It's heartbreaking to see what has become of that bargain. These days it's every man for himself; may be the richest and most ruthless predators win!
How did this happen?
You know the story, because it begins the very same year that you began your public advocacy and I began my public journalism. 1971 was a seminal year.
On March 29 of that year, Ralph Nader bought ads in 13 publications and sent out letters asking people if they would invest their talents, skills, and yes, their lives, in working for the public interest. The seed sprouted swiftly that spring: By the end of May over 60,000 Americans responded, and Public Citizen was born.
But something else was also happening. Five months later, on August 23, 1971, a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell - a board member of the death-dealing tobacco giant Philip Morris and a future Justice of the United States Supreme Court - sent a confidential memorandum to his friends at the U. S. Chamber of Commerce. We look back on it now as a call to arms for class war waged from the top down.
Let's recall the context: Big Business was being forced to clean up its act. It was bad enough to corporate interests that Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal had sustained its momentum through Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. Suddenly this young lawyer named Ralph Nader arrived on the scene, arousing consumers with articles, speeches, and above all, an expose of the automobile industry, Unsafe at Any Speed. Young activists flocked to work with him on health, environmental, and economic concerns. Congress was moved to act. Even Republicans signed on. In l970 President Richard Nixon put his signature on the National Environmental Policy Act and named a White House Council to promote environmental quality. A few months later millions of Americans turned out for Earth Day. Nixon then agreed to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Congress acted swiftly to pass tough new amendments to the Clean Air Act and the EPA announced the first air pollution standards. There were new regulations directed at lead paint and pesticides. Corporations were no longer getting away with murder.
And Lewis Powell was shocked - shocked! - at what he called "an attack on the American free enterprise system." Not just from a few "extremists of the left," he said, but also from "perfectly respectable elements of society," including the media, politicians, and leading intellectuals. Fight back, and fight back hard, he urged his compatriots. Build a movement. Set speakers loose across the country. Take on prominent institutions of public opinion - especially the universities, the media, and the courts. Keep television programs under "constant surveillance." And above all, recognize that political power must be "assiduously (sic) cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination" and "without embarrassment."
Powell imagined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as a council of war. Since business executives had "little stomach for hard-nose contest with their critics" and "little skill in effective intellectual and philosophical debate," they should create new think tanks, legal foundations, and front groups of every stripe. It would take years, but these groups could, he said, be aligned into a united front (that) would only come about through "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 united organizations."
You have to admit it was a brilliant strategy. Although Powell may not have seen it at the time, he was pointing America toward plutocracy, where political power is derived from the wealthy and controlled by the wealthy to protect their wealth. As the only countervailing power to private greed and power, democracy could no longer be tolerated.
While Nader's recruitment of citizens to champion democracy was open for all to see - depended, in fact, on public participation - Powell's memo was for certain eyes only, those with the means and will to answer his call to arms. The public wouldn't learn of the memo until after Nixon appointed Powell to the Supreme Court and the enterprising reporter Jack Anderson obtained a copy, writing that it may have been the reason for Powell's appointment.
By then his document had circulated widely in corporate suites. Within two years the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce formed a task force of 40 business executives - from U.S. Steel, GE, GM, Phillips Petroleum, 3M, Amway, and ABC and CBS (two media companies, we should note). Their assignment was to coordinate the crusade, put Powell's recommendations into effect, and push the corporate agenda. Powell had set in motion a revolt of the rich. As the historian Kim Phillips-Fein subsequently wrote, "Many who read the memo cited it afterward as inspiration for their political choices."
Those choices came soon. The National Association of Manufacturers announced it was moving its main offices from New York to Washington. In 1971, only 175 firms had registered lobbyists in the capital; by 1982, nearly twenty-five hundred did. Corporate PACs increased from under 300 in 1976 to over twelve hundred by the middle of the l980s. From Powell's impetus came the Business Roundtable, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy (precursor to what we now know as Americans for Prosperity) and other organizations united in pushing back against political equality and shared prosperity. [Thanks to Charlie Cray for a succinct analysis of the Powell memo and to Jim Hoggan for calling attention to it more recently.] They triggered an economic transformation that would in time touch every aspect of our lives.
