An Analytical Field Guide for Economic Justice
A Forthcoming Book
by Chip Berlet
The Powell Memo
Why Conservatives Use Strategic Funding to Smash Progressive Policies and Labor Unions
In 1971 corporate attorney Lewis F. Powell, Jr. wrote an influential memo claiming that there was an organized “Attack [on the] American Free Enterprise System.” To counter this Powell suggested a coordinated campaign to reshape the ideological debate on college campuses, in the media, and in the political and legal arenas. On campus, Powell complained about the leftward drift of education and college students:
Powell urged corporate America to fund coordinated and overlapping campaigns to take back America from the liberals and the New Left. Prefiguring the tropes of the Tea Party movement, Powell suggested the "threat to the enterprise system is not merely a matter of economics. It also is a threat to individual freedom." He claimed: "inequitable taxation" was part of a trend that, as "the experience of the socialist and totalitarian states demonstrates," greased a slippery slope whereby "the contraction and denial of economic freedom is followed inevitably by governmental restrictions on other cherished rights."
The Powell memo was widely circulated among business and political leaders and reached the White House. Within a few months, Powell was named by President Richard Nixon to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. [i]
The 1971 Powell memo picked up on longstanding conservative and libertarian complaints about statism, collectivism, and big government; as well as a defense of a Laissez Faire model of political economy. All of this had previously been aired in conservative publications including the Freeman and National Review. This time, however, a number of wealthy ultraconservatives such as Richard Mellon Scaife, Joseph Coors and others began funding right-wing organizations and institutions in a strategic manner to help build a national and state network of think tanks, training centers, watchdog groups, opposition research groups, magazines, and endowed chairs for professors at universities.[ii]
William Simon, an ultraconservative ideologue, chose election year 1978 to renew the call to bolster public support to defend the “Free Enterprise” system against what he termed the liberal onslaught. Simon had served as Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Nixon and Ford from 1974 to 1977. Simon urged that money “generated by business (by which I mean profits, funds in business foundations and contributions from individual businessmen) must rush by multimillions to the aid of liberty…to funnel desperately needed funds to scholars, social scientists, writers, and journalists who understand the relationship between political and economic liberty.”[iii]
Many of the claims that democracy and liberty require particular nineteenth century "neoclassical" Free Market economics came from ultraconservative ideologues at the University of Chicago.[iv] Whether or not Strauss was the progenitor of neoconservatism, the Chicago School of political economy became popular across various sectors of the Political Right. Corporate conservatives such as Powell and neoconservatives such as Simon can agree on some underlying economic policy matters, while fiercely debating other issues.
In 1971 Karl Rove (who is now key Republican strategy adviser), became the executive director of the national College Republicans. That was the same year Powell wrote his memo that would unlock the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars from conservatives to roll back the New Deal and the New Left and create a New Right. This marked a lurch to the Right by the young Republicans. It also saw the expansion of a significant number of programs to identify and train conservative students on college campuses. As Pam Chamberlain found in 2005:
The concerted effort to fund a counter-offensive aimed at restoring conservative and traditional curricula and program on college campuses was effective.[vi] This has continued to today. Between the 1971 Powell Memo and the rise of the Tea Party movement and the attack on President Obama as a socialist totalitarian, more than $1 billion was spent by conservative organizations on conducting a war on progressive ideas.
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