The Legend of the Powell Memo

The story of the Rise of the Right is the great fable in recent American politics, one that is endlessly revised as it is told and retold by its participants and by envious observers from the left bank. In recent versions, a central place in the story has been given to a memo written in 1971 by Richmond corporate lawyer (and future U.S. Supreme Court justice) Lewis Powell to a neighbor who was active in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Powell's eight-page memo, titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” was a call for American business to defend its interests against criticisms of capitalism emanating “from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals,” and particularly from Ralph Nader (whose model of public interest litigation and publicity was then at its height). Powell recommended to the chamber a number of strategies, including building a group of scholars-on-call to defend the system; monitoring and critiquing the media; and building legal organizations that could fight back in the courts.

The memo was circulated within Chamber of Commerce circles and became public after Powell's confirmation to the court, when journalist Jack Anderson unearthed it to question Powell's judicial temperament. After that, it seems to have been forgotten.

Today, though, the Powell Memo is routinely invoked as the blueprint for virtually all of the conservative intellectual infrastructure built in the 1970s and 1980s -- “a memo that changed the course of history,” in the words of one analysis of the anti-environmental movement; “the attack memo that changed America,” in another account. A historian cited the Powell Memo as the root of recent attacks on academic freedom. Jeffrey Rosen's profile of the legal movement known as “The Constitution in Exile” -- scholars and judges who believe that the Supreme Court went awry in 1937 when it began to permit regulation of economic activity -- likewise finds the source in Powell's memo. The Powell Memo is a major feature in a PowerPoint presentation on the “Conservative Message Machine” circulated to liberal donors. Writing about the Democratic Party in The New York Times recently, former Democratic Senator Bill Bradley, for whom I worked in the 1990s, summarized the current consensus:

When the Goldwater Republicans lost in 1964 … they tried to figure out how to make their own ideas more appealing to the voters. As part of this effort, they turned to Lewis Powell, then a corporate lawyer and soon to become a member of the United States Supreme Court. In 1971 he wrote a landmark memo for the United States Chamber of Commerce in which he advocated a sweeping, coordinated and long-term effort to spread conservative ideas on college campuses, in academic journals and in the news media.

How did the Powell Memo so recently come to have such iconic importance? Why was it neglected for so long? And is it accurate to describe the memo as a kind of blueprint for the think tanks, the campus organizations, the media watchdogs, and the legal institutions that came later?

I started asking this question because most histories of the right don't attribute any significance to the Powell Memo at all. Indeed, a biography of Powell (who, incidentally, was a conservative Democrat and moderate jurist, not a Goldwater Republican) doesn't discuss it. You won't read about the Powell Memo in Lee Edwards's The Conservative Revolution, James A. Smith's The Idea Brokers, Sidney Blumenthal's The Rise of the Counterestablishment, Godfrey Hodgson's A World Turned Right-Side Up, or George Nash's authoritative The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.

Credit for rediscovering the Powell Memo probably goes to the Alliance for Justice in its 1993 report, Justice for Sale, a superb and still-relevant analysis of the use of corporate and right-wing foundation funds to reshape the legal academy; to introduce judges to “law and economics” dogma; to promote tort reform; and to build right-wing public-interest law firms. Powell's memo does specifically discuss the need for such a legal counterpart to the then-thriving litigation units of the left; and Justice for Sale traces a specific path -- from the distribution of the memo within the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to the recommendation by the California Chamber to create a nonprofit “to meet the challenge of those who have gone to the courts to seek change in public policy in areas which vitally affect private … interests,” and then to the 1973 establishment of the Pacific Legal Foundation (which remains an anchor of the anti-environmental “property rights” movement).

I first encountered the Powell Memo in John B. Judis's The Paradox of American Democracy, published in 2000, which credits Powell with convincing businessmen that they should be more politically active, and credits Irving Kristol with connecting that reaction among chamber-types and Wall Streeters to the ideological vision that was emerging in early neocon circles. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge's recent book, The Right Nation, devotes a paragraph to the Powell Memo -- drawn from Edwards's authorized history of the Heritage Foundation -- which reports that brewery magnate Joseph Coors was “stirred up” by the Powell Memo. According to Edwards's chronology, though, Coors was already financially committed to what became Heritage.

The most breathlessly detailed account of the Powell Memo appears on the website mediatransparency.org, one of the best resources for tracking conservative funding, in an article dated 2002 by Jerry Landay. This is probably the source of most of the recent interest in the memo. While the Landay article contains everything there is to know about the memo, including the specific newspaper clippings that Powell attached to personal letters that he sent to friends accompanying the memo, it falls short of establishing its premise that the memo “changed America.” Other than the Pacific Legal Foundation and the tenuous Coors-Heritage connection, it's hard to find much evidence that the memo served as a direct blueprint for the institutions that followed. And there is no evidence that after the brief flurry of interest stirred by Anderson in 1972, the memo was even read by the founders and funders of the right.

Still, some of Powell's recommendations do bear an uncanny resemblance to the institutions of the modern right. Powell's sketch of battalions of lawyers to counter Nader and the ACLU seem to foreshadow not just Pacific Legal but several similar legal foundations and the Federalist Society system for training ideologically minded lawyers. His proposal to closely monitor and harass the media for anti-business and liberal bias represents a strategy that David Brock has shown is key to the right; but by the time of the memo, Reed Irvine's Accuracy In Media was already two years old. His proposals to badger colleges to balance liberal and conservative views seem eerily similar to recent crusades on the same issue.

In other respects, though, the memo seems far out of touch with the concerns and structures of the current right. For one thing, it is entirely focused on the Chamber of Commerce itself, and Powell proposed that most of the activities be undertaken within the chamber. That didn't happen, and the chamber wasn't even that closely allied with the right until 1994, when it was forced to respond to the more aggressive oppositional politics of the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Federation of Independent Business.

More significantly, it's not at all clear that what Powell was talking about was really modern conservatism, in the sense of the Goldwater/Reagan/Gingrich challenge to the status quo that Blumenthal called “the Counterestablishment.” The memo reads as much more of a call for the mainstream establishment to defend itself against critics from the further left. The critics of “the free-enterprise system” that Powell mentions by name, besides Nader, are William Kunstler, Herbert Marcuse, Charles Reich, and Eldridge Cleaver, celebrity New Leftists of the 1960s. While one of the legal institutions that now promotes “Constitution in Exile” dogma may have been inspired by the memo, as a Justice, Powell was the swing vote on a more liberal Court, and wary of the judicial power; he would have been shocked by nostalgia for pre-New Deal activism. Powell emphasizes that the critics he's concerned with represent “the minority” even on campus. There is no attack on FDR or even LBJ here, none of the William F. Buckley pose of a conservative “remnant” lost in a culture gone soft and statist -- attitudes that fueled most of the counterestablishment institutions.

Obviously, the Powell Memo had some impact, along the lines Judis identified. (It's actually surprising, given the era of split-second political warfare in which we live, to realize just how complacent big business had been toward Nader and other challengers at the time.) But it's clear on reading it that it's no more the blueprint for what followed than Leonardo daVinci's drawings are design for the modern helicopter. Other documents, such as a White House memo by Patrick Buchanan, probably have at least equal claim to have foreseen the political and institutional structures of the right, and most of those structures were simply created by entrepreneurial activists operating from no plan at all.

So why has the Powell Memo risen to this canonical status? Presumably because it helps tell the story of the institutions that support the modern right in a tidy, accessible way, and one that shows how similar institutions of the left could be designed and built. It's probably served that purpose, making the task of building an alternative intellectual infrastructure to develop progressive ideas less intimidating.

But it's also a little too easy, and misleading. It implies that all liberals need to do is find our Powell, get the memo written, and implement our plan. Stand back and watch the course of history shift back our way.

But the reality of the right is that there was no plan, just a lot of people writing their own memos and starting their own organizations -- some succeeding, some failing, false starts, mergers, lots of money well spent, and lots of money wasted. Whether that's the model for the revival of the left, or not, it's a truth worth acknowledging.

Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and was formerly director of policy at the Open Society Institute. He writes a blog on policy and politics, The Decembrist.

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