Powell Memorandum, 1971 Reply

This is the Wikipedia description of the Powell Memorandum described in the Sam Sedar video in the post adjacent to this one. It is particularly interesting to compare the Powell Memorandum with the Dutton Strategy that was developed at precisely the same time. In many ways, Powell defined the future of “conservatism” while Dutton defined the future of “liberalism.” What we are seeing now is a convergence of the two in the form of the digital revolution, the rise of the tech-oligarchy, and the emergence of the new clerisy.

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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 for the chamber entitled “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,” an anti-Communist and anti-New Deal blueprint for conservative business interests to retake America.[14][15] 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 the power of private business and an ostensible step towards socialism.[14] 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.[14] 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.[14]

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 such as Richard Mellon Scaife, the Earhart Foundation (whose money came from an oil fortune), and the Smith Richardson Foundation (from the cough medicine dynasty)[14] 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)[14] to fund Powell’s vision of a pro-business, anti-socialist, minimally government-regulated America 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.

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 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.[16][17] CUNY professor David Harvey traces the rise of neoliberalism in the US to this memo.[18][19]

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 undertake a sustained media-outreach program; including funding neoliberal scholars, publishing books and papers from popular magazines to scholarly journals and influencing public opinion.[20][21]

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 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’s 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 was a major force 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, and due chiefly to the works of the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

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