Not only had the center held, but despite the rightward thrust of the country, most of the New Deal agenda remained in place in 1976. I recognized the country I came back to. That would soon change.
Jimmy Carter was running for president and he seemed to have a good chance against President Ford who was struggling to overcome his unpopular pardon of Richard Nixon, an oil crisis. stock market crash and recession. Carter won the November election and we thought he would renew the democrat’s commitment to ordinary people and the New Deal. In his first executive order, Carter gave Vietnam War draft evaders, most of them working class kids, an unconditional pardon, much to the disgust of their parents in the VFW. Under the leadership of Pat Derian, his fierce Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, Carter countered the moral corruption of Vietnam and Watergate by putting Human Rights at the center of American foreign policy.
But Carter also cancelled public works projects and ignored the complaints of organized labor. He convinced a Democratic Congress to pass huge tax cuts for the rich, paid for by an austerity program that hurt the poor. His deregulation of the airline business set the stage for massive deregulation under President Reagan. Carter increased the defense budget.
None of this should have surprised me. Carter was a member of the Trilateral Commission, at the time a little talked about international organization that served the interests of business. Wikipedia calls it “the liberal wing of the intellectual elite” from Europe, Japan and the United States. Really, it’s the core organization of neoliberalism. Carter filled his administration with Commission members. His Vice-President, Secretary of State, Defense and Treasury, were all members of the Trilateral Commission. Carter’s National Security Advisor was its director. Many lesser officials also came from this group.
In 1975 the Trilateral Commission issued a book-length report called The Crisis of Democracy (written by Michel Crozier, Samuel Huntington, and Joji Watanuki). The writers worried about the “governability of the democracies.” Frankly scared by the Sixties when “previously passive or unorganized groups in the population,” such as “blacks, Indians, Chicanos, white ethnic groups, students and women — all of whom became organized and mobilized in new ways to achieve what they considered to be their appropriate share of the action and of the rewards.” The Commission believed that “some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups” was a prerequisite for democracy. Higher education should emphasize “economic and political goals” not political engagement. If college was offered to the masses, “a program is then necessary to lower the job expectations of those who receive a college education.”
Carter did introduce a bill to strengthen the Labor Relations Board, but business spent heavily to ensure the bill’s defeat. Carter called it “The most expensive and powerful lobby ever mounted against a bill in the nation’s history.” We should have taken this comment more seriously. While it was clear that business was pouring more money into politics, we had no idea how organized the corporate campaign was.
What very few outsiders knew at the time was the impact of a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell. He had written a lengthy memo for the National Chamber of Commerce on August 23rd, 1971. Powell was on the board of Phillip Morris Tobacco Company and was later appointed to the Supreme Court. His memo argued that “business and the enterprise system are in deep trouble, and the hour is late.”
Powell was a firm believer in the idea that what’s good for American business is good for America. He wrote that complaining about tax loopholes for corporations and rich individuals was “either political demagoguery or economic illiteracy.” “This setting of the ‘rich’ against the ‘poor,’ of business against the people, is the cheapest and most dangerous kind of politics.”
Any regulation of any business, he said, led to socialism. “The only alternatives to free enterprise are varying degrees of bureaucratic regulation of individual freedom — ranging from that under moderate socialism to the iron heel of the leftist or rightist dictatorship.”
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader epitomized the enemy, according to Powell, who quoted an article from Fortune Magazine. ” [Nader] thinks, and says quite bluntly, that a great many corporate executives belong in prison — for defrauding the consumer with shoddy merchandise, poisoning the food supply with chemical additives, and willfully manufacturing unsafe products that will maim or kill the buyer. He emphasizes that he is not talking just about ‘fly-by-night hucksters’ but the top management of blue chip business.”
Actually, most Americans agreed with Nader’s basic points, if not with Nader himself. The year before, Congress had passed and Nixon had signed a series of laws protecting the environment. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and supported tough amendments to the Clean Air Act. Lead paint and pesticides were regulated for the first time
Powell wrote that the sources of the attack on business were “varied and diffused.” They included the left, but Powell was more worried about criticism coming from “perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.” Quoting a Stewart Alsop article, “a recent poll of students on 12 representative campuses reported that: ‘Almost half the students favored socialization of basic U.S. industries.’”
The Sixties progressive movement had apparently been more successful than anyone thought!
The key, Powell said, was for business to conduct a long, expensive, coordinated assault on every American opinion making institution. “The overriding first need is for businessmen to recognize that the ultimate issue may be survival.”The memo became widely known among business leaders after Powell’s appointment to the Supreme Court later that year.
Ever since 1972, in increasing quantities, hundreds of millions of dollars from corporate America pour into conservative think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Prosperity and the Cato Institute. Promoted as academic think tanks, they push a pro-business agenda, arguing for tax cuts for the rich, dismantling any remaining regulations, and encouraging fossil fuel development.
The think tanks provide speakers for the media, talking points for lobbyists, candidates for professorships, press releases for journalists, transportation for speakers. They are a huge conservative refuge that takes care of its own. Progressives have a few think tanks, but nothing like the organizations on the right.
Lobbyists sprung up like mushrooms after the Powell memo. The number of Political Action Committees quadrupled in the four years following Watergate, from 248 to 1,100. Corporations with offices in Washington, DC, increased from one hundred to over five hundred, and those offices increased in staff from one or two people to six or seven. By the end of the decade, business “achieved virtual domination of the legislative process in Congress.”
It is not surprising that a member of a business oriented, center of the road group like the Trilateral Commission would adopt what must have seemed to be a growing consensus. In fact, the Democratic party was already turning its back on the New Deal. As early as 1973, Gary Hart, who was the front-runner for president in 1988, was talking about “the end of the New Deal,” of the need for smaller government. Targeting the last, true New Deal Democrat, Hart insisted in 1974 that he and the new generation of Democrats were not just “a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys.”
It was not a great time to be looking for work.