The Powell Memorandum

On August 23, 1971, prior to accepting Nixon's nomination to the Supreme Court, Powell was commissioned by his neighbor, Eugene B. Sydnor Jr., a close friend and education director of the US Chamber of Commerce, to write a confidential memorandum titled "Attack on the American Free Enterprise System," an anti-Communist, anti-New Deal blueprint for conservative business interests to retake America for the chamber. 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 auto industry putting profit ahead of safety, which triggered the American consumer movement. Powell saw it as an undermining of Americans' faith in enterprise and another step in the slippery slope of socialism. His experiences as a corporate lawyer and a director on the board of Phillip Morris from 1964 until his appointment to the Supreme Court made him a champion of the tobacco industry who railed against the growing scientific evidence linking smoking to cancer deaths. He argued, unsuccessfully, that tobacco companies' First Amendment rights were being infringed when news organizations were not giving credence to the cancer denials of the industry. That was the point where Powell began to focus on the media as biased agents of socialism.

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 sparked wealthy heirs of earlier American Industrialists like Richard Mellon Scaife; the Earhart Foundation, money which came from an oil fortune; and the Smith Richardson Foundation, from the cough medicine dynasty to use their private charitable foundations, which did not have to report their political activities to join the Carthage Foundation, founded by Scaife in 1964 to fund Powell's vision of a pro-business, anti-socialist, minimalist government-regulated America as it had been in the heyday of early American industrialism, before the Great Depression and the rise of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

The Powell Memorandum thus became the blueprint of the rise of the American conservative movement and the formation of a network of influential right-wing think tanks and lobbying organizations, 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. Marxist academic David Harvey traces the rise of neoliberalism in the US to this memo.

Powell 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." 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 take a sustained media-outreach program; including funding scholars who believe in the free enterprise system, 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 Syndor at the Chamber of Commerce, it was discovered by Washington Post columnist Jack Anderson, who reported on its content a year later (after Powell had joined the Supreme Court). Anderson alleged that Powell was trying to undermine the democratic system; however, in terms of business' view of itself in relation to government and public interest groups, the memo only conveyed the thinking among businessmen at the time. The real contribution of the memo, instead, was its emphasis on institution-building, particularly updating the Chamber's efforts to influence federal policy. Here, it would be greatly influential in motivating the Chamber and other groups to modernize 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, chiefly due to the works of the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

The Powell memorandum crystallized a set of concerns shared by business conservatives in the early 1970s.  Many who read the memorandum cited it afterward as inspiration for their political choices.  John M. Olin, the chemical tycoon who founded the conservative Olin foundation (which helped to fund the law-and-economics movement), wrote to William Broody at the American Enterprise Institute: "the Powell Memorandum gives a reason for a well-organized effort to re-establish the validity and importance of the American free enterprise system."  The Pacific Legal Foundation, a California organization formed to counter public-interest law firms and represent the interests of business and private property holders, quoted the Powell memorandum at length in its prospectus.  Executives passed the memo to one another; someone in the DuPont legal department, for example, gave a copy to the company's CEO, along with a note saying that he might find it useful.

The corporate reports of companies like GE and H.J. Heinz and Standard Oil sometimes echoed the Powell memorandum including political statements along with analyses of their earnings.  Black & Decker warned its stockholders in 1975, "The hour is getting late.  It is time for the voices of those individuals favoring fiscal responsibility in government and a free business system to be heard."

Powell's ideas were also shared by intellectuals such as the law professor Robert Bork, who told the American Enterprise Institute board of trustees: "Business leaders will have to decide whether they are really willing to let the corporate system slide and perhaps expire without putting up a determined fight."  Irving Kristol, a leader of the "neoconservatives," an informal group of former liberals and leftists who declared their growing affection for conservative politics in the 1970s, took up the mission of calling business to arms with special vigor.  Kristol had actually been a Trotskyist during his Depression-era days at City College in New York.  But by the early 1970s he had become a columnist for the militantly conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, where he began to write columns aimed at raising the consciousness of the corporate class; by the end of the decade he had become a fellow at AEI.

The Heritage Foundation began with an executive who had been deeply moved by Lewis Powell's memorandum.  Joseph Coors, tall, thin, and sincere, the youngest of the Coos brothers who owned the Colorado brewery, would always remember the document.  Many years later he told one interviewer that the memo had "stirred" him, and that after reading it he had wondered why businessmen were "ignoring" what seemed to be impending political disaster.

