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The Powell Memo


I had never read the (in)famous memo written by Lewis Powell to the Chamber of Commerce in the summer of 1971. Having just plowed through the text, I have some thoughts:

(1) The tone of the whole thing is your basic hysterical right wing conspiracy theory smoothed into more respectable and dulcet tones by a courtly Virginia lawyer. The underlying thesis is that the New Deal and its ideological champions in the universities are putting America on the road to socialism if not communism, and that business must organize a propaganda campaign to fight back, before the Free Enterprise System and Individual Freedom are both deader than Marley.

(2) The particular bete noires of Powell’s diatribe are Ralph Nader — an amusing and horrifying footnote in the memo notes that Nader got a standing ovation at some college lecture when he mentioned he was considering running for president, the schmuck — Herbert Marcuse, the Frankfurt School refugee at the University of California who was the particular target of Ronald Reagan’s ire when Reagan was attacking the communist influence on California’s impressionable youth, and Charles Reich, the now almost completely forgotten Yale law school professor who wrote the best-selling (and truly absurd) The Greening of America.

(3) In his grave visit to Powell, Erik argues that the significance of the memo has probably been exaggerated, and I think this is almost certainly true. It’s more a reflection of the zeitgeist, and an important one for that reason, than it is the actual genetic source of the sustained reactionary counterattack on New Deal America that is at the center of the Reagan revolution. What it does do is lay out a plan of attack that, in its broad outlines, a lot of enemies of the regulatory state and even the most mild redistributionist politics were already beginning to plan at the dawn of the 1970s.

(4) Fun fact: Powell was nominated to the SCOTUS by Nixon a couple of months after he wrote the memo, which was a secret document at the time. The muckraking journalist Jack Anderson revealed its existence a year later. Powell was 64 when Nixon chose him, and keep in mind that 64 was quite a bit older in 1971 than it is today, which illustrates how much less emphasis was put on controlling the SCOTUS in those days (ironic in this particular circumstance, as Powell emphasizes in the memo the importance of stocking the federal courts with Friends of Capital). Also, Powell had apparently turned down Nixon’s offer to join the SCOTUS two years earlier, because he was making too much money as a tobacco lawyer. This might help explain why his wife was literally crying when the Senate confirmed his nomination (sole dissenting vote: Fred Harris), saying it was the worst day of her life.

Anyway it’s an interesting read 51 years down the road to wherever the hell we’re heading now.

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