and its increasing influence over mainstream political discourse, starting in the 1970s and ’80s, and due chiefly to the works of the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
Second; Disdain Your Enemy
The Heritage Foundation laid the groundwork for the later Contract with America, which was a legislative agenda advocated for by the Republicans during the 1994 congressional election campaign. Written by Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, recycling text from Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union Address.
The Contract detailed the actions the Republicans promised to take if they controlled the House for the first time in 40 years. As it was signed by all but two Republican members of the House and all non-incumbent Republican candidates, it can be seen as a unifying force for the party, which had a reputation for weak party discipline.
The Contract was revolutionary in offering specific legislation for a vote, describing in detail the precise plan of the Congressional Representatives, and broadly nationalising the Congressional election. It represented the views of conservative Republicans on issues such as:
- shrinking the size of government
- promoting lower taxes
- greater entrepreneurial activity
- tort reform
- welfare reform.
Gaining 54 House and 9 Senate seats, meant Republicans controlled both chambers. Sweeping changes, such as an amendment to the Constitution that would require a balanced budget unless sanctioned by a two-thirds vote in both houses put them on a collision course with Bill Clinton’s Democratic Presidency.
Third; Discount Your Enemy
It was at this point that the widening policy gulf between Democrats and conservative Republicans broke into the open. From this point on, moderate Republicans, such as Senator John Glen of Arizona, became more and more of a minority, as they were swept along by conservatives, led by Newt Gingrich. Unable to get most of the Contract enacted, they fell to obstructing Clinton, initiating a personal witch-hunt that threatened to impeach him over the Monica Lewinsky case.
Some harmony returned under George W. Bush, whose focus became international in the aftermath of 9/11. This involved the Second Gulf War, and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. This “War Against Terror” was such a motherhood-and-apple-pie issue that Democrats dare not oppose. It was also a bonanza for arms and aerospace industries, enthusiastic supporters of conservatives.
Any cross-party consensus was broken with the election of Obama in 2008. His efforts to revolutionise health care to include the vast bulk of Americans, and not just those who could afford it, ran foul of a pharmaceutical and medical insurance lobby even more powerful than tobacco had been in stifling legislation. In this, they found allies not just in an increasingly right-wing Republican party, but the various conservative foundations described above, who provided both research and directed funding through their well financed backers.
Money had always played a role in American politics. But it was at this point that anyone wishing to run for Congress required a campaign fund in the millions. And those prepared to provide those millions attached conditions that were almost always the pursuit of conservative policies.
Seen from this perspective, the divisive, tribal nature of the Trump presidency has roots stretching back half a century. The Potemkin Village of obstruction that Republicans are now building denyies Trump lost the election in November 2020, and asserts Biden is a socialist, bent on destroying the American way of life. The whole village is built on the 34-page rock of the Powell Memo.
Full text of the Powell Memo available at: https://scholarlycommons.law.wlu.edu/powellmemo/1/
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