John Dart of Dart Industries supported Reagan because the politician rejected the "Roosevelt socialistic philosophy."  For dart, social issues like "abortion, NAACP, Equal rights," and even the Watts riots were "trivial" compared to the overriding issues of economic and military strength: "If we're strong financially economically, we're going to enjoy the respect of all the countries in the world.  When we get weak industrially, economically, we lose a big hunk of that respect.  When we get weak militarily, we get our nose tweaked by a bunch of little countries.

In the 1970s, following a 1975 decision by the Federal Election commission that formally permitted companies to use their funds to solicit political contributions from employees, Dart refined his fund-raising strategies still further.  The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 had permitted companies to create PACs but limited their funding to shareholders and executives, but after the Sun Oil decision, companies were allowed to raise contributions from employees as well as management and to set up multiple PACs.

The chamber and the Business Round-table brought an intensifying hostility to unions in the private-sector workplace went along with a new antagonism toward strikes of public-sector workers.  The public-sector labor movement had made great gains in strength in the late 1960s and early 1970s; on conservative activist referred to public-sector unionism as a "blight" that was "in essence a product of the 1960s.  "When the labor movement tried to win a federal law that would have granted collective bargaining rights to all government employees, the conservative movement denounced the effort.  As the newsletter of the national Right to Work Committee warned, a "union-run congressional clique" was seeking "the keys of government through compulsory unionism.

The new visibility of businessmen in Washington was one side of their growing confidence; their willingness to play hardball with unions in their own companies was--as Lemuel Boulware might have anticipated--the other.

"The simple truth is that there is a new majority in America," wrote Richard Viguerie shortly after the 1980 election.  "And it's being led by the New Right."  Viguerie exercised so much control over the conservative funding base that some critics dubbed him the "godfather of the right."  By the late 1970s, Viguerie had collected the names and addresses of 15 million supporters of conservative causes, which he carefully stored on 3,000 rolls of magnetic tape and scrupulously guarded in his offices in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C.

In 1975, Viguerie branched out from the business of selling mailing lists to start a magazine: Conservative Digest.  The publications sought to unify the disparate strands of a conservative movement that seemed all of a sudden to be on the march throughout the country.  After busing in Boston and forced school integration in the South, soon the question became whether working-class parents of Boston and Kanawha County could form an alliance with the old anti-government, anti-union base of the movement.  As the Wall Street Journal observed in 1976 of the longtime free-market advocates in the Republican Party, "They may be able to make common cause with working class 'social conservatives' against busing or abortion, but what happens when these same blue-collar or white-collar workers want bigger Social Security or unemployment compensation payments, more government spending on health care, or tighter government controls on utility bills?"

Viguerie believed that the real base for the conservative movement needed to be blue-collar white people, the descendants of Irish or Italian or Eastern European immigrants, with "traditional" social values.  Such voters could, he thought, be wooed away from their support for social and economic programs and labor unions through an appeal to them as individuals concerned about protecting their families, their neighborhoods, and their homes from the dangers posed by radicals.    Viguerie published editorials urging conservatives to court the labor movement and to reach out to individual workers on "domestic social issues," even if the: labor bosses" remained out of reach.  In a piece titled "Let's Get Union Members to Support conservatives," he argued that union members were the ideal constituency for the conservative movement: "The individual union member began to realize that the more social programs his boss forced on the government, the more it was going to cost him."  A 1976 article by the former Nixon staffer Patrick Buchanan outlined the future of the Republican Party as "the party of the working class, not the party of the welfare class."

To go with this heavy dose of populism, Conservative Digest sometimes affected a tone critical of business.  Pat Buchanan wrote in 1977 that conservatives needed to make "an agonizing reappraisal of our heretofore almost uncritical support for American business."  They had to fight the perception that conservatives were "lackeys of the national Association of Manufacturers, or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, volunteer caddies ever willing to carry the golf bags of the 'special interests."

Viguerie argued that the blue-collar workers of the nation and their manufacturing bosses were natural allies against media elites, intellectuals, academics and poor people on welfare.  The industrialists and their assembly-line employees embodied the productive forces of the country, while the effete representatives of liberalism formed a coalition of waste and indulgence. 


In the 1970s, as the upsurge of religious fervor that has sometimes been described as the Third Great Awakening began to sweep the country, shifting the balance of the country's Christian population toward evangelical and fundamentalist churches and away from the old mainline denominations, religious leaders such as pat Robertson and the Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell began to attempt one again to bring Christians into politics.  To fight the culture wars, they sought to transcend the old divisions of creed and doctrine, to bring conservative Protestants and Catholics together to transform American society.  (This was never fully successful--separatist fundamentalist like Bob Jones, Jr., condemned Falwell as "the most dangerous man in America today as far as Biblical Christianity is concerned: because he was willing to work with Roman Catholics, Jews, and Mormons.)

