Right-Wing Rollback: The Powell Memo

If the attacks on the legislative agenda of the Obama administration seem to be coming from all directions, that’s the desired outcome of 40 years of strategic funding by right-wing elites seeking to roll back the New Deal and restore "free market" government policies.

After Goldwater lost the 1964 election, articles in ultraconservative publications bemoaned the rise of a "liberal establishment." In 1965 conservative ideologue M. Stanton Evans wrote The Liberal Establishment: Who Runs America…and How. In response, right-wing activists decided they needed to set up a "counter-establishment." Yet they still needed millions of dollars to build an infrastructure to make their plan succeed.

The effort went slowly for a few years, but in 1971 a corporate attorney, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., wrote a memo that would unlock the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars from conservatives to roll back the New Deal and create a New Right. Powell, a former president of the American Bar Association who had become a well-established attorney in Richmond, Virginia, eventually proposed a coordinated campaign to reshape the ideological debate in the media, on college campuses, and in the political and legal arenas. The memo was widely circulated among business and political leaders, reaching the White House. A few months later, President Nixon appointed Powell to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The memo, marked "confidential," was titled "Attack of American Free Enterprise System," and was sent to Eugene B. Sydnor, Jr., Chair Education Committee, U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Capitol Hill columnist Jack Anderson obtained a copy and published several pieces exposing the content. The Chamber then decided to publish it in their house organ, Washington Report, which is sent to members. Author Jerry Landay calls the Powell Memo a "document with unmistakably authoritarian overtones that were to reverberate throughout the business community."

Powell specifically cited several published works as prompting his concerns, including a column by William F. Buckley, Jr.; a column by Stewart Alsop; and an essay by Milton Friedman, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago. The memo echoes the longstanding complaints of ultraconservatives and repeats many of the claims appearing in publications such as the Freeman and National Review. For example, Powell warns: "We in America already have moved very far indeed toward some aspects of state socialism, as the needs and complexities of a vast urban society require types of regulation and control that were quite unnecessary in earlier times. In some areas, such regulation and control already has seriously impaired the freedom of both business and labor, and indeed of the public generally."

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," was part of a slippery slope whereby "the contraction and denial of economic freedom is followed inevitably by governmental restrictions on other cherished rights….

"There seems to be little awareness that the only alternatives to free enterprise are varying degrees of bureaucratic regulation of individual freedom—ranging from that under moderate socialism to the iron heel of the leftist or rightist dictatorship."

Powell urged corporate America to fund four coordinated and overlapping campaigns to take back America from the "liberals" and the "New Left:"

1. education and college students: "We have seen the civil rights movement insist on re-writing many of the textbooks in our universities and schools. The labor unions likewise insist that textbooks be fair to the viewpoints of organized labor. Other interested citizens groups have not hesitated to review, analyze and criticize textbooks and teaching materials…. Social science faculties (the political scientist, economist, sociologist and many of the historians) tend to be liberally oriented, even when leftists are not present."

2. Public media, especially television: "The national television networks should be monitored in the same way that textbooks should be kept under constant surveillance. This applies not merely to so-called educational programs…but to the daily ‘news analysis’ which so often includes the most insidious type of criticism of the enterprise system…. Whether this criticism results from hostility or economic ignorance, the result is the gradual erosion of confidence in ‘business’ and free enterprise."

3. Politics and political power: "Business has been the favorite whipping-boy of many politicians for many years. But the measure of how far this has gone is perhaps best found in the anti-business views now being expressed by several leading candidates for President of the United States…. Business must learn the lesson, long ago learned by labor and other self-interest groups. This is 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."

4. The courts, the judicial system, and legal policy: "Labor unions, civil rights groups and now the public interest law firms are extremely active in the judicial arena. Their success, often at business’ expense, has not been inconsequential…. American business and the enterprise system have been affected as much by the courts as by the executive and legislative branches of government. Under our constitutional system, especially with an activist-minded Supreme Court, the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change."

Conservative strategist Lee Edwards reported that beer magnate Joseph Coors was "stirred up" by the memo and became convinced that the business community was "ignoring a crisis." Landay notes that Coors "invested" the "first $250,000 to fund the 1971-1972 operations of the Analysis and Research Association (ARA) in Washington, DC," and soon other "wealthy contributors followed Coors’s lead." ARA evolved into the Heritage Foundation, a leading and influential conservative think tank. Since 1971 hundreds of millions of dollars have been given to fund a variety of right-wing infrastructure projects—including a national and state network of think tanks, training centers, watchdog groups, opposition research groups, media outlets, and endowed chairs for professors at universities. The resulting frisson of competing ideas from libertarians, corporate executives, the Christian Right, and other tendencies helped build a series of social movements that pulled the Republican Party to the right.

Some liberals dismiss the importance of the Powell memo. Mark Schmitt of the American Prospect wrote in 2005, "The reality of the right is that there was no plan, just a lot of people writing their own memos and starting their own organization…." In one sentence, Schmitt dismisses the idea that strategic planning using ideology, frames, and narratives can build social movements. So much for Sociology 101.

Sally Covington in Moving a Public Policy Agenda provides a clearer analysis. "Conservative foundations have developed and implemented a highly effective and politically-informed approach to public policy grantmaking. Grants analysis shows that their funding represents an impressively coherent and concerted effort to undermine—and ultimately redirect—what they and other conservatives have regarded as the institutional strongholds of modern American liberalism: academia, Congress, the judiciary, executive branch agencies, major media, and even philanthropy."

Most of the conservative funding went to support social movement infrastructure, not to the Republican Party or its apparatchiks. Right-wing ideologues read Gramsci and ironically began to talk about "cultural hegemony" as their model. The energized right-wing movements pulled the Republican Party to the Right. Now out of power, the rightists bombard the mainstream media with their ideological missives from a multitude of ideological bunkers.


Chip Berlet is senior analyst at Political Research Associates (www.Publiceye.org), and a vice-president of the Defending Dissent (www.Defendingdissent.org). The views here are his own. Read more about the Powell Memo at www.rachel.org/en/node/3347.