Back in the early 1970s, corporate America got together and developed a plan of action to combat the takeover of America by what they saw as an unremittingly radical left. If we don’t act and get politically engaged, these corporate titans said, this country is going down the chute.
Forty years later, corporate America beholds the monster it created. And now, these same institutions need to step up and rein in an unremittingly radical right. Only they can stop this nonsense, and it will take an effort as concerted and well-organized as the one they undertook in the 70s.
Here’s what happened then. In the 1960s and early 70s, a good chunk of America’s corporate elite really did feel that the free-enterprise system was under threat. In 1971, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce asked Lewis Powell, then a corporate lawyer in Richmond who would soon be nominated to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon, to tell them how to save America. The result was the famous Powell memo, which urged the Chamber to start fighting back to protect the system before it was too late in the following arenas: on college campuses; in the media; in the courts; at stockholder and shareholder meetings; and in the political realm.
There’s been a lot of interesting debate over the years about how important the Powell memo really was. But whatever centrality one accords it, the fact is that it was right around then that conservatism really started to organize itself politically. The major think tanks got off the ground (Heritage in 1973), or, in other cases like the American Enterprise Institute, were transformed into something much more overtly political. Several media-monitoring outfits were started (Google the name Reed Irvine, if you weren’t around in those days). Groups were created to train young conservatives and fund right-wing campus newspapers. By 1980, they helped elect a president, feed him appointees and judicial nominees (the Federalist Society started in 1982), and create much of his policy agenda. Today, this organized right-wing infrastructure spends more than $300 million a year on politics.
But now, as we’re seeing, the corporatists’ biggest problem isn’t the left. It’s the right—the nativist and ideological right that no longer wants to listen to them. It was encouraging last week to see officials from the Chamber, the National Retail Federation, and other organizations vent their frustrations to the New York Times and vow that they are going to get involved in Republican primaries to try to defeat some crazies.
And it’s great to hear Tom Donohue, the head of the chamber, say things like these remarks, which he recently made on C-SPAN: “You’ve got to go into the primaries not just to affect this race or that but to send a message on who we are and what we believe. We want to get a better result for the American people and get people there who give the arguments a fair shake.” His ultimate goal, said Donohue, is a “more governable Republican Party.”
Hallelujah to that. But the Chamber and the others are going to have to put lots of money behind this. And they’re going to have to dig in for lengthy trench warfare. Can they reach, and energize, the half of the GOP electorate that isn’t driven by resentment? The half that’s conservative, which is fine, but not boiling over with rage? The half that would accept and embrace an immigration-reform bill and investments in infrastructure, as the Chamber does, even though Barack Obama wants them, too?
This is the biggest political issue of our time. Others are close—the corrupt hold of money on our system is admittedly a pretty close second. But this is the biggest one, because a reasonable GOP would make the country governable again. A critical mass of conservative compromisers, with maybe a few genuinely moderate Republicans thrown in, would end this dysfunction more quickly than anything else.
And the only way for that to happen is for Republican officeholders to fear that segment of the GOP electorate more than they fear the radical segment. That’s going to take a long time and lot of money and organization. But we do know from polls that those Republican voters exist. They’re just intimidated right now.
But to lead this fight, the Chamber needs to see it in just the historical terms I’ve laid out. It’s 1971 all over again. Who is the Lewis Powell who will save corporate America from the rage machine it helped create?