But although tier politics centered on the cultural conflicts of the decade, these religious men talked about economics as well.  They argued that the growth of the state explicitly threatened the church, because the state was advancing norms and policies that contradicted true Christian values, and they insisted that Christians needed to organize to resist government power.  The evangelical leaders of the 1970s sought to connect the idea of the market and opposition to the power of government to the war over American culture.  In this respect they sounded remarkably similar to the businessmen who were organizing through the chamber of Commerce and even the Business Round-table at the same time--not in their emphasis on social issues (which the Roundtable avoided) but in their mutual insistence on the problem of a too-powerful central government.


A great transformation of American politics began during the years that Ronald Reagan was in the White House.  This might not, at first have appeared the likely outcome of his two administrations.  Conservative activists (the same ones who would in later years celebrate Reagan as a saint) struggled during the 1980s with various disappointments: as president, Reagan did not end abortion, he met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and he failed to eliminate the welfare state or even notably shrink government bureaucracies.  And the enthusiasm within the business criminality that followed his election did not last long, as the economy sank into a deep recession, with unemployment rising to nearly 10 percent in 1982.  As the manufacturing belt began to rust over, political conflicts between industrial companies desperately seeking subsidies and protection and those businesses that were able to thrive in global free markets grew more heated and intense.  Tensions erupted between the owners of stock--newly confident and aggressive about using their financial power to compel management to do anything to raise returns--and career corporate executives.  Today, the economic changes that began during the 1980s have an air of inevitability about them--the advent of globalization, the shift to a service economy.  But at the time these transformations proved devastating to many of the manufacturing companies that had once most vociferously protested the New Deal.

As the Vietnam era finally began to disappear, the 1970s campaigns to revive the image of capitalism among college students bore fruit in the 1980s.  Funded by companies like Coors, Dow chemical, and Wal-Mart (as well as the Business Roundtable).  The group organized battles of the bands at which prizes would be doled out to the best pro-business rock anthems, helped silkscreen T-shirts with pro-capitalist messages, and created skits based on Milton Friedman's writings, which college students would perform in local elementary schools.  In the workplace, the decline of the old manufacturing cities, of the North and Midwest and the rise of the sprawling suburbs of the Sunbelt metropolises marked the rise of a new economic culture, dominated by companies such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot and Barnes & Noble.


Phillips-Fein declares that the Clinton years of the 1990s symbolized the success of the new order, not the restoration of the old.  The end of the old war meant that there seemed no longer to be any real alternative to capitalism; if that was the case, what now stood in the way of unrestrained laissez-faire?  In the frenzy that followed, the CEO and the entrepreneur came to be seen as folk heroes, much as the Business Roundtable had once helped they might--risk-taking daredevils whose brave and courageous acts perennially revolutionized American society.  The market was the truly democratic sphere, the state for plodding bureaucrats only.  The new economic order was one without a place for unions or much role for the government in shaping economic ends.  As president, bill Clinton accomplished much of what Reagan could not: the dismantling of welfare, the deregulation of Wall Street, the expansion of free trade.  Labor experienced no grand revival under the Democratic president; economic inequality continued to widen.  Even Barry Goldwater (whose stubborn support for abortion and gay rights in the 1990s put him increasingly on the outskirts of his own party) could express approval of Clinton.  As he wrote to the Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, "He's a Democrat, but I do admire him.  I think he's doing a good job.


Phillips-Fein concludes that over the course of the 1980s and the 1990s, the number of major strikes declaimed sharply, as did the proportion of the workforce represented by unions--one outcome being the return of levels of economic inequality not seen since before the New Deal.  The decline of labor was not only institutional: the very idea of the working class, as a distinct group with its own interests different from those of its employers, also seemed to recede, yielding to a new vision of workers as entrepreneurs themselves, always engaged in selling their talents, their future tied to the stock market instead of their collective efforts.

Week In The News: Bill O’Reilly Out, Georgia Runoff, Turkish Vote

A wrong-way Armada and tough talk on North Korea. Georgia runoff. Bill O’Reilly’s future. Turkey’s more powerful president. Our weekly news roundtable goes behind the headlines.