Powell's memo was delivered to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at its headquarters across from the White House on land that was formerly the home of Daniel Webster. That couldn't have been more appropriate. History was coming full circle at 1615 H Street. Webster is remembered largely as the most eloquent orator in America during his years as Senator from Massachusetts and Secretary of State under three presidents in the years leading up to the Civil War. He was also the leading spokesman for banking and industry nabobs who funded his extravagant tastes in wine, boats, and mistresses. Some of them came to his relief when he couldn't cover his debts wholly from bribes or the sale of diplomatic posts for personal gain. Webster apparently regarded the merchants and bankers of Boston's State Street Corporation - one of the country's first financial holding companies - very much as George W. Bush regarded the high rollers he called "my base." The great orator even sent a famous letter to financiers requesting retainers from them that he might better serve them. The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wondered how the American people could follow Webster "through hell or high water when he would not lead unless someone made up a purse for him."
No wonder the U.S. Chamber of Commerce feels right as home with the landmark designation of its headquarters. 1615 H Street now masterminds the laundering of multi-millions of dollars raised from captains of industry and private wealth to finance - secretly - the political mercenaries who fight the class war in their behalf.
Even as the Chamber was doubling its membership and tripling its budget in response to Lewis Powell's manifesto, the coalition got another powerful jolt of adrenalin from the wealthy right-winger who had served as Nixon's secretary of the treasury, William Simon. His polemic entitled A Time for Truth argued that "funds generated by business" must "rush by multimillions" into conservative causes to uproot the institutions and "the heretical strategy" [his term] of the New Deal. He called on "men of action in the capitalist world" to mount "a veritable crusade" against progressive America. Business Week magazine somberly explained that "...it will be a bitter pill for many Americans to swallow the idea of doing with less so that big business can have move."
I'm not making this up.
And so it came to pass; came to pass despite your heroic efforts and those of other kindred citizens; came to pass because those "men of action in the capitalist world" were not content with their wealth just to buy more homes, more cars, more planes, more vacations and more gizmos than anyone else. They were determined to buy more democracy than anyone else. And they succeeded beyond their own expectations. After their 40-year "veritable crusade" against our institutions, laws and regulations - against the ideas, norms and beliefs that helped to create America's iconic middle class - the Gilded Age is back with a vengeance.
You know these things, of course, because you've been up against that "veritable crusade" all these years. But if you want to see the story pulled together in one compelling narrative, read this - perhaps the best book on politics of the last two years : Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class . Two accomplished political scientists wrote it: Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson - the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of political science, who wanted to know how America had turned into a society starkly divided into winners and losers.
Mystified by what happened to the notion of "shared prosperity" that marked the years after World War II;
puzzled that over the last generation more and more wealth has gone to the rich and superrich, while middle-class and working people are left barely hanging on;
vexed that hedge-fund managers pulling down billions can pay a lower tax rate than their pedicurists, manicurists, cleaning ladies and chauffeurs;
curious as to why politicians keep slashing taxes on the very rich even as they grow richer, and how corporations keep being handed huge tax breaks and subsidies even as they fire hundreds of thousands of workers;
troubled that the heart of the American Dream - upward mobility - seems to have stopped beating;
astounded that the United States now leads in the competition for the gold medal for inequality;
and dumbfounded that all this could happen in a democracy whose politicians are supposed to serve the greatest good for the greatest number, and must regularly face the judgment of citizens at the polls if they haven't done so;
Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wanted to find out "how our economy stopped working to provide prosperity and security for the broad middle class." They wanted to know: "Who dunnit?"
They found the culprit: "It's the politics, stupid!" Tracing the clues back to that "unseen revolution" of the 1970s - the revolt triggered by Lewis Powell, fired up by William Simon, and fueled by rich corporations and wealthy individuals - they found that 'Step by step and debate by debate America's public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefitted the few at the expense of the many."
There you have it: they bought off the gatekeepers, got inside, and gamed the system. And when the fix was in, they let loose the animal spirits, turning our economy into a feast for predators. And they won - as the rich and powerful got richer and more powerful - they not only bought the government, they "saddled Americans with greater debt, tore new holes in the safety net, and imposed broad financial risks on workers, investors, and taxpayers." Until - write Hacker and Pierson - "The United States is looking more and more like the capitalist oligarchies of Brazil, Mexico, and Russia where most of the wealth is concentrated at the top while the bottom grows larger and larger with everyone in between just barely getting by."http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/275-42/8222-america-occupies-wall-street-because-wall-street-occupies-america