Smothered by Riches: A History of the Corporate Takeover That Came After the Powell Memo

From Observatory
Observatory » Area » Human Bridges
Source: Human Bridges Project

How the worship of unregulated capitalism (neoliberalism) broke the unions, bankrupted the family farm, created a billionaire class, impoverished blue-collar workers, and fostered the insurrection of January 6, 2021.

G20 capitalism banner.jpg
Emmy Award-winning narrator of over 200 documentaries and audio books.
This article was produced by Human Bridges, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Foreword[edit | edit source]

The truly existential question concerning Donald Trump is the least discussed. The totality of its banishment from news reporting and analysis resembles a taboo. That question is: Why has virtually half the American public lost faith in democratic institutions and the government’s ability to solve problems, fulfilling the Founders’ guarantee of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Without his base of support, Donald Trump would be another grifting blowhard (and sexual predator) preying on the unwary for self-enrichment. However, Trump’s particular genius of expressing his quest for power as resentments that resonate with many Americans’ deep disappointments and frustrations has created a following approaching 50 percent of the nation’s voters. Rather than examine the ways and means by which our economic and political system created and bolstered such disaffection among so many people, supporters of political norms and the rule of law have laid all blame at Trump’s feet. By doing so, they suggest that perhaps he was a tumor that once excised might return the body politic to good health. Absolved from discussion and analysis are 2020’s 74 million Trump voters and 147 members of Congress who refused to ratify Joe Biden’s victory—tacitly, and in many cases, actively supported his attempt at fomenting an insurrection to return to power without the hindrances of political norms and the rule of law.

If the reader was born during or after the 1960s it’s probable that they may consider Trump a one-off piece of bad political luck, like a random meteor smacking the Earth. They may not be aware of the six decades of intellectual and carefully constructed strategic scaffolding, generously funded by some of the greatest right-wing fortunes in America, which paved Trump’s path to power. These efforts, elevating profits above all else, have greased the skids for our country’s precipitous downhill slide toward becoming an illiberal democracy. As a consequence of their disciplined and relentless campaigns, lobbying, and threats, Americans are facing a presidential election in 2024 that may end our democratic rule-based system of self-government.

This four-part review traces key points in the genesis and toxic blooms of the highly organized efforts to dismantle Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and later decades’ safety nets and public protections. These efforts have decimated urban and rural working-class Americans since the 1960s and gutted labor unions, the historic wealth-producing engine of the middle class. Hopefully, this essay will explain to younger readers how a class of men and women that prized corporate wealth and regarded corrosive societal consequences as ‘necessary evils’ have continued to exert control over presidents and congressional decisions that have weakened government policies helping ordinary people. Their efforts have produced a new class of billionaires; imbalances of wealth and opportunity that rival feudal societies in the Middle East; and a privatized mainstream media that puts corporate profits above public interest.

The consequence of their efforts has pushed a sizable percentage of the population to embrace an alternate political universe based on myths, manipulation, and deceit. The tip of that history-changing spear was the volunteer foot soldier shock troops who smashed, ransacked, and defiled the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Four people died on that day, and in the days that followed, five police officers died of wounds sustained in combat with the crowd, or by suicide.

The initial battle plan was scripted 53 years ago, on August 23, 1971, by a Virginian corporate lawyer and defender of unregulated American capitalism, named Lewis F. Powell Jr. On that Monday, Powell, who was later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Richard Nixon, delivered a 34-page typed manifesto to a colleague at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The confidential memorandum, titled, “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” laid out the contours of what would become decades of influential right-wing advocacy and action to remove any and all obstacles to profit.

Part One[edit | edit source]

To understand Lewis Powell and the chain reaction his memorandum initiated, it’s necessary to understand what he despised about American life at that time. Powell was born in 1907, went to college and law school during the Great Depression, served as a military intelligence officer in World War II, sat on school boards as racial desegregation unfolded, and worked for Phillip Morris, the large cigarette maker. He was a man who equated American capitalism with freedom, and deeply resented individuals and organizations that questioned capitalism’s failings. To understand what he despised about American life in the 1960s, we need to look first at the heady, flapper era following World War I.

During the 1920s’ postwar euphoria, Americans, stimulated by the end of the bloodiest engagement in human history, expressed a good portion of their overflowing ebullience by investing in stocks. The enormous number of investors inflated stock prices far beyond the value of the firms they represented. When that disparity ballooned and burst in September 1929, the stock market and economy collapsed in what has been referred to since as the Great Depression.

By 1930, the American economy resembled today’s rubble in Gaza. Industrial production had dropped by nearly 47 percent. The gross domestic product decreased by 30 percent. Unemployment climbed past 20 percent. Many[1] bankrupted investors leaped from Wall Street skyscrapers hoping their widows and children might survive on their life insurance. Ruined farmers were eating rat poison or throwing themselves into combines for the same reasons. Bankers, financiers, and mega-wealthy monopolists were reviled by victimized Americans.

Prompted by a deep desire to save the nation from class warfare, economic collapse, and to reduce the suffering of citizens, President Roosevelt seized the advantage of popular discontent. His administration created programs employing massive numbers of people to generate money flowing into the economy again. Collectively known as the New Deal, these programs returned millions to work building dams, highways, bridges, roads, and other infrastructure projects—including electrifying rural areas. It employed artists, architects, welders, engineers, and common laborers to rebuild the country from the ground up and to redefine the relationship between the people and their government.

These programs were immensely popular and reinflated the nation’s crushed spirit. Economist Arthur Schlesinger Jr. explains Roosevelt’s rearrangements this way:

“The growing complexity of industrial conditions required increasing government intervention in order to assure more equal opportunities… [and] maintain high levels of employment in the economy, to supervise standards of life and labor, to regulate the methods of business competition, and to establish comprehensive patterns of social security.”[2]
“Conservatives, known then as classical liberals, were outraged by Roosevelt’s program. To them, the poor were lazy and government rules were a threat to their hegemony. They considered themselves ‘the better sort,’ and more fit to rule. Conservatives were primarily concerned with property and the rights of property owners, as opposed to classes and conditions of people. They were not necessarily partial to representative democracy or majority-rule, as both could impinge on the rights of property owners and exceptional individuals.”

The conservative dilemma was that the Depression had ripped the fig leaves and togas from the classical explanations and shibboleths of conventional economics. The moral authority of the wealthy, and that of their prognosticators and theorists, was gravely wounded by the economy’s near-total collapse. Once-wealthy office workers were selling apples on street corners to survive. Popular songs such as “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” made the disastrous consequences of unregulated capitalism very clear for those without power or position to control government policies. Average citizens had received a crash course in how dramatically their savings, homes, farms, life’s work, and political certainties could disappear without a trace, like a magician’s rabbit.

In 1971, Powell, a corporate attorney, member of the Philip Morris Board of Directors and U.S. Chamber of Commerce member, was fed up with the young men and women choking the streets to protest racism, nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, and demanding equal pay for women. Powell considered both sexes shouting about civil rights to be fruitless. In a series of speeches during the mid-1960s, he criticized Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategy of non-violence, and said that the government had done “all it could for the Negro.”[3]

Powell was an educated, prosperous man, grateful for the wealth and power capitalism had bestowed on his person, peers, and the United States. He firmly believed American capitalism could offer more were it severed from the restraints that “liberals” like Roosevelt and his leftist minions had imposed on it by profligate public spending. In the mid-1960s, President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” safety-net programs obligated even more federal largesse.

Shortly before President Nixon appointed Powell to a lifetime tenure as a justice on the Supreme Court, Powell composed a letter in the form of a 34-page report to a neighbor who chaired the education committee at the U.S. Chamber. Today, that letter is known as the Powell memo, and for the scale of change it wrought in America, one might think it would be better known. Because Powell makes no acknowledgment of the moral issues behind the social disruptions of the 1960s, a moment’s review of the nation during the time period Powell’s memo was released would serve understanding.

Powell’s 1971 memo was its day’s capitalist call to arms. It not only attacked “the Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries who would destroy the entire system.” It named “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and… politicians” as enemies in a cultural and political war to undermine corporate money, power, and influence. The memo chided corporate executives for their complacency in the face of what Powell believed to be an existential threat. It called on corporate America, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and wealthy shareholders to create and bankroll a counter-influence industry. The conservatives organized scholars, speakers, publications, textbooks, and public relations strategies. They used their corporate muscle and budgets to demand equal time on television and in legislatures, and aggressively pushed for appointing pro-corporate judges.

In their struggle to win back their status and power, Big Money had discovered some bright economists in the Mont Pelerin Society, an international organization of economists, philosophers, historians, intellectuals and business leaders founded in 1947 by economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Influential members included economists Ludwig von Mises and James M. Buchanan, along with national politicians and later policymakers such as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Alan Greenspan, who by 1987 was appointed Federal Reserve chairman.

The Chicago Boys, as they were known, had developed some slick rationales that were understandably popular with big business leaders and politically useful for countering New Deal philosophy and policies. They aggressively defended unfettered capitalism and the meme they chose to represent was a term that included everyone in complicity—“markets.” Their theory, rhetoric and lobbying extolled the virtues of “free markets.” Americans love the idea of freedom, particularly freedom from responsibility, and so freedom of any government intervention and social responsibility sounded like a good deal to men and women concentrating first and foremost on the bottom line. Despite the breezy innocence of its name, which sounded like it might be an improvement on liberty, neoliberalism had deep-tap roots in the ancient evolutionary mulch of human greed.

Under cover of this ideology, they stressed that “markets” were natural, self-adjusting institutions requiring freedom from all restraints or regulations (such as labor unions or prohibitions against monopoly.) To remain healthy and generate wealth, the ‘Old Dealers’ deployed these neoliberal ideas and wielded them as scalpels to slice and dice federal policies they regarded as tourniquets staunching their lifeblood of cash. They persevered relentlessly, aided by Big Money, and, as we shall see later, abetted by the privatization of news media and its deregulation which, in turn, created a vast right-wing ecosystem (promoting conspiracy theories and hawking vitamin supplements). They persisted over the decades and have succeeded in forcing American ideas and the conventional wisdom about the political center and “fairness” many clicks to the right.

Powell and his memo have all but disappeared from view. But the Republican Party and American conservatives assiduously followed his master plan. They created think tanks, lobbying firms, and political organizations that have become fixtures in Washington. They offered free apprenticeships to legislators in Washington to bright young college students, published books and pretty much dominated what was the acceptable way to talk about many issues.

It has taken decades for the long-term consequences of neoliberalism to reveal themselves as the lethal threats to the bedrock of democracy they were intended to be. Even while neoliberalism was securing its authority among elites and garnering generous support from the billionaire class and corporate suites, their minions in Congress were systematically reducing working-class power whether Democrats or Republicans ruled. They consistently ignored the needs of urban and rural working classes who were drowning in debt, working multiple jobs to keep up, and losing homes and possessions due to the “deregulation” of numerous industries and rising prices. This was the population that gradually morphed into the multi-millions voting for Trump in 2020 and his foot soldiers—beating police with truncheons and bear spray and defecating in the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.

In May 2007, Bob Dylan gave a long interview about the roots of rock and roll to Rolling Stone magazine. While Powell saw American power and wealth at its apex after World War II, the postwar generation that grew up after the war developed very different reactions to their era. During the interview, Dylan said:

“[The U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima] showed that indiscriminate killing and indiscriminate homicide on a mass level was possible… The atom bomb fueled all aspects of society [after that]. I know it gave rise to the music we were playing. If you look at all these early performers, they were atom-bomb-fueled. Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran…”

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki were atomized, many young people understood, intellectually and/or intuitively, just how tenuous human existence had become. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the idea of long-term plans for people who could no longer be certain of living long lives appeared ridiculous. Drop-and-cover drills in school were frequent reminders of the threat posed by these new weapons. Anxiety gripped the nation, expressed as bomb shelters, hoarding food, and preparing for Armageddon. These fears flooded popular entertainment.

Science fiction films became a major Hollywood genre in the 1950s. Through imaginative narratives and special effects, hundreds (by one estimate, five hundred film features and shorts were produced between 1948 and 1962) of science fiction films presented indirect expressions of anxiety about the possibility of a nuclear holocaust or a Communist invasion of America.”[4]

This potentially shortened lifespan aroused in my generation a visceral hunger to experience life while they could. Millions of young people abandoned their parents’ carefully laid plans. No one under 20 was going to postpone their future any longer or heed much instruction from their parents’ generation that had brought their present to such an insecure pass. The insistent rhythms and lyrical innuendos of rock and roll took dead aim at sexual energy, and hormones did the rest. Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” crowed, “She got the grown-up blues,” and every boy who heard it had grown-up ideas about what they wanted to do with her. The girls weren’t saying much, but their dancing made their intentions clear.

Young people closed ranks and created their own insular culture muffling parental voices and influences. Their combined disposable incomes were enormous and dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure and that dedication created new industries and ways to make money. These industries changed tastes with the quixotic passions of the young, and this culture was transformed into an engine driving American cultural exports throughout the world.

Many older teens and young adults reconsidered society’s model of a future: going to school, college, getting a job to make money, and marrying and buying stuff. Their lives, this writer among them, bore no resemblance to the confections of TV’s persuasive cultural propaganda, depicted in shows like “Leave It to Beaver and “Father Knows Best.” Television also brought the real world into our homes. Many young people were stirred to shame by televised images of Black citizens set upon by white citizens, white sheriffs, and police dogs. These Black individuals were blown off their feet by high-pressure fire hoses, bludgeoned by clubs, and targeted by bombs set in Black churches. Their crime? Trying to be recognized as full citizens and exercising their constitutional right to vote.

Cultural touchstones were being overturned daily. What lived beneath them was exposed to the light and that included the unsavory and uncomfortable knowledge of unearned privilege as a birthright available to any white person in America. The singers you danced to and adored, and the black kids in your classrooms and gym periods, were not allowed by law to eat with you in public restaurants. Nor could they count on fair and equal treatment by the police or live in your neighborhood or attend the schools there in certain states. Receiving privileges you had not earned; you felt coddled and protected from life truths and viable tests of your ability. Black existence, per se, was not secure south of the “Mason-Dumbass line,” as Texas songwriter James McMurtry[5] put it, nor north of it either. Cities like Newark, New York, Boston, and Chicago were roiled by racial conflict. Whether they wanted to or not, young people were now compelled to make consequential choices about their lives.

In 1950, the nation was at war, again, in Korea— blink—and again, the hungry were being killed and reviled as communists in Latin America—blink—and again, in 1961 Vietnam brought mayhem into the national parlor. The ubiquitous television network news thrust the grainy scenes of burning children, summary execution of prisoners, hog-tied peasants and our own wounded and dying soldiers into our living rooms. These images were inescapable, especially for draft-eligible young men, called upon to kill or be killed in a war declared over spurious circumstances and the ideological chess games of the nation’s leaders. Growing older was no longer necessarily a cultural advantage.

As Powell’s 1971 memo noted, “It has been estimated that the evening half-hour news programs… reach daily some 50,000,000 Americans.” He understood the numbers but missed all the generational angst. His angst remained fixated on why young people were spurning the bountiful American future that had been laid before them and spurning the sound plans of their elders for their revolutionary ideas. Powell intuited no possible connections between the nation’s wealth and opportunities and our military adventures and their human toll elsewhere. The incomprehension was mutual. Who under 30 had ever heard of Lewis Powell?

Most maddening to Powell, large numbers of young people began to criticize the very concept of riches. They were suggesting that wealth might mean more than money and goods. It could be measured in autonomy, joy, free time, states of mind; a deep engagement with one’s life. These new definitions of wealth were demanding chemical-free food, clean air, soil, and water, good neighbors, meaningful work, and sufficient savings to ride out short-term emergencies.

From these generational inquiries, mass movements for social change coalesced and grew to support organic food, women’s rights, civil rights, environmentalism, alternative medical and spiritual practices, fair wages, and more. These ideas and dialogues permeated the cultural discourse and the streets. As Powell’s memo bemoaned, “The news-stands—at airports, drugstores, and elsewhere—are filled with paperbacks and pamphlets advocating everything from revolution to erotic free love. One finds almost no attractive, well-written paperbacks or pamphlets on ‘our side.’”

There is no free ride to wisdom. There were casualties during our generational explorations. There are casualties in every generation, but it must be observed that those seeking life on their own terms did not have to commit murder for unclear political purposes. They did not have to lose their limbs and minds or lives in a foolish and deceitful war in which five presidents and their generals repeatedly lied to the public. Unlike many veterans who wound up abandoned, addicted, and homeless, the young Americans, pursuing their own visions, had determined there was a difference between wealth and riches.

If Powell could not fathom the moral stance of Martin Luther King Jr. and African Americans, it is no surprise that he failed to understand why children of privilege would travel south to help brown-skinned Americans register to vote, or why they might refuse induction into the military on the basis of conscience. He never considered issues of morality and organized a political counterrevolution to smother their unruly power.

Powell’s charter called on America’s wealthiest citizens and corporations to push back from the Roosevelt-era policies, the rash of left-tinged cultural criticisms, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and the emerging consumer, environmental, and women’s movements. He was explicit about his intent to destroy the “parental” state. His memo inspired a disciplined assault on “the left” and its values. It sought to vanquish the “enemies” of “free enterprise” and called for new advocacy, think tanks, and publicity to promote neoliberalism with an evangelical fervor.

Like capitalism, socialism, or communism, neoliberalism is an economic theory propagated by a “school” of economists. Defending the wealthy has never fallen from favor among any society’s elites and so neoliberal ideas gained immediate favor with the mega-rich and autocrats as it emerged before and after World War II.[6] Since human affairs often require government actions to protect the lives and properties of their citizens from external enemies or predations of the powerful within our borders, or help in times of disasters, neoliberalism was the newest, shiny, twinkling tool that the rich could employ while declaring to the afflicted masses, “You’re on your own and it’ll be good for you.” The fact that it was an intellectual theory lent it a luster that afforded the wealthy few a facade to mask their disregard for the many.

Out of the general belief that the wealthy and titans of industry must be free from government regulation and social responsibility came neoliberalism’s sophisticated argument for selfishness, which has produced so much for so few that it continues today. Their aim was not merely to defend unbridled capitalism, but to attack the reach and power of the central government with four basic postulates.

The website AustraliaRemade.org[7] offers useful armature on which to hang descriptions of neoliberal strategy.

1. Gut the state.

  • The wealthy will strategically employ the tax structure as a lever to build riches by cutting their own income taxes. This offers the added benefit of simultaneously reducing money available for remedial government social services. By avoiding taxes and raising user fees, they shift the costs of our government and its services onto the general public.
  • Destroying progressive taxation is another iteration of this strategy. While “flat tax rates” may sound fair on the surface, they are regressive as they extract more from less affluent families than wealthy ones.
  • Another strategy is to create a “boogeyman” by exaggerating the dangers of deficits and pretending that the government budget is like a family’s budget. By creating this new terror to fear, the combination of lowered income to the Treasury (from diminished taxes) and the manufactured “emergency” of reducing deficits cooperate; making cuts to public sector programs like child care, Medicare, and Social Security seems “inevitable” and no one’s fault.

2. Cast shade on public services and the public sector.

  • Delegitimize the public sector (government) as inherently wasteful and inefficient. Conflate government-run enterprises with long lines at the post office, and [over-paid] public employees sponging off consumers.
  • Always infer and/or describe the private sector and markets as inherently good, infallibly self-correcting, and efficient. (Until they are not, which is when the argument shapes to blame consumers for being spendthrifts or living beyond their means.)
  • Corporatize and privatize all public sector activities to generate profits for investors.

3. Deregulation is always better than government supervision.

  • Ensure that markets become unregulated and free of any responsibility for social concerns.
  • Stereotype regulations as inefficient red tape and use “efficiency” as an ironclad excuse to deregulate industries and markets. For example, gut labor laws, weaken unions, and liberate finance to seek whatever it wants without obligations for any reciprocity to workers.

4. Rebrand any collective action as socialism and conflate it with liberalism, communism, fascism (the public won’t know what that is), and authoritarianism.

  • Confuse any distinctions between communism and socialism and disguise the fact that socialism is basically capitalism with rules and parts of the economy cordoned off from profit-taking.
  • Elevate the primacy of personal choice over the universal.
  • Insist that there’s no place in liberated markets for extraneous voices, civil society concerns, fair wages, equal pay for equal work, etc.
  • Destroy the organized labor movement.

Powell advised leveraging corporate wealth to underwrite a massive campaign to pressure advertising-dependent mass media, donor-dependent universities, tenure-seeking faculty members, profit-seeking book publishers, and corporate executives, who, in his opinion, had failed to discern the threat to the system he perceived. Powell wanted these institutions to realize how disadvantageous it might be to ignore the benefits of American free enterprise. His memo was published without fuss by the National Chamber of Commerce, covered in the scant business press, and then apparently disappeared. A curious silence enveloped its existence. But beneath that silence, the corporate sector, and a number of America’s wealthiest citizens and the Republican Party took notice. They began flocking behind Powell’s directives in lockstep:

  • Supported by conservative young billionaires like the Koch brothers (Charles and David), Joseph Coors, and Richard Mellon Scaife—who aggressively supported far-right and libertarian causes—the funders and their charitable foundations ensured that these strategies were endowed sufficiently to be effective and not be overlooked.
  • Conservative operatives began offering free Washington, D.C., housing and stipends with minimal paperwork to bright college students, inviting them to Washington to be apprentices to congressional conservatives.
  • They established numerous think tanks with built-in TV and radio facilities ready for instant commentary on issues they considered threatening. The new groups included the Business Roundtable, Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which actually drafts legislation for compliant legislators.
  • Neoliberal public intellectuals demanded that the free enterprise system and issues of individual freedoms be prioritized by news media, stressing that the media were recipients of their corporate largesse. Newsrooms would be watched to observe whether they showed sufficient appreciation for the corporate dollars enabling their salaried and shareholder wealth.
  • They attacked universities and faculties, criticized books and reading lists, economists, political scientists, sociologists, and historians for excessive liberalism, spreading a large net to include the press, the “Earl Warren” Supreme Court, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
  • Powell reserved particular bile for consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s success at using the courts to force corporations to assume responsibility for the safety of their products. He accused Nader (and his ilk) of seeking to “destroy” the American system, and to defend that system, his minions established right-wing law firms to counter, cast shade, or gaslight the claims of Nader-like reformers.

Conflating critiques of the nation’s systemic inequities and failures as treason is an old trope. However, when those assertions are buttressed by enormous funding, white-collar policy shops, public relations strategies, and aggressive lobbying, they have proved themselves to be durable and effective. Perhaps the most visible indicator of the Powell memo’s success over the decades has been the income stagnation for average Americans over that same time period, compared to Europeans. As Vox reported midway through Trump’s presidency:

From 1980 to 2016, the poorest half of the U.S. population has seen its share of income steadily decline, and the top 1 percent have grabbed more…”
“In 2016, the top 1 percent in Western Europe had about a 12 percent share of income, compared to 20 percent in the United States. And in the U.S., the bottom 50 percent’s income share fell from more than 20 percent in 1980 to 13 percent in 2016.”[8]

The most striking quality of Powell’s memo is its unrepentant hostile tone. He does not acknowledge a single moral or constitutional concern impelling the struggles for civil rights, Vietnam War resistance, efforts to curtail nuclear testing, or support fellow citizens being denied their constitutional rights. Powell demonstrates no understanding or empathy for draft-eligible men resisting the command to fight and kill brown-skinned strangers, while domestic segregationists were assaulting and maiming fellow Americans. His document appeared to imply that the only legitimate American freedoms were dedicated to amassing financial riches.

But we must give credit where it is due. In the five decades since its publication, the blueprint of the Powell memo and the corporate wealth and intellectual agility it energized have succeeded in altering the modern political landscape. It has challenged and constrained the premises of Roosevelt’s New Deal and its political descendants. The enshrined power of money in our political system and its consequent control over public policy represent this landscape’s most prominent features.

The disciplined labors and control of conservative messaging have shifted the political center of America to the right. Since Powell published his memo, the defenders of American free enterprise have increased political polarization to the degree that today the U.S. House is a dysfunctional divided body where the GOP routinely refuses to fund federal programs. Powell’s stepchildren have ensured the end of comity, collaboration, and compromise. Their hunger for power over the political and economic machinery has divided the citizenry into two camps: One continuing to sustain democracy and the other camp willing to crush it beneath the expediency of autocratic and unchallenged control.

By what mechanisms did Powell’s memo facilitate this rupture?

Part Two[edit | edit source]

Ronald Reagan ‘The Labor Guy’ Runs for President[edit | edit source]

Ronald Reagan was a genial B-list actor in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. Though he often referred to his “military career,” Reagan never served overseas during World War II, but was assigned to Hollywood to make pro-war films. Nonetheless, the future California governor and two-term president credits the waste and indulgence that he observed in the military as the change agent that transformed him from a casual liberal into a bombastic conservative.

Reagan became so right wing that his postwar employer, Warner Brothers Studios, dropped his contract. Burdened with alimony from a recent divorce, a somewhat desperate actor found work as a corporate pitchman for General Electric, hosting their popular TV show. It benefited from his good-humored charm and the public exposure created a personal following for Reagan’s political aspirations.

In October 1964, Reagan boosted his public presence, delivering a speech in Los Angeles supporting arch-conservative Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee. Entitled “A Time for Choosing,” Reagan’s speech fit quite neatly into Powell’s schema and introduced the public to what would become his future political themes. The simplicity of Reagan’s presentation and his apparent sincerity (a qualifying requirement for an actor) made him instantly famous.

In 1967, capitalizing on rising public resentment of raucous political protests and counterculture excesses, Reagan ran for governor of California on two themes—“sending the welfare bums back to work,” and responding to antiwar and anti-establishment protests at the University of California, Berkeley, by vowing to “clean up the mess.” His slogans expressed the zeitgeist for a sufficient number of voters to be elected as governor.

On May 15, 1969, true to his campaign promises, Reagan sent heavily armed police into an abandoned lot in Berkeley that community activists had transformed into an acclaimed community garden known as People’s Park. The land was owned by the University of California. They wanted to build classrooms and student housing on it and ordered it cleared. The fans of People’s Park occupied the space and refused to leave. Ed Meese, Reagan’s chief of staff, called on the county to send in 800 heavily armed police, who arrived, with many of their name tags disguised by black tape, to keep their identities secret.

The police beat and sprayed people with tear gas. They fired the heaviest gauge (double ought) buckshot as they fled. Reagan’s inappropriately violent response sparked a full-scale riot, forcing him to call out the National Guard. The guard occupied Berkeley for three weeks and by the time they left, scores had been injured and hospitalized, including 30 with gunshot wounds of one kind or another. One man had been blinded by birdshot observing the uproar from a roof and another was killed by police gunfire.[9] When asked to justify the violence, Reagan responded:

“[I]t is very naive to assume that you should send anyone into that kind of conflict with a flyswatter.”[10]

The Black Panthers, based in nearby Oakland, armed themselves for self-defense against an epidemic of police violence in their neighborhoods and began carrying shotguns. Reagan’s response was similarly out of proportion. He passed the Mulford Act, prohibiting citizens from carrying firearms in public, without a whimper from the National Rifle Association.[11] The 60s were definitely over.

In 1980, Reagan ran for president. He kicked off his campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where his speech praised “states’ rights,” the rallying cry of southern segregationists. The fairground was a few miles from where, in 1964, three civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, were tortured and lynched as they attempted to register Black voters. Ku Klux Klan members were present and endorsed him.

At the time Reagan’s campaign began, a political stand off between the nation’s air traffic controllers’ union (PATCO) and the federal government was intensifying. An air traffic controller’s job is to instruct pilots about what is going on in their environment and how they should respond. It is a critically important job and without the controllers, no commercial flying would be possible. Many of PATCO’s members were retired military members because the skills required for their work are basic military skills: giving clear, concise, orders calmly in high-stress situations.

At this time, air traffic controllers were making about $120,000 a year in today’s dollars. But because the pilots’ salaries doubled, the controllers,[12] who understood how their work was critical to pilot and public safety, demanded their union seek a 10 percent raise. Searching for political allies PATCO solicited the support of candidate Reagan, specifically because he was a union man—a four-term president of the Screen Actors Guild. At the time, PATCO members could not have known that while Reagan was guild president, he was still a foot soldier for the corporate sector. He also was a confidential informant for the FBI and gave them files on dozens of organizers in his own union.[13]

From candidate Reagan’s point of view, PATCO’s interest was a gift: an offer of support from a largely white, conservative, and mostly male organization with many veterans among its members. Reagan responded enthusiastically, informing PATCO that he was “with them” and supporting their struggle. We don’t know precisely how important PATCO’s support was, but they were an active part of the coalition that delivered the presidency to Reagan.

His PATCO compatriots might have been initially cheered by his inaugural remarks which included his often-repeated meme:

“Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”

Reagan’s statement became grimly prophetic for the PATCO strikers. Despite his stated animus to government power, Reagan did not hesitate to use it. On August 3, 1981, the first day of the strike, he informed the 13,000 strikers that if they did not return to work within 48 hours they would be fired.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), responsible for all civilian flights, had been monitoring the dispute carefully. In preparation for a possible strike, it had preemptively drafted controllers from the military, expedited the training of new recruits, and recalled retirees to active duty.

When perfect weather produced no accidents on strike day, air traffic rapidly resumed, increasing from 50 percent of normal to 75 percent. Of the 13,000 original strikers, only 1,300 returned to work. Those who continued to strike were not only fired but also banned from their occupation for life.

The corporate sector applauded Reagan’s “discipline” and they were supported by the new right-wing think tanks that, responding to Powell’s call, had sprouted like mushrooms nurtured by the rain of available cash.

According to Georgetown University labor historian Joseph McCartin, within a year, the strike and Reagan’s ruthless tactics of resolution were being appreciatively analyzed in numerous business schools. By 1982, a group at the Wharton School published a manual encouraging business leaders to “learn” from the PATCO strike. This manual was widely disseminated in the C-suites, where, emulating the macho posturing of their pitchman president, executives fired striking copper miners in Arizona, paper workers in Maine, and meatpackers and bus drivers elsewhere. All were sacked so abruptly and relentlessly that union officials realized that management was following a script. By goading them into striking, it created the opportunity to replace union employees with lower-wage non-union workers.

Basking in the glow of public approbation, Reagan’s charm and the power of his office were now taking precise aim to convince Americans that his actions had been heroic. He framed strikebreaking as a patriotic move to protect average Americans. The Reagan administration’s Labor Department, attentive state lawmakers, and a compliant National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) sniffing the off-gassing of their corporate donors competed to weaken the enforcement of labor laws and union bargaining. Federal agencies created during the Depression were stacked with anti-union officials. States rushed to become “right-to-work states,” where workers did not have to join unions or pay union dues. This was consistent with Reagan’s states’ rights beliefs that states should not suffer edicts from the federal government.

Guided by Powell’s blueprint, Reagan’s acolytes effectively crippled the labor unions—the postwar wealth-producing instrument of the middle class. As a consequence, strikes in the United States fell from around 140 a year in 1981 to between 10 and 20 today. Despite the consequences to workers, Powell’s legions never slacked from their efforts to amplify the wealth of shareholders and officers in the C-suites.

Some dragons have extremely long tails. Consider this August 2023 headline from the New York Times,[14] 42 years after the firing of the air traffic controllers: “Airline Close Calls Happen Far More Often Than Previously Known.” The article reveals that “close calls involving commercial airlines have been occurring, on average, multiple times a week” throughout 2023.

  • These near misses “have involved all major U.S. airlines and have happened nationwide.”
  • The biggest factor in these close calls “is that the nation’s air traffic control facilities are chronically understaffed.
  • The article reports that only three of our country’s 313 air traffic control facilities have as many fully certified controllers as they should have, according to targets set by officials from the FAA and the controllers’ union.

Of course, these risks are not overly concerning if you fly in private jets.

Reagan’s neoliberal roadmap led him to continue reducing government “interference” with the assumed self-regulation of markets. His budget director, David Stockman, coined the catchy phrase for their economic program—“trickle-down economics.” It asserted that torrents of cash sluiced into the accounts of the already wealthy would “trickle down” into the pockets of workers. (Stockman later publicly admitted to William Greider in the Atlantic that trickle-down economics was always a Trojan horse to disguise the lowering of top tax brackets.) Ronald Reagan knew what he was doing. He had been a long-time paid shill for the C-suites and an FBI informant against his own union organizers in the Screen Actors Guild.

Like Trump, Reagan tripled the national debt. He simultaneously cut welfare and food stamp budgets, deregulated government controls wherever he could, enlarged military budgets, and insured the application of U.S. “hard power” in Latin America. Beneath his easy bonhomie was a coiled disregard for the limits of the law, rivaling or exceeding Trump’s. One hundred and thirty-eight Reagan administration officials—the largest number in American history—were investigated, indicted, or convicted for violating the law while he held office.

Reagan’s wars in Central America and projection of power as a balm for the humiliating loss in Vietnam deserve mention for their lasting consequences. Civilian deaths and massacres from brutal American-assisted wars in El Salvador[15] and Nicaragua were again seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Reagan contributed to destabilizing those Latin American societies,[16] whose citizens are facing the long-lasting consequences of these actions and have been fleeing the armed thugs that the U.S. government trained and maintained in power. They are currently being cast as immigrants massing ominously at our Mexican border.

These were some of the features of a presidency that showed loyalty first to the “corporation man” and unfettered capitalism. But there were other changes in American culture and media that occurred under Reagan that are directly tied to the emergence of today’s tribal politics and the rise of a figure like Trump.

Part Three[edit | edit source]

The Privatization of Television News[edit | edit source]

The changing forces and power dynamics catalyzed by Lewis Powell’s strategy supported Reagan financially and politically. But these systemic changes did not suddenly arrive due to a single politician’s charismatic leadership. They were designed to be part of a long-term neoliberal architecture ensuring the dominance of free market ideology and minimized federal oversight. Considering the economic fluctuations, recessions, and gross inequities produced by free markets during the past half-century, it is rather remarkable that so little criticism of this ideology is ever discussed by our mass media. Perhaps it is restating the obvious, but here’s a basic caveat to free market thinking from a critical and observant book by George A. Akerlof and Robert J Shiller:

“Economists… fail to appreciate… that free markets, as bountiful as they may be, will not only provide us with what we want, as long as we can pay for it; they will also tempt us into buying things that are bad for us, whatever the costs. As long as there is a profit to be made, they will also deceive us, manipulate us and prey on our weaknesses, tempting us into purchases that are bad for us. That is also a fundamental feature of market equilibrium, in which supply and demand balance each other out.”[17]

Powell’s adherents pressured their targets. At colleges and universities, they singled out particular professors with whom they took exception. They leveraged their tax-deductible contributions to schools and advertising dollars to the media to ensure that their perspective was well represented. None of this would have succeeded had there not occurred a parallel and seismic readjustment and change of strategy in the world of television news.

The networks, en masse, stepped away from presenting truly balanced news and analysis; scrupulously designed to reflect all points of view and ensure they were fairly represented. The news corporations made common cause with their profit-hungry corporate advertisers. The news became privatized, which changed the strategies and definitions of what was and was not “news.” It wasn’t always this way.

From television’s earliest days, the news divisions of the big three networks—ABC, NBC, and CBS—were proudly organized as nonprofit entities. In that capacity, they were analogous to the hood ornament of a Rolls-Royce symbolizing quality, excellence, and value of their brand. CBS President William Paley once told his reporters, “Don’t worry about… [money]. I have [entertainer] Jack Benny[18] to make money.”

Backed by such directives, news broadcasters like Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, established bonds of trust with their audiences based on the quality of their reporting and analysis. As Powell noted in his 1971 memo, “It has been estimated that the evening half-hour news programs of the networks reach daily some 50,000,000 Americans.

Their journalism was supported by the Fairness Doctrine, established 40 years earlier by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This policy compelled broadcasters to discuss current events and discuss them fairly by reflecting multiple points of view. The policy mandated the presentation of opposing views, affording citizens with a common denominator of facts and opinion as a broader basis for public debate and understanding of policy.

The Fairness Doctrine explicitly acknowledged public ownership of the airwaves and clarified that “what was transmitted over them should be of use and service to the American people.” Powell loathed what he saw on television as the networks covered protest movements and their causes, and “so often includes the most insidious type of criticism of the free enterprise system.” He called for “constant surveillance” and prompt and strong “complaints to the media and to the Federal Communications Commission.

Conservative think tanks such as the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, which was launched within two years after Powell’s memo, followed its prescriptions. They argued that the Fairness Doctrine was an affront to First Amendment speech rights, defending but never overtly endorsing, the right to lie. Because the news industry generally considered honoring their public responsibilities to be a prerequisite to maintaining viewers’ trust, understanding that premise, the Heritage Foundation began devising strategies to repeal the Fairness Doctrine.

Further changes in the media environment stressed and weakened the doctrine. In the 1980s, cable news spinoffs were being created to increase the number of products available to consumers. Network executives concluded that new niche channels and content would help defray the large, fixed costs intrinsic to news journalistic gathering—foreign bureaus, quality reporters, researchers, editors, travel budgets, and living allowances.

As cable and satellite stations proliferated, those opponents of the Fairness Doctrine noted that consumers could now choose between many newly created channels and programming. They argued that the new diversity of consumer options made the Fairness Doctrine unnecessary. They asserted that instead of receiving all sides of an issue in a single report, viewers were free to chase claims around the dial for themselves. Since all networks were supported by corporate advertising, it would make no difference to advertisers where viewers saw them.

The proliferation of well-funded conservative think tanks continued, inventing legal arguments that the Fairness Doctrine infringed on First Amendment rights. Simultaneously, the new satellite broadcasters fought the application of the doctrine on other fronts. By 1985, the four members of the FCC, all appointed by Reagan, concluded that the doctrine had a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech. By 1987 it was repealed, dealing what was to become a fatal blow to the universal trust of the broadcast news.

The doctrine’s termination functioned as a stimulant for the proliferation of slash-and-burn, right-wing talk radio. Unbound now from any responsibility for even-handedness or the truth, broadcasters could merely advertise that they were “fair and balanced” to create a legal imitation of a news organization.

The new shock jocks scorched the airways like brush fires crossing the prairie. Offering opinion as fact and fertilizing the growth of hyperbolic conspiracy theories to keep partisan viewers engaged (which pleased their advertisers), the intellectual soap operas began to outweigh traditional news among viewers. In blue-collar job sites across America, the radio was often on during the day.

Rush Limbaugh, the most prominent media personality in the conservative movement at the time, had more than 20 million listeners every week on more than 600 stations—a larger platform than any broadcaster in the nation. He lied so regularly and often that author John K. Wilson cataloged only a small portion of them in a book called “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” Limbaugh never lacked sponsors.

Reagan’s administration worked tirelessly to reshape media loyal to conservative principles and took advantage of new platforms to introduce a number of ideas favored by the far right. One of his top advisers was Patrick Buchanan—the brother of Reagan’s Treasurer. Buchanan—a conservative pundit and former speechwriter for President Nixon, who was Reagan’s communications director in his second term. That post included funneling tips and talking points to accomplices in the media like Limbaugh, who eagerly embraced the culture war dimensions of Powell’s memo—including vilifying the left.

In 1992, Buchanan ran for president against George H.W. Bush, who had been Reagan’s vice president and then was elected president in 1988. Running to the right of Reagan, Buchanan stressed reducing an immigration “invasion” and used Reagan’s catchy campaign promise to “make America Great again.” He amplified racial fears of Blacks and foreigners, and pushed for what we today call the “social conservative” agenda:

  • Opposition to multiculturalism.
  • Opposition to women’s rights, abortion, and gay rights.
  • Deregulation of banking and business.
  • Opposition to unions and organized labor.
  • Shrinking government power to regulate business.

In what became known as his “culture-war speech,” Buchanan cast his campaign as a crusade; a “religious war” for “the soul of our country,” alerting evangelicals that he was their guy as he attacked his Democratic adversaries, Bill (and Hillary) Clinton:

The agenda Clinton & Clinton would impose on America—abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units—that’s change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America needs. It is not the kind of change America wants. And it is not the kind of change we can abide in a nation we still call God’s country.”

Buchanan’s language implied faith over reason, belief over fact, and enshrining religion-based social values intended to politically disenfranchise a substantial number of citizens. Utilizing the prestige he had amassed as a White House staffer for two powerful presidents, Buchanan opened his tent to an unholy alliance of antisemitic and white nationalists on the political fringes. The extremists included William Luther Pierce, whose novel, The Turner Diaries, became a playbook for Timothy McVeigh, the white nationalist later executed for bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Kansas City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 men, women, and children.

McVeigh was a follower of Buchanan’s and the Spotlight, a newspaper published weekly by the Liberty Lobby, which supported segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace and David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as Buchanan. In many respects, Buchanan was ahead of his time. His calls to fringe groups and armed extremists anticipated Trump’s calls to many of the same factions, which culminated in the failed insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Such groups have always existed in America and however fantasy-filled, have maintained their military “readiness” awaiting a call to action by those they considered their superiors.

More Media Deregulation[edit | edit source]

Clinton’s election as president in 1992 only fueled more culture war—including his impeachment. On the eve of his reelection campaign, Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The act ended a 52-year-old federal ban on media companies owning more than one outlet in any market or region. Anyone could own multiple TV and radio stations and newspapers. It also relaxed rules that limited how large media conglomerates could become. The nonprofit watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting described the law as “essentially bought and paid for by corporate media lobbies.”

The act was justified as fostering competition, but by permitting more cross-ownership, it had exactly the opposite effect. The law opened the floodgates on mergers and acquisitions, which created monopolies. Major companies absorbed smaller stations so rapidly that their numbers shrank from nearly 50 in 1983 to 10 in 1996, and then six by 2005. The consolidation and shrinking competition produced a homogenization of content, tone, and policies—especially as smaller and locally attuned newsrooms were not needed. But this new landscape was a bonanza for owners as it created bigger audiences for corporate advertising.

The 1996 act also fostered a wild-West environment of niche channels on cable TV. Within a decade, online media followed the same template. While corporate apologists routinely applauded competition and free speech breaking out, in actuality, the cable channels were mostly single-issue destinations for entertainment, sports, shopping, and, occasionally, low-budget news. Their emergence further balkanized wide once-expansive audiences, shrinking debate, and smothering fair and balanced public discussion similar to the way algae suffocate a pond by colonizing the surface.

Obscured by this turmoil, a critical change in the financing of news took place. That change gave the wealthiest interests an unimaginable advantage in increasing their control over the framing and content of any issue and expanded their ability to counter public debate about their increased dominance.

This change turned the television news into what it is today—a corporate profit center—driven by an ethos of entertainment. The transformation began slowly but quickly gained enormous momentum. To fully appreciate what happened, we have to roll back the clock to the late 1960s when TV news was straight, detailed, and grim. As President Johnson said in 1968 of Walter Cronkite’s coverage of the Vietnam War as the anchor of the CBS Evening News, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

In 1968, another CBS show “60 Minutes,” premiered a magazine-style news hour featuring three 15-minute (and not necessarily current) stories. It became the longest-running prime-time series on TV, placing it in Nielsen’s annual top ten shows for 23 consecutive seasons, and won more Emmy awards than any other prime-time program. Competitors, analyzing the show’s extraordinary profits, grasped the enormous scale of rewards that could be available if the news altered its musty formats.

This realization launched the transformation of news divisions into major earners for their corporate parents. The wealth and influence derived from that evolution did more to shape the nature of news and reporting than any political ideology. By the end of the 1970s, network news divisions were generating 60 percent of profits. The news was now considered “too important to leave to journalists.”

Media and Democracy’s Downward Spiral[edit | edit source]

The search for profits required larger audiences and galvanized the concentrated attention of the C-suites. News producers orchestrated a tectonic morphing of the previous evenhanded, fact-based reporting into infotainment—the awkward hybrid of news and entertainment that one observes passing for pertinent news nearly everywhere today. The staid dignity and reserve of the Cronkites and Murrows serving up fact-based news and analysis were regarded as stodgy and replaced with younger, more attractive male and female anchors with convivial personalities who are bright and adept at facile banter.

Morning news shows morphed and focused on generating enough lighthearted cheer to lighten the mood in a gulag. The whir and whiz of helter-skelter reporting, always marking the clock, insured that viewer eyeballs would remain in place as the ads played. This tactic has been abetted by hyping frightening and stressful events— distant earthquakes and train wrecks that have nothing to do with the American people. The diet of dire events—“if it bleeds, it leads”—was augmented with medical breakthroughs and what celebrities were saying, thinking, or doing; the mélange leavened with occasional “aww shucks” stories of rescued kittens or an honorable immigrant who returned a lost wallet, or the lifestyle “implications” of a starlet’s attire at a red carpet event. In short, infotainment commandeered news formats and the public’s attention as effectively as a red cape swirled before a bull.

The economic logic driving infotainment can be easily comprehended by imagining the equator—the largest possible circle around planet Earth. Each parallel latitude approaching the North Pole or South Pole has a smaller diameter. If the equator were considered the nation’s median IQ, it would represent the largest possible audience, and therefore, the holy grail for every producer of anything with a price tag, whether it is news, theater, movies, television, rock concerts, or dog shows.

The hunt for larger demographics altered the purpose of news. Baldly put, the organizing principle or the fundamental intention became retaining viewers’ attention to be available for the advertisements of sponsors. As the purpose of the news changed so did the manner of its presentation. Debates now rarely admit more than two sides of any issue, with each side being afforded equal credence. This does little more than instruct viewers about the acceptable “frames” within which every subject must be enclosed. Nuance and shades of gray were soon banished from public consideration.

Understanding the frame of a story may be more important than understanding the presentation of facts. This is particularly true when viewers are not privy to the principles determining what information is excluded or included. These principles are neither discussed nor transparent to the audience. The news directors and producers who make those determinations are as invisible as their decisions. Consequently, the contrapuntal harmony of interests between corporate sponsors, advertisers, and the networks is maintained for the benefit of all who profit when audiences increase.

To ensure that increase, stories are sculpted to command attention. They mimic the breathless dynamics of sports reporting, concentrating on winners and losers. This is particularly true in political reporting where stories are usually framed as analysis of candidates’ strategies for victory in the race, rather than the implications of the policies the candidates are competing to implement. Among the expert opinions and analysis required to fill out 24X7 news we are offered, are representatives of think tanks whose histories, political intentions, policies, and sponsors are never clarified for viewers. They simply stand in as “smart guys who know more than you do.” This ensures that all think tanks are afforded equal credulity and respect, whether or not their policies favor public interests or private elites. Not understanding the biases, funders, and intentions of these think tanks makes informed conclusions about their remarks and claims impossible. Yet, “some of our favorite people and guests”—the televised talking heads—are presented as evenhanded and neutral personalities.

Are audiences to assume that the dearth of pertinent, actionable, information presented as news based on information national audiences are not interested in? For instance, why have wages remained fixed so low from 1973 to 2022? Or why are there no nationwide programs of affordable child care that exist to aid blue-collar parents? Are none of us on the other side of the screen really curious about why the wealthiest nation on Earth cannot manage the universal health care and highly functional public schooling offered as rights of citizenship by most of our Scandinavian, European, or Asian allies?

Might audiences not want to understand whether $6 per gallon of gas is due to legitimate market forces, corporate gouging, or a cynical strategy to turn voters against incumbent Democrats—and effectively obliterate many environmental, health and safety, and other regulations impinging on the returns to corporate shareholders? Most pertinently, can we expect fair answers from newsrooms if their reporting is likely to impact the ad buys of the major sponsors from corporate megaliths? If not, is it in our national interests to accept this contorted media landscape as our political norm?

Here’s what you may not know. As audiences grow and ad revenues increase, most major TV anchors receive bonuses for higher ratings, website traffic, social media engagement, rising subscriptions, or exclusive stories. The bonuses are intended to incentivize journalists, anchors, and staff to produce content that will attract larger audiences. But where does this arrangement leave the public in regard to critical dangers posed by content that might not attract large audiences? Are American audiences ever invited to consider whether or not the unregulated pursuit of profits might be depriving them of the information required for informed participation in our society; information such as plans to make necessary adjustments to prevent further global warming?

Private ownership of the news has created an inevitable drift toward reductive simplicity, which is short on policy analysis, and instead stresses losers and winners and frames most issues as competitions between equally worthwhile ideas. The unintended consequences of such simplifications have intensified the threats to the ties that bind society. Millions of citizens have currently cut whatever tethers once bound them to facts and norms. They now float, in the dark, gravity-free, and fact-free, drawn to internet sites where malignant imaginations and self-appointed experts fuel and fan conspiracy theories. Hawkers of intellectual garbage (and, ironically, nutrition supplements) receive the same respect and status (if their ratings are good) afforded to skilled journalists and respected news organizations. One of our two major parties is currently basing its entire electoral strategy organizing these barely credible fringes as the basis of its political power.

Narrower Frames, New Political Center[edit | edit source]

These observations do not presuppose venality on the part of the C-suites or the biases of the anchors. However, let’s remind ourselves that corporations exist (and are mandated by law) to maximize returns to their investors. They do not work for the nation as a whole. The enlarged audiences required to increase corporate earnings include many people of varying education and ability. This has required one-size-fits-all news to be bite-sized and immediately digestible. Who do we like? Who do we not? What just happened? (Which is not the same as why this turn of events has occurred?) Arguments are cast as competitions between centrist and conservative points of view as if those choices comprise the entire spectrum of possible causes and solutions. Such framing reliably ensures that other positions are entirely excluded.

Broadcasters and anchors are no less intelligent, ethical, and dedicated than any other sector of the population. However, like members of Congress, anchors and producers are enmeshed in a system where the best are forced to compete with the worst, chasing revenues and ratings to retain their chairs and prime-time slots. In such circumstances, the quest for personal success may be antithetical to what is required for public service journalism. The inexorable pressure of finance has distorted the news in some very particular ways.

The combination of Powell’s neoliberal boosterism, Reagan’s nullification of the Fairness Doctrine, and Clinton’s deregulation of media ownership, and ensuing homogenization of content has fostered a subtle but universal bias favoring the adoption of corporate and conservative values by nearly all major mainstream media. The way it has evolved and worked, in practice, is to ignore the political positions of the progressive left or a European-style socialist (as opposed to merely left-of-center) perspective. This was adroitly accomplished by Powell’s minions by simply redefining the political center as the left.

Such reframing greatly diminished the available spectrum of ideas, examples, and solutions. It guaranteed conservative corporate sponsors that they would never be paying to advance ideas and values they might disapprove of. This should surprise no one since owners of media networks rank among the largest corporations in America. The consequence of this diminishment is that virtually no airtime is ever dedicated to the spectrum of issues on the true-left or socialist end of the scale. The filters that strain out progressive ideas are as impermeable (and automatic) as other media taboos and are often self-regulated by broadcast personalities who understand precisely where the lines must be drawn.

In the world of corporate news, the center is implied to be the appropriate geography for reasonable people to inhabit, after filtering out “extremes” on both the left and right. This overlooks the fact that after 50 years of disciplined pressure from well-funded right wingers, the center itself has shifted multiple clicks to the right. Even the assertion of a “center” as a preferred normal, is a residue of centrist political bias, regardless of whether or not a fixed centrism is capable of resolving the dilemmas afflicting our country.

Mainstream media ignores this amputation—because they can. They ignore the fact that each of the three political positions—left,[19] center, and right—are actually represented by intentions, biases, and policies that could be cogently explained and examined for the public if advancing knowledge was the purpose of TV news. Crowning centrism to incontestably rule denies viewers the opportunity to parse ideas used by many of our democratic allies around the world who are successfully solving problems that we have failed to address.

When political discussion is confined to this artificially narrowed trench, how can Americans ever know that England, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, India, and Scandinavian countries have periodically been successfully run by socialist governments without degenerating into authoritarianism or communism? This excision of an entire category of political thought reveals a deep distrust of the public and amounts to a willful manipulation of information and (and, therefore, public opinion) maintaining the hegemony of deregulated capitalism (neoliberalism).

The consequence has been the creation of an American public among whom vast swaths are giving up on our political system. To put it another way, millions of Americans are aware of their vulnerability to economic pressures and other traumas and feel that the powers that might temper predatory capitalism are not being deployed on their behalf—let alone being discussed. Is it any wonder, then that vulnerable people harboring fears and grievances are susceptible to partisan conspiracies, charlatans, opportunists, and authoritarians offering easy answers and vengeance?

One does not have to be a socialist to think this way about the state of our national news and political culture. The Rand Corporation, a respected American think tank started in 1948 by the Douglas Aircraft Company and a five-star Air Force general, Henry “Hap” Arnold, believed that only a team of great minds could maintain American technological advantage over the rest of the world. In 1946, Arnold gathered a small group of scientists and $10 million to start RAND (which stands for research and development). This is the firm that conceived of floating satellites monitoring the Earth, and the Air Force has remained their major client. Here is their review of the state of the American media in 2019:

“Over the past 30 years journalism in the United States has gradually shifted towards more opinion-based content that appeals to people’s emotions and relies heavily on argumentation and less on objective news coverage.”[20]

The 30 years that Rand mentions would have begun in the late 1980s, Reagan’s last years in office. By then, the political climate had been saturated with neoliberals pushing and enacting anti-government, anti-union, deregulatory, and anti-democratic policies. These efforts were bankrolled by billionaires and corporations who were intent on maintaining profits without restraints on their bottom lines and minimizing their societal obligations. Their insistent pressures to deregulate banks, media, ignore environmental health and safety regulations, suppress wages, deter unions, and ignite culture wars have been intrepid, insistent, and unrelenting.

As a consequence, American political culture, unlike most countries with parliamentary systems that represent a fuller spectrum of ideas, has evolved into adolescence with political rickets—having been nursed in an anemic two-party formula[21] that offers tepid solutions to pressing problems. As a result, there has been little to counter the wealth-enhancing rationalizations protecting capital’s ability to profit, regardless of the cost to society. That trend continues unabated while the planet on which we are all passengers accelerates toward the boiling point with minimal discussion about what ordinary people could do today; and the challenges they will need to face in the near future if we hope our grandchildren are to survive the legacy of pollution, climate change, and planetary damage that they will inherit from us.

The Organizing System of Our Culture Is Money[edit | edit source]

The power of money organizing our public life remains the primary toxin in our democratic bloodstream. It remains the ignored taboo subject and I would hazard a guess; that the rise of populism across Europe may be related to the accretion of corporate power on that continent and its ability to “buy” parliamentary decisions at the expense of public good.

Domestically, so many serious issues remain unaddressed. Such as whether or not atomic weapons (and now space weaponry) make us safer or put us at risk; and whether atomic energy is a truly viable alternative to fossil fuel and is actually carbon neutral.[22] These and other critical questions are blocked from public scrutiny and legislation by wealthy interests, with our system legally allowing the purchase of political power and influence. The equation is simple. Candidates need campaign donations to buy ads on TV and other media (or allow special interests to do so on their behalf). The funders of campaigns also bankroll lobbying efforts after Election Day.

The sway of capital is irrefutable. Most federal legislators and statewide officials facing competitive contests must spend several hours a day fundraising—especially as elections approach. It is a primary concern. For the best men and women, it requires draconian choices. Do you solicit and accept money from people with whom you may fundamentally disagree even if it can help you continue public service work you are passionate about? Or do you risk ejection from your seat? The worst men and women just open their suitcases to receive the cash and then do as they are told. Why do we accept such a system that preselects greedy and ambitious people, as opposed to those eager to serve the public? It’s another fundamental question that’s never asked.

Part Four[edit | edit source]

Capitalism Clears the Field[edit | edit source]

Things did not get markedly better for working people when the Democrats and the supposedly liberal Bill Clinton took office in January 1993. The right wing responded to his feigned hipness and rascally charm as if Satan had stripped the Virgin Mary naked in the town square. They incubated fervid plans to take over Congress, led by the energetic and inventive—Newton “Newt” Gingrich.

Gingrich’s strategy was quite simply to sully Democrats and to accomplish that he steered the right-wing culture war into the gutter. His first target was House Speaker Jim Wright, a WWII veteran from Texas who had distinguished himself from his southern colleagues by supporting civil and voting rights. Gingrich led a tireless two-year campaign of unproven leaks, smears, and innuendos that exhausted Wright (and his wife) into resigning from the speakership without a single charge ever filed against him. Wright’s replacement, Oregon Democrat Tom Foley, was subjected to more of the same innuendo, with Gingrich spreading rumors that Foley was a child molester “who liked little boys.”

“He transformed the speech of the political right from pointed rhetoric to sheer vitriol, referring to past and present Democratic speakers of the House as ‘crooks,’ ‘traitors,’ and ‘thugs.’”[23]

Gingrich’s behavior was so at odds with the polite norms of civil discourse that at the Republican National Convention, Senator Bob Dole, an old-school Kansas Republican and combat-wounded vet, refused to shake Gingrich’s hand onstage. Instead of being socially banished for his behavior, Gingrich was rewarded with the speakership. This period began the current Republican playbook of utilizing rumor, innuendo, and faux outrage—deception and deceit—to seize or hold onto power by any means.

Gingrich and his followers corrupted a legislative courtesy, where, by waiting until the House was cleared after the day’s work, under a technicality known as “special orders,” members could give one-minute speeches before TV cameras on any topic they chose. Television audiences were unaware that the speakers, videotaped in the House chamber, were addressing an empty room and absent speaker. One day in 1984, Gingrich accused absent Democrats of being “blind to communism” and challenged them to come forward and refute his claims. He knew there was no one there to respond to his accusations.

Tip O’Neill, the House Speaker at the time, confronted Gingrich in a fury:

“[Y]ou deliberately stood in that well before an empty House and challenged these people, [when you knew they would not be there] and you challenged their Americanism and that’s the lowest thing that I have ever seen in my 32 years in Congress.”[23]

Gingrich’s brief rule was an inflection point in contemporary Washington politics. Starting with his reign, all Republican attempts at fair fighting and bipartisanship, not to mention governance, were sublimated to the raw pursuit of power. Winning, not the national good, became everything. Power was what counted, and service—putting the nation’s interests before the party’s—was abandoned as a quaint confection.

Immediately after receiving the speaker’s gavel, Gingrich began name-shaming Democrats and ignoring previous House norms that formalized civility. He called Democrats “sick,” “anti-flag,” and “corrupt,” as suggested by the GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who relished such partisan warfare. Luntz had been Pat Buchanan’s pollster during the 1992 presidential campaign and told Gingrich and Republicans to label Democrats as “anti-child,” “decay,” “welfare,” and “traitors.” Today, Luntz continues to give his opinions on television, as if he was a good-faith partisan with no mention of his past behavior or its toxic legacy.

Jeffrey Toobin’s recent book[24] on the rise of right-wing extremism offers graphic evidence and identifies this moment as the start of the GOP culture wars. I respect and enjoy Toobin’s work, but would argue that the first salvos occurred earlier, much closer to the now hagiographic reign of President Reagan and his cohort, Buchanan, who wooed the proto-fascists, evangelical racists, and self-appointed domestic militias into the Republican camp.

Gingrich was suckled on Buchanan’s speeches and writing that featured concepts such as “The New World Order” (prefiguring Trump’s “Deep State”) and assertions of a shadowy cabal of secret figures (and Jews) running the world for their own advantage. Buchanan was warning followers that nefarious liberals were “coming after the guns of Americans, to disarm and leave them helpless.”

Toobin does underline a chilling connection between right-wing paranoia and domestic terrorism. He points out how September 13, 1994, was the actual genesis of the Oklahoma City bombing because it was the anniversary of the day that Clinton signed a law that included a 10-year federal assault weapons ban. It is a stark reminder that sometimes the extras can wrest the stage from the stars. The fruits of yesteryear’s extremist labors are still simmering in our political soil, not decaying but metastasizing threats to our democracy.

Heads Up: An Invisible Assault Is on Its Way[edit | edit source]

In early 2024, coercive pressure to free corporate and right-wing interests from government restraints was in the news again. In January, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that hinged on revisiting its 1984 ruling that affirmed that federal agencies could regulate private industry based on the government’s scientific expertise. The 1948 decision, known as the “Chevron deference,” was virtually unknown to the public. It was based on a landmark case, Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, which established important legal precedents and public protection in many economic sectors.

Normally, Congress passes laws addressing any issue, in this case protecting the environment. New laws are typically followed up by the relevant government department or agency drafting and adopting rules to enforce the law’s intent. For decades, a key tenet of pro-corporate lobbying has been to stop laws from being passed. If that fails, they have tried to water down the fine print of regulations being drafted. Their next step has been to challenge new laws and rules in court.

Obviously, if each action by an agency were rolled back or overturned, it would nullify the government’s ability to regulate—or address a range of issues and the factual basis for those rules in the first place. The Supreme Court’s 1984 Chevron ruling established a test or guidelines about when the judiciary should defer to an agency’s scientific and other expertise in writing regulations.

The court stated that as long as the agency’s interpretation was not unreasonable, or that Congress had not spoken directly to the issue, the agency’s expertise and its rules should not be challenged. This was, in effect, one branch of the federal government respectfully allowing another branch to function and draw on its expertise.

In 1984, the court also addressed the implications of a newly passed law when its implementation instructions were not explicit. In such ambiguous instances, the Supreme Court held clearly that the judiciary may not substitute a judge’s interpretation of any statute for the agency’s analysis. The only area where a court can intervene, according to Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, was whether or not the agency’s rules were based on a reasonable understanding of the statute.

Needless to say, many corporate and right-wing interests abhorred the checks and balances imposed by the Chevron ruling. In January 2024, the Supreme Court heard two lawsuits that challenged the basis for regulation under Chevron. One suit was brought by a family-owned fishing business, challenging requirements that their fleet bear the cost of installing fishing monitors on their vessels. As is routine in filing such lawsuits, powerful interests look for ordinary citizens whose plight might provide a means to topple much larger legal scaffolding.

Common sense might dictate that if the federal government wanted to regulate fishing in the public interest, they should bear some of the costs, but that is not the resolution that this challenge seeks. The scent of rotten fish clinging to it should alert us to something putrid in its intention.

This case is quite similar to a recent case involving a Colorado web designer seeking relief from federal law insisting that she not discriminate against clients based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. The Supreme Court recently ruled in her favor determining that the designer must not be compelled to make wedding websites for gay couples, a decision adroitly camouflaging her personal prejudice as “free speech.”

What was glossed over in the proceedings was that the web designer had never been asked to design any such website. Nor had she ever met the person whose name and phone number were listed in court documents as the plaintiff. The case was a red herring (no pun intended), assembled out of whole cloth to further test a “free speech” defense to support right-wing bigotry.

The Chevron case is a similar attempt to undo legal precedents, but on a scale that could be disastrous for the government’s ability to regulate anything at all. According to coverage of pretrial briefs by the National Law Journal (September 18, 2023): Department of Justice lawyers urged the Supreme Court to reject the challenge to Chevron’s deference, warning of a “convulsive shock to the legal system.” “Given its central importance, overruling Chevron would threaten settled expectations in virtually every area of conduct regulated by federal law,” [U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar] wrote in the government’s brief.

The solicitor general asserted that overruling Chevron could threaten all legal interpretations under the doctrine that had been upheld by lower courts, as well as the “downstream agency programs,” which rely on interpretations of new laws by the federal government’s scientists and experts. Overturning Chevron would effectively disrupt the complex regulatory schemes under the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. It could also wreak havoc with the government’s efforts to counter climate change by pushing industries to transition to non-carbon-based operations and products.

In her courtroom arguments, U.S. Solicitor General Prelogar sensed the court’s right-wing majority was likely to reverse some or all of their 1984 decision. She urged the justices to not sweep away their entire ruling, but to preserve key elements. However, if past precedents hold true—as seen in rulings over voting rights, abortion, affirmative action, campaign finance, and more—the majority will likely target and dismantle key thresholds in the law that allow the federal government to protect the public.

Lewis Powell could only have dreamed of such an expansive prize in 1971. His memo bemoaned “the apathy and default of business… to this massive assault on its fundamental economics, upon its philosophy, upon its right to continue to manage its own affairs, and indeed upon its integrity.”

However, corporate behemoths and their allies who heeded Powell have never stopped their tireless efforts to puncture, weaken, or remove the pesky regulatory shells protecting the nation and citizenry. They deployed considerable resources, which the left labeled “Big Money,” to manipulate our system, from the starting line of political campaigns to the finish line of new laws and rules.

The difficulty for the majority of us, however, is that our political system is almost entirely organized around the procurement and disbursement of money to run for and hold elected office. After all, if 80 percent of the population is in favor of reasonable gun safety measures or against abortion bans, and nothing happens legislatively to protect those opinions, it seems evident that the Congress is in thrall to the remaining 20 percent. It is not difficult math.

Should the fisher-folk triumph in Chevron, their victory could open legal floodgates to lawsuits challenging federal regulatory impediments to unlimited profits, regardless of the cost to the general public or to the planet. Congress, as is the case with the court’s striking down of Roe v. Wade, would have to pass a new law reinstating what the court gutted. That law, undoubtedly, would eventually end up in legal challenges before the court several years later.

If the government cannot regulate predatory capitalism in its daily conduct, it is neutered in its ability to protect the average citizen from those who prey on them or plunder their resources. Were the court to reverse this longstanding holding as readily as it flicked Roe v. Wade into the chipper, the people of the United States would be reduced to impotence in ensuring timely efforts to defend their land, air, water, food, and medicines against the better-financed forces marching under the green banner of the American dollar.

Ending the ‘Game’ of the United States[edit | edit source]

In the early 1980s, the late James Carse, a professor of history and literature of religion at New York University, was invited to participate with a group of mathematicians investigating the probabilities of either winning conflicts or minimizing losses, should victory prove impossible. The following citation is the entire first chapter of Carse’s foundational book, Finite and Infinite Games.

“There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game [is played] for the purpose of continuing the play.”

The United States of America is an infinite game. We play to keep the game going—toward “a more perfect union,” as the U.S. Constitution’s preamble says. Prior to participants such as Lewis Powell, Newt Gingrich, Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Scott Perry, Donald Trump, Andy Biggs, and others who glean power by sowing discord and disorder, most Americans never considered ending the game of the nation as a strategy for acquiring permanent power. In politics or sports, rules, norms, and laws apply equally to finite and infinite games. If players go to any length to win and seek advantage by violating the agreed-on rules and norms they threaten the existence of the game.

Most people understand this instinctively. It’s why in 2007 the Patriots Coach Bill Belichick was officially fined $500,000—the largest fine ever imposed on a coach in football’s then-87-year history—for the “use of equipment to videotape an opposing team’s offensive or defensive signals.” Sports fans intuited immediately how the breaking of rules and norms was too threatening to the existence of the game. Why do we not condemn such behavior in the hockey pit of our Congress and media-driven political world today?

This is precisely where Donald Trump’s lies and disregard for norms and rules have left us. But the deterioration of our system did not begin with Trump. There is a long history in our money-fueled democracy of protecting the wealthy more diligently than protecting the citizenry. Consider this a short recital of notable events perpetrated by both parties at the expense of working people. Some predate Reagan’s designation of our government as the enemy.

Let me say in advance, that while the Democrats have perpetrated their fair share of betrayals of their constituency, I am not drawing an equivalency between the parties here. Democrats continue to legislate and usually recognize and honor the authority of norms and procedures. There is no parallel in today’s Republican Party. The two parties are not co-equally selfish and devoid of principle.

Consider the following events from the perspective of working people, who, in early 2024, are said by pollsters to align themselves more with Trump’s Republican Party than with Biden’s Democratic Party.

  • President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz exhorts family farmers to “get big or get out,” urging them to take on new debt and buy heavy equipment to “farm fencerow to fencerow.” He derided their grandparents’ fiscal conservatism assuring them their loans would be protected by rising land values. They do so.
  • Less than 10 years later, Paul Volcker, the Federal Reserve chair under President Jimmy Carter, raised interest rates five points in a single day to fight inflation. The unintended consequence was that hundreds of thousands of small farms were forced into bankruptcy. Farmers’ houses, land, and equipment were sold at auction as part of the court proceedings to relieve their debt. It frequently was snapped up by larger corporate agribusiness firms.

As displaced farmers moved to the cities, or sought employment from the new owners, the toll depleted rural America. Small towns in the Midwest and South became depressed zones, vulnerable to the opioid and crystal meth pandemics.[25] For every five farms that went down, a local business closed. Town after town in once stable farm belts hemorrhaged school principals, doctors and other professionals. Main streets became vacant and young people left home—and farming. Where do we suppose these citizens will place their faith in the future —in the government and its agencies that failed them? Or in charismatic conspiracists salving broken spirits by convincing them that they did no wrong, but were betrayed by the ‘Deep State’ and can return to past glory?

  • As a result of Reagan’s bank deregulation, corruption in the community-oriented savings and loan industry became endemic. Loan officers were “loaning” themselves clients’ money. When the sector collapsed nationwide, it cost mom-and-pop investors more than $250 billion dollars of savings and pensions. Five people went to jail for a nationwide scandal.
  • Two 1990s updated trade agreements, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement, shipped American jobs and infrastructure—especially in manufacturing—to nations without health, safety, and environmental standards. Combined with cheaper wages, diminished costs proved to be an irresistible allure to America’s corporate sector. The exodus effectively doubled down on the damage wrought by the destruction the farm collapse and weakened union movement had already inflicted upon workers. What was good for corporations and shareholders was not so good for American workers.
  • During the 1990s, Clinton administration Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers and his top aide, Robert Rubin, determined that the Democratic Party would have access to more money for political campaigns if they adhered to the tenets of neoliberalism and made the party’s policies more attractive to banking, finance, insurance, real estate, and energy sectors.

A strategic adjustment ensued. As Democratic policies began to favor hedge funds, finance, insurance, real estate, technology, and energy interests, the money flowed into Democratic coffers. The internet boom swelled the economy temporarily. At the same time, mass incarceration of young non-white men (who Hillary Clinton had called “super predators”) decimated minority communities. A new and privatized prison industrial complex emerged. Amid the feeding frenzy, somehow urban and rural blue-collar folks were forgotten.

Where was the Democratic Party during the 30-year wage freeze that began in 1973 when the Treaty of Detroit—the union agreement tying wages to corporate profits—was dismantled? What corporate TV news ever analyzed what 2 to 3 percent annual inflation over three decades purloined from every salaried worker would have in America? How could overworked and underpaid people with little time to spare for the news have possibly understood that such a freeze was an invisible gift to corporate donors; that Democrats and Republicans sat on their hands while inflation and price gouging relentlessly increased the cost of everything people needed. Is this past mere history? Consider this quote from a May 2023 issue of socialist-leaning Jacobin magazine:

“There is mounting evidence that corporate profiteering is playing a key role in the latest wave of inflation, with profit margins soaring while real wages continue to fall. To fight inflation, we have to tackle corporate greed.”

Lest you dismiss this criticism as socialist propaganda, the Wall Street Journal during the same month featured a headline, “Why Is Inflation So Sticky? It Could Be Corporate Profits,” while London’s Financial Times referred to “Greedflation.” Why has the preponderance of TV analysis been dedicated to “inflation” (whose “cures” always involve laying off workers and interest rates) and never, or rarely, discussing capitalist greed? The total absence of consideration for the latter could not be a coincidence. Wouldn’t it be more logical to assume that the silence is related to the fact that network fortunes depend on corporate advertising?

Where might ordinary citizens seek relief in a financial system that legally allows usurious 28 percent interest on credit cards, and twice as much for payday loans? How does college education help working people when the cost of tuition loans condemns their children to decades of debt, severely limiting employment options in public service? How can they trust a system where unregulated market forces conveniently raise the price of gasoline every summer and holiday season; where fluctuating mortgage rates can (and did) jettison millions of homeowners a month out on the street as they did during the economic collapse of 2008.

Magically, the Clinton administration’s defenders ducked the blame for shepherding the deregulatory precursors to that meltdown, and then adroitly wiped their hands as they applauded President Barack Obama for cleaning up the mess.

In that particular debacle, the financial sector screwed up so badly, taking billions in fees from fraudulent mortgages and insurance policies. Meanwhile, the country lost nearly 9 million jobs during 2008 and 2009. Millions of families were evicted and foreclosed in the most humiliating manner. Local sheriffs routinely emptied homes and piled possessions on lawns as neighbors grimly watched.

Not a single executive on Wall Street paid a personal fine or went to jail for this industry-wide fraud. Former federal regulator William Black, who prosecuted the 1990s saving and loan crisis, insisted publicly that this latest fiscal meltdown could never have occurred without criminal collusion in executive suites.

Due to the collapse, U.S. household net worth declined by nearly $13 trillion (20 percent). Housing prices typically fell 30 percent. The U.S. stock market fell approximately 50 percent by early 2009, with stocks regaining their December 2007 level only during September 2012.[26] Again, it was the working people who paid in blood and humiliation for the elites’ unrestrained and unregulated greed.

This list could go on and on. Its observations might shed some light on why 74 million voters in November 2020 concluded that what they require for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was a strongman in their corner. So be it that Trump was a “pussy-grabbing” sexual predator, a chiseler businessman, a sociopath who stiffed and betrayed underlings, employees, and customers—such as the students who paid tuition at his fraudulent university. But what have the well-meaning and well-coiffed hosers they’d sent to Washington done for them? Why should they trust the chipper and ebullient television anchors? “Screw ‘em all,” the mob said, and continued to assert, “Trump is our guy.”

Tribal politics and grievances do not sprout overnight. These events and their impacts are part of the trail of breadcrumbs that stirred a largely blue-collar mob that followed Trump to riot in the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Trump certainly played a part. He was the match to their tinder. But defecating in the Capitol and smearing feces on the walls are not expressions of reverence for a candidate, even an “Orange Jesus.” Such acts are eruptions of rage and disgust after decades of cumulative loss under an economic and political system that follows the intractable logic of money. That calculus has prioritized protecting private capital and power over addressing the concerns of working people.

The key to understanding what warped the high-minded intentions and aspirations of so many officeholders is the central truth that our entire system depends on the collection and disbursement of money to run for office and reelection. In such a system, political influence and power can be bought—full stop. Must we, as a people, continue pretending to be stupid or naïve; behaving as if we don’t know that highly educated members of the Supreme Court, and the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton whiz-kids in Congress could never have anticipated or realized that the system they uphold is fundamentally anti-democratic?

Check your phone texts and emails to determine how many are from candidates waving tin cups under your nose. This author received 77 political texts begging, guilt-tripping, whining, and promising the loss of our liberties if I did not kick in another $3.00. It is a demeaning and dishonest exercise. Most of the same beggars are also dunning the hedge funds and corporate sector whose interests are often inimical to my own. This status quo is undignified and reduces government service to the ethical dimensions of a massage parlor transaction. But it didn’t just appear out of thin air.

Once the Supreme Court conflated political contributions and free speech in the 1976’s Buckley v. Valeo ruling, they shifted every advantage to the owners of capital. In that ruling, which ended limits on campaign spending, and other rulings that followed, such as 2010’s Citizens United v. FEC that held corporate campaign spending is a form of free speech, the citizenry has been systematically disenfranchised.

These two decisions formalized the relationship of the nation’s highest officeholders to the demands of capital. To my knowledge, no one in the national media has managed any observation more cogent about the Supreme Court’s sale of democracy than the anemic, “We need to get the money out of politics.” Is this all we expect from our constitutionally protected public information sources? We continually are offered “thoughts and prayers” to accept our lot as impotent adults while our children are massacred by guns, women are stripped of agency over their own bodies, and race-baiting and hate-speech proliferate like mold after a rain.

Amidst the virtue signaling and hand-wringing of the media and good-natured Democrats, what policies and legislation are ever advanced, advertised, and exhaustively discussed to curtail the power of money in our state and federal political systems? Public campaign financing has not advanced. Transparency of donors, recipients, and spending is easily evaded. Where are detailed discussions of these subjects in the nightly news by our “progressive” legislators, men and women I admire such as Bernie Sanders, Sheldon Whitehouse, Elizabeth Warren, Jamie Raskin, the Squad, Hakeem Jeffries, Cory Booker, Claire McCaskill, and others who struggle so valiantly to protect civil liberties and democracy?

In calculating election strategies, it has obviously occurred to better minds than mine of how discussion and legislation to restore protections to the average citizen might restore some faith in democracy, and also attract more people into political life who are truly service-oriented. These observations, however, are systematically and obdurately blocked by the money fueling these conservative agendas and reelecting incumbents.

Aside from anodyne disclaimers, the trend from Reagan’s presidency onward has been that moneyed elites have been favored and relieved of the obligation of paying their fair share of taxes, while receiving the majority of free benefits of our system. Republicans are now mining the wombs of women for votes, actively disenfranchising people of color and minorities from exercising their franchise, and at least one Supreme Court Justice is considering removing the legal basis protecting interracial and gay marriage. He is the same justice who refused to recuse himself should Trump’s trial arrive on his desk, despite the fact that his wife was an active supporter of the insurrection. Where is the clamor to recuse him? Where is the concurrence by his colleagues?

In 2023, Wisconsin’s GOP-led legislature threatened to impeach a newly elected liberal state supreme court justice who had not yet heard a case because the conservatives did not want their rule toppled. (By December, the legislators had backed off). Such efforts are lavishly supported by great American fortunes. The wealthy are not simply buying shares in every legislator they can but the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by the same right-wing billionaires, is actually writing the legislation they are paying legislators to vote for. ALEC is one of the many right-wing organizations created in the wake of Powell’s memo.

If there are original sins in the conception of our country, as destructive as slavery and the Native American genocide have been, it is the ways in which our federal Constitution (and the “science” of economics) remain dedicated to preserving great fortunes and the power of wealth. Whether we should call such a system a science, democracy, or a corporatocracy, is anyone’s guess. But this writer’s fear is that failing meaningful reform, which prioritizes and protects the interests of middle-middle and lower classes, it’s going to be a very long (and very hot) dark night for the soul in our city on a Hill, now charred, flood ravaged, and inundated with homeless camps. Is it too much to support affordable day care programs, early childhood education, universal broadband, reasonable education loans, and laws barring the foxes from the campaign and lawmaking henhouse?

The realities of campaign funding and the role of corporate lobbyists have never been fully explained or justified before the general public by media whose profits come from using airways that the public owns. That absence is a missed opportunity for systemic political reform, which could reinvigorate the power of voters. We do not need “opinion” polls to make the stultifying counting of votes transformed by NBC’s Steve Kornacki and turn it into a breathless race to the finish line. If the American people want legislators to respond to them, they should pay them, and prohibit others from paying them. But public financing of campaigns is considered a heresy in a world where only private capital matters. Our media might have led the charge to defend our working population if they were not simultaneously keeping their eyes on ratings and the receipts from sponsors’ ads at the same time.

All of this returns us to where we began. The biggest unanswered question in America right now is not “What will Trump do next?” It is, “Why have millions of Americans lost faith in democratic institutions?” I hope that this discussion might begin to answer that question.

We see mobs cheering at Trump rallies. We worry about his dictatorial threats but remain puzzled by why 74 million people voted for him. Before we surrender to the reign of money controlling our politics, economics and media, let’s remember that these systems were consciously created. Decades of deliberate decisions to elevate the interests of “free enterprise” above average Americans brought us here.

Let us remember that which has been rendered by political power can be undone by it. In the final analysis it will be the voters who can (and must) show up at the polls and in our daily political life; but show up perhaps differently than we have done so far. Powell’s minions have manipulated millions to believe that there is an “us” and “them,” and that the ‘them’ represents a threat. The consequences of that way of thinking have revealed that what happens to the least of our citizens—when they are stripped of constitutional protections, equal access to good jobs, fair mortgages, good schools, and agency—weakens the one foundational belief that makes us a nation: democracy.

Whether or not the United States can remain a democracy will finally be determined by whether or not each of us can open our hearts and understanding to include those who resemble us the least. Not to be grandiose, but it is a spiritual revolution that allows us to include our fellow citizens with less education or wealth, darker skins and sometimes unfamiliar accents in our understanding of what being an American means. And it will be a spiritual revolution for them to include “white” people when we are no longer the majority. Why are we not setting examples and practicing for that impending political fact?

Strangers will always be consigned to powerlessness unless the majority includes them in their definition of community. This is a larger task than simply community organizing. It must include hearts and eyes that see “others” with more kindness and less fear; understanding that it is the generosity of the sun, water, oxygen and soil that supports all life including our own. It is not a private possession of the privileged. Those banished from our definition of community will eventually turn against it.

What’s called for is a revelation of understanding; a re-cognizing of what citizenship and democracy truly mean and imply. That is not different from the fundamental assertions of every religion; it is not foreign. We can do this. There is enough for everyone, particularly when democracy assumes its authority of truly representing the majority and protecting the minority.

As Lewis Powell wrote in his infamous August 1971 memo:

“The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come 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.”

Give Powell credit, but let’s flip his script. Powell identified the systems’ players and levers. His neoliberal call to arms was prescient and provoked concerted action. But the first step to turning the tide and conversation is knowing how we got here, and the painful and anti-democratic impacts it has had on us all.

  1. https://www.britannica.com/summary/Great-Depression-Causes-and-Effects
  2. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Liberalism in America: A Note for Europeans. Archived February 12, 2018, at the Wayback Machine, in The Politics of Hope (Boston: Riverside Press, 1962).
  3. Anders Walker, “A Lawyer Looks at Civil Disobedience: How Lewis F. Powell, Jr. Reframed the Civil Rights Revolution.”
  4. Science Fiction Films and Cold War Anxiety,” Victoria O’Donnell, Encyclopedia.com
  5. The phrase comes from James McMurtry’s brilliant song “Ruby and Carlos” from his Just Us Kids album.
  6. Chicago Boys economists Milton Friedman and Albert Harberger advised and aided Augustus Pinochet, dictator