The Powell Memo and I: we’re both turning fifty this August.
Also posted on my website.
“In 1971, only 175 firms had registered lobbyists in Washington, but by 1982, nearly 2,500 did.”
– The Powell Memo: A Call-To-Arms for Corporations, Moyers and Company
I was born on August 11th, 1971.
On August 23rd, 1971, future Supreme Court Associate Justice Lewis Powell got commissioned to draft an all-encompassing manifesto that would serve as a blueprint for the systematic undermining of democracy by the country’s corporations and high-net-worth individuals.
(If you’re not familiar, the top link brings you to an excellent Bill Moyers article about the importance of the Powell Memo.)
There I was, twelve days old and diaper-clad, reclining in my crib and hanging out with my brand-new parents, thinking baby-thoughts and wondering what I was going to do with my life. At the same time that I was still getting acclimated to Planet Earth, Powell was scribbling ideas on notepads and muttering thoughts under his breath like, “Fascism…hmmm…doesn’t sound that bad…” and “Neo-feudalism…interesting…it has that ‘new’ sound to it.”
The Dixiecrat tobacco lawyer from Virginia would go on to release a 34-page document that urged America’s business leaders to push for more control over American society.
While it wasn’t meant to be seen by the public, a reporter got a copy of the Powell Memo and made its contents known.
Powell laid it on thick with the war analogies and dogwhistles as he argued that unions, college professors, journalists, and liberal elected officials posed an existential threat to CEOs and executives. Senior managers of the business community needed to organize and pool financial resources to exercise more influence over government, the educational system, and the media.
Powell’s 1971 narrative screeched that the situation would only become more dire for the nation’s moneyed interests. His paper tossed around trigger-terms like “socialism,” “Marxism,” “intellectuals” and “liberal” in ways that would make 2021 Fox News proud.
And — wouldn’t you know it? — the fear mongering worked. When Powell wrote his bro-opus, corporate income tax accounted for 17% of the nation’s revenue. In 1988, as Ronald Reagan finished out his second Presidential term, it accounted for 10%. Today, that number is 7%.
From this Pew Research Center article: “The share of American adults who live in middle-income households has decreased from 61% in 1971 to 51% in 2019. During this time, the share of adults in the upper-income tier increased from 14% to 20%, and the share in the lower-income tier increased from 25% to 29%.”
When I was born, America’s middle class was the envy of the world. Though it was disproportionately white and far from perfect, the vision of the American middle class held true power and was one of our country’s most important assets. The idea played a bigger role in bringing down the USSR than Ronald Reagan’s military-industrial complex did.
Yes: contrary to what modern chickenhawks say, Reagan did not “defeat” the Soviet Union. They had been unraveling long before his time in office. News stories of the late 1970s showed bread lines and empty grocery shelves in Moscow. Other reports talked about a Soviet military which had trouble feeding, clothing, and equipping its troops. Reagan hastened the fall, indeed, but the Soviets’ days had been numbered for at least a decade.
Reading the Powell Memo in 2021, I see some of the fuel for the Right’s desire to dumb down the US population. Powell’s words convey nothing but hatred for free thinkers and the Humanities curriculum. His classism reeks through the pages.
In their younger years, men like Lewis Powell received reasonably-priced educations before getting hired by companies who put them into job-training programs. As they matured over the years, these same men made it their goal to transform the country’s higher learning institutions into overpriced job training programs — remove these costs from corporate ledgers and place them on the backs of people instead. People who got the best of an educational system then set out to ruin that system for others.
Powell’s feelings of existential threat not only caught on, but mutated in the years since. The vibe that fueled the Powell Memo still exists today, only it got hooked on steroids and adderall somewhere along the way.
I see his resentment and impotent rage in the modern Right. And it’s sad. Even younger white dudes…they seem to think that they sound authoritative when they imitate crotchety old white men, but it all just sounds sad. Those chips on their shoulders, nobody is knocking them off — and this pisses them off, dammit. These fellas really, really want to dial 911 on the world.
There are guys my age who seem a lot older than me. And I don’t say this as a compliment. I’m far from perfect, but I like my little life.
Now that I’m a few months away from fifty and feeling reflective, I’d say one of my biggest regrets stems from the fact that I didn’t speak out sooner and more loudly about the resurgence of white supremacy. In my younger years, I didn’t offer much support for my fellow citizens who got affected by supremacy because thinking about this issue made me uncomfortable. I felt afraid for them, but didn’t know what to do. So I relied on my systemic privilege and pretended that the problem didn’t exist.
I speak out now because I need to make up for lost time.
These times here in 2021 are not normal and all of us whites share blame for the societal regression.
As creepy as the Powell Memo is, here’s a thought experiment: back in the summer of 1971, let’s pretend that you walked up to ol’ Lew as he was walking down the street. You start to explain conservatism’s future: Donald Trump, anti-maskers, people putting gasoline in garbage bags, Eric Trump, Chachi, QAnon — the Right wing in 2021, basically.
Right as you’re bringing up the machismo of Tucker Carlson, I’m betting that Lew’s soda-cracker-white ass would be high-tailing it to the next pay phone to call the men in the white coats on you.
(If any young’uns reading this don’t get the term, it means “mental health professionals” and we old-folks used to use it when somebody started to sound batshit-cray or cuckoo-bananas. That was before Reagan defunded the mental health system.)
World, it’s been a crazy almost-fifty years for me.
But I’m grateful for my existence.
Thank you to my parents, most of all. Fifty years ago, you two were getting ready to bring me into the world. I’m honored that you did.
I’ll probably write more about the Powell Memo, but this post is done.
Also posted on my website.
Some earlier posts:
• Harpo Marx: hi from Earth.
• Alan Berg: hi from Earth. Part II.
• Jonas Salk: what a pussy.
• Chevychasing it.
• Bury Rush Limbaugh in Arlington National Cemetery. Own the libs.
• Understand the “America” in “Make America Great Again. Watch the movie Porky’s.
I also write fiction. I have two dark comedies available, Fearkiller (Volume 1) and Notes from Trillionaire Island: Fearkiller (Volume 2), as well as Revolutionizer Alpha, the first book in a sci-fi series. I also wrote a story about God. It was weird, but then I decided to make the story and its sequel free. And all of the sudden, it didn’t seem as weird. Writing about God is much less weird when you write about God without charging money for it.