(Richard Drew/AP)(Richard Drew/AP)


David Haynes, editorial page editor for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. (@DavidDHaynes)

Margaret Brennan, White House and senior foreign affairs correspondent for CBS News. (@margbrennan)

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@jackbeattynpr)

From Tom’s Reading List

CBS News: Runoff in Georgia House district could test Trump's influence — "A narrow miss by a Democratic newcomer in a conservative Georgia House district has triggered a high-stakes runoff that could test President Donald Trump’s influence and the limits of the backlash against him."

New York Times: Bill O’Reilly Is Forced Out at Fox News -- "Bill O’Reilly’s reign as the top-rated host in cable news came to an abrupt and embarrassing end on Wednesday as Fox News forced him out after the disclosure of a series of sexual harassment allegations against him and an internal investigation that turned up even more."

The Wall Street Journal: Le Pen Rise Before French Election Fueled by Industrial Decline — "With days to go before the start of France’s presidential elections, Ms. Le Pen’s antiestablishment and euroskeptic message is resonating with voters here and in other struggling industrial cities, where years of declining fortunes have fueled deep anger with the country’s political elite and the European Union."

This program aired on April 21, 2017.

Mary Graham in Presidents' Secrets: The Use And Abuse Of Hidden Power (2017) insists that a brighter future is possible.  Presidents can anchor emergency authority in legislation, streamline consultations for today's high-speed decision making, and champion laws that reassure citizens that their personal information is safe.  They can jettison outdated Cold War practices and replace them with laws that narrowly circumscribe essential secrets, provide practical penalties for revealing them, and spell out oversight.  And they can insist on public debate about every new proposal that clashes with Americans' prevailing understanding of their rights and values, even when they proposals require operational secrecy.

There continues to be a broad consensus about the need to protect security information from terrorists and hostile nations.  Most security secrets do not clash with cherished values or established rights.  Missile launch codes, weapons' technologies, military strategies, the identity of undercover agents, and steps taken to protect the president are secrets that few would dispute.  Likewise, Americans do not question the necessity of confidential diplomatic negotiations or private consultations between the president and his advisers.

And there have always been moments when presidents' actions create a lasting legacy of openness.  George Washington, who had a high tolerance for dissent and feared accusations of monarchical power, established a presumption of openness and narrowly circumscribed secrecy, providing sensitive information to Congress, affirming congressional authority to investigate executive mismanagement, and creating cabinet government to ensure a diversity of views.  After revelations of abuses created a national crisis in the 1970s, President Ford, known for his candor, approved new rules that staked out boundaries to presidents' hidden programs and provided oversight, and joined Congress in inaugurating a culture of accountability.  President Obama worked to bring counter-terrorism policies under the rule of domestic and international law, promised that his secret actions would always be subject to congressional and court review, and used digital technology to increase government transparency.

We elect presidents to deal with the unexpected.  Managing secrecy and openness is part of the job.  Experience has shown how much presidents differ in their interest in engaging the public in debate, their inclination toward unilateral actions, their tolerance of dissent, their interpretation of the constitution, and their honesty.  But experience has also shown that there is nothing inevitable about the sacrifice of openness during times of crisis, the sacrifice of privacy for national security, or the sacrifice of press freedom for official secrecy.  These are political choices that rest first with the president and members of Congress, and ultimately with the American people.

The framers of the Constitution acknowledged the need for limited secrecy in military and diplomatic affairs.  But they also expected that public debate would provide reasonable checks on presidents' action and give those actions legitimacy.  Concurring in the Supreme Court's denial of President Richard M. Nixon's request to stop publication of a top-secret assessment of the Vietnam War, Justice Potter Stewart argued for such open debate: "The only effective restraint upon executive policy and power may lie in an enlightened citizenry--in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government."

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Comment by mary gravitt on April 21, 2017 at 11:55am

We have to accept the responsibility for saving the United States' democracy.  Regardless of race or ethnicity, the US is the only home that we know.  And English (American) is the only language we speak and understand.  We cannot allow the Kochtopus or the Powell Doctrine to continue to enslave US.  We must fight the machine.  Demonstrate; register to vote; get your ID; and face down the Right-wing agenda, or a least STAND YOUR GROUND.

Comment by Rodney Roe on April 21, 2017 at 1:50pm

Look for incumbent Republicans to decline to run in 2018.  That will be the litmus test on the effect of anti-alt-right activities.  We have to take back the legislature, and work at every level of government to change the culture.

Although Ossoff did not achieve 50% of the vote, all is no lost.  The fact that a Dem even threatened to win in a district that has not voted Democrat in 4 decades shows that a lot of independents and Republicans are regretting Trump.


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