Sunday, August 24, 2014

Forty-Three Years Since the Powell Memo

I've long known the name Lewis Powell, but only in that trivia-addict, completest kind of way. He was a member of the Supreme Court from 1972 to 1987, appointed by Richard Nixon. He was kind of a low-profile guy, though he did represent the Tobacco Institute as part of his work at a Virginia law firm.

While on the court he was generally considered a swing vote. For instance, he voted with the 5–4 majority in the incredibly misthought Bowers vs. Hardwick decision, and later said his vote was a mistake. (Bowers was later overturned in Lawrence v. Texas, which ruled anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional.)

But Powell probably had his biggest effect in a memo he wrote to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce 43 years ago yesterday. I was reminded of this in a recent email from the Liberty Tree Foundation. Here goes:
On August 23rd, 1971, future Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell sent a confidential memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce calling for a complete corporate takeover of our political, legal, and educational systems. Later termed the “Powell Memo,” this extraordinarily influential document has served as a blueprint and call-to-arms for corporate America over the last forty years.

Powell warned that the incredible gains that We the People had won during the social and environmental movements of the 1960's threatened corporate interests, and he argued that “business must learn the lesson . . . that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination”....

As a plan of action, Powell proposed that elite business leaders wage a coordinated, long-term campaign to dominate the political, judicial, electoral and even educational sectors, declaring that “there should not be the slightest hesitation to press vigorously in all political arenas for support of the enterprise system. Nor should there be reluctance to penalize politically those who oppose it.”

...Powell's Memo proved highly effective — the Chamber adopted his recommendations in 1973 and in short order additional corporate interest groups formed such as the Business Roundtable (1972), the Heritage Foundation (1973), the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC (1973), and many others. Over the intervening decades they put Powell's Memo into practice and today our federal and state governments are indeed controlled by a corporate and financial elite determined to push their self-serving agenda as far as possible.
According to Powell's Wikipedia page,
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 Ralph Nader as the chief antagonist of American business.

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 through 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.
 Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson give a clear critique of the Powell Memo in their book, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, excerpted here.


Fun final fact: When Powell resigned from the Court in 1987, he was replaced by Anthony Kennedy, who still provides swing votes to this day, albeit at a center point that has shifted farther to the right. But before Kennedy was nominated, President Reagan proposed two other candidates who didn't make it through the Senate process: Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg. Their rejections have affected the process for all nominees since then.

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