How The Right Wing Took Over America (And What We Should Do About It) – Part 1

Part 1 – The Memo

America has become a Right Wing country.

It wasn’t always like this.

How did we get to this place in our civic evolution?

The one-word answer is: infrastructure.

The simple alliterative catch-phrase answer is: Message. Members. Money.

The elevator speech answer is: The Right Wing of American civics and commerce built and maintains an eco-system of messaging, leadership development, policy formulation and electoral victory that has been persuasive, effective and self-generating. They have elected people to all levels of office and dominated the conversation of what is possible and permissible in government and the public sector.

The result has been that government is being dismantled, public services decimated, trillions spent on war and policing and hundreds of thousands of lives lost and crippled.

The result has been that justice has lost in the United States of America and we are the edge of a corporate kleptocracy in which we return to slavery-like conditions for the poor and people of color, businesses directly elect our public officials, public goods are completely monetized for private profit and the environment is despoiled beyond repair.

Sounds grim.

I’ve been following the steady pace of Right Wing victories since 1990. I was a theater manager in Chicago and in the summer of 1990 I learned of the efforts of the Christian Coalition and Senator Jess Helms (R-NC) to destroy the National Endowment for the Arts.

I sought out information on these people and their allies. I joined the Christian Coalition and was astounded by their innovations in civic engagement. They were the first civic enterprise to use robo-calls (at least that I received). I became an expert on the workings of the Far Right and the perpetrators of what became to be known as The Culture Wars.

America’s arts and culture sector LOST the Culture Wars, by the way.

What I learned doing presentations (using old school slide projectors) while visiting cities around the country from 1990 to 1994 converted me from an itinerant arts activist into a civic ninja. I was determined to find a way to quantify the dangers poised by these well-funded and smart anti-arts entities and express the alarm I felt by leaving the field of engagement mostly empty and devoid of any real counter-strategies.

I was completely unsuccessful in my efforts. After trying to re-energize this work in 2004 with The Creative America Project, I pretty much abandoned the arts and creativity-related work.

Over the past seven years my civic efforts have been aimed at exposing corruption and fighting privatization in Chicago.

But since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency I find myself reviewing the footage of the civic calamity that has overtaken us.

I see the connections between the actions of the Far Right against the NEA and other programs to the state of affairs we find ourselves in today.

Like a slow-motion train wreck happening in the middle of the day on our most crowded thorough fair, this civic catastrophe has happened in plain sight and has been completely preventable.

We stood by and watched the shards of glass fly and the victims taken to the civic emergency ward – over and over again.

It is now so powerful that it will be difficult to defeat.

But we can do it if we do as they did, starting over 40 years ago, and build a civic infrastructure for justice and equity.

How did they do it?

Let’s turn back the clock to 1971.

On August 23, 1971 Lewis Powell, then a corporate lawyer and member of the boards of eleven corporations, wrote a memo.

He sent this memo to his friend and neighbor Eugene Sydor, Jr. Sydor was the director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Two months later Powell was nominated to the United States Supreme Court by President Richard Nixon.

Powell urged American business to take up civic arms and seize control of the U.S. political agenda operating system. “The overriding first need is for businessmen to recognize that the ultimate issue may be survival – survival of what we call the free enterprise system, and all that this means for the strength and prosperity of America and the freedom of our people.” (p.3. of the memo)

What should business in America do?

“There should be no hesitation to attach the Naders [Ralph Nader, consumer advocate], the Marcuses [German-American philosopher, Herbert Marcuse 1898-1979] and others who openly seek destruction of the system. There should not be the slightest hesitation to press vigorously in all political arenas for support of the enterprise system. Nor should there be reluctance to penalize politically those who oppose it.” (p. 5)

“Though Powell’s memo was not the sole influence, the Chamber and corporate activists took his advice to heart and began building a powerful array of institutions designed to shift public attitudes and beliefs over the course of years and decades. The memo influenced or inspired the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other powerful organizations. Their long-term focus began paying off handsomely in the 1980s, in coordination with the Reagan Administration’s “hands-off business” philosophy. Most notable about these institutions was their focus on education, shifting values, and movement-building.” [from]

In a letter to Powell dated August 25, 1971 Sydor wrote “I would like to say what a suburb job you did in preparing the memorandum for presentation to Arch Booth [Executive Vice president of the Chamber] and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on yesterday. It is an excellent presentation of the vitally important case for American Business to go on the offensive after such a long period of inaction and indecision in telling the American people the facts of life as they unhappily exist today.”

Here’s the background for the memo:

“What had become very apparent to the business community was that it was getting its clock cleaned. Used to having broad sway, employers faced a series of surprising defeats in the 1960s and early 1970s. As we have seen, these defeats continued unabated when Richard Nixon won the White House. Despite electoral setbacks, the liberalism of the Great Society had surprising political momentum. “From 1969 to 1972,” as the political scientist David Vogel summarizes in one of the best books on the political role of business, “virtually the entire American business community experienced a series of political setbacks without parallel in the postwar period.” In particular, Washington undertook a vast expansion of its regulatory power, introducing tough and extensive restrictions and requirements on business in areas from the environment to occupational safety to consumer protection.[2]
In corporate circles, this pronounced and sustained shift was met with disbelief and then alarm. By 1971, future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell felt compelled to assert, in a memo that was to help galvanize business circles, that the “American economic system is under broad attack.” This attack, Powell maintained, required mobilization for political combat: “Business must learn 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—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.” Moreover, Powell stressed, the critical ingredient for success would be organization: “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”[3] []

Aggressive action. Political power. Long-range planning. Financing via joint effort. Organizing critical to success. Wow. He sounds like some wide eyed Saul Alinksy-style organizing for power community activist.

The results?

“The organizational counterattack of business in the 1970s was swift and sweeping — a domestic version of Shock and Awe. The number of corporations with public affairs offices in Washington grew from 100 in 1968 to over 500 in 1978. In 1971, only 175 firms had registered lobbyists in Washington, but by 1982, nearly 2,500 did. The number of corporate PACs increased from under 300 in 1976 to over 1,200 by the middle of 1980.[5] On every dimension of corporate political activity, the numbers reveal a dramatic, rapid mobilization of business resources in the mid-1970s.

What the numbers alone cannot show is something of potentially even greater significance: Employers learned how to work together to achieve shared political goals. As members of coalitions, firms could mobilize more proactively and on a much broader front. Corporate leaders became advocates not just for the narrow interests of their firms but also for the shared interests of business as a whole.” []

The U.S. Chamber followed this advice and moved its headquarters from New York City to Washington, D.C. They have dumped hundreds of millions of political dollars into American elections. In the 2016 cycle alone they spent a total of $29 million dollars. According to the web site www.opensecrets they were quite effective:

Wow. Talking about putting your money where your memo is.

According to the total spent on federal lobbying from 1998 to 2017 was a staggering $32.6 BILLION! Some 10,461 lobbyists were busy in Washington in 2017.

Clearly, American business heard and heeded the Powell Memo.

They have been extremely effective in driving the American political agenda as a result.

Next: Part 2: The rise of the Christian Right

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