A Strategic Plan for Liberals

In August of 1971, corporate attorney Lewis Powell—two months shy of his appointment to the United States Supreme Court by President Richard Nixon—wrote a memo to Eugene Sydnor Jr., who chaired the education committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In Powell’s and the chamber’s view, the American free-enterprise system, and conservatism more generally, was losing the battle of ideas and policy to an ascendant liberalism. “No thoughtful person,” Powell wrote, “can question that the American economic system is under broad attack.” 

Forty-one years later, Powell’s memo can seem more than a little paranoid. Such marginal figures as William Kunstler and Herbert Marcuse loomed large on Powell’s list of threats to the American system. But Powell was correct that conservatism had been marginalized for decades by New Deal liberalism. American social scientists, he noted, were largely liberal; environmental regulations were encroaching on corporate behavior (indeed, Nixon had established the Environmental Protection Agency the previous year); and business was not defending itself ably in the court of public opinion, much less effectively promoting pro-business candidates at the ballot box. Confronting a “massive assault upon its fundamental economics, upon its philosophy, upon its right to continue to manage its own affairs,” Powell wrote, business had “responded—if at all—by appeasement, ineptitude and ignoring the problem.” 

It was high time the chamber began to change all that, and to that end, Powell laid out a number of specific steps that the chamber and business could undertake.

Corporate America, he wrote, had to learn “that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination.” To reclaim the ideological battlefield, “the Chamber should consider establishing a staff of highly qualified scholars in the social sciences who do believe in the system” and help conservative academics publish their ideas both in journals and as books. Business should insist on getting its viewpoint represented on television news shows. It should publicize the crucial role of stockholders—“the real entrepreneurs, the real capitalists”—and try to mobilize them on behalf of corporate interests and priorities.

The Powell Memo must be reckoned as one of the most successful political directives in history. The chamber and American big business took his ideas to heart. They increased their involvement in both lobbying and elections, proclaimed the shareholder (not the worker) to be the most important figure in the American economy, and established and funded a host of new institutions (or reinvigorated old ones, like the American Enterprise Institute) to advance their viewpoints and interests. The Business Roundtable, composed of the CEOs of the nation’s biggest corporations, was created in the memo’s wake, as were the Heritage Foundation, the Cato and Manhattan institutes, and other pillars of laissez-faire thought and right-wing propaganda. The Powell Memo spawned an assertive business and intellectual infrastructure that formulated the ideas and policies of the revitalized conservative movement.

The triumphs of this conservatism are everywhere to be seen. Big money dominates politics and government as it has not since the Gilded Age. Anti-government ideology is pervasive and leading politicians seek either to dismantle universal social programs (the Republican position) that once enjoyed near-consensual support or scale them back (the position of many Democrats). Corporate America aims to end collective bargaining. Fox News and talk radio have become a massive source of counterfactual news and agitprop. And it was a right-wing organization, the Tea Party, not a left-wing one, that emerged in the wake of the greatest crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression. The fortunes of ordinary Americans have been declining for years, but millions of working-class Americans remain in the sway of the right’s idealization of markets and demonization of government. 

The right is reaping the rewards of having built for the long term. And the left … the left needs a Powell Memo of its own, its own 40-year plan. Liberalism does not lack for either movements or organizations, but its battles are more frequently defensive than offensive and its forces scattered across an array of causes. It’s time for some comprehensive strategic and organizational thinking on how to promote the ideas and build the infrastructure that can inform and spur a liberal revival. To that end, the Prospect has asked a number of organizers, thinkers, labor and business leaders, and funders to submit mini Powell Memos of their own. Reclaiming America from the financial and corporate powers that have taken it over is the work of decades. What follows are 19 essays on how to begin.

The following essays are from the Prospect's November/December Issue. We will post three of the 19 essays each day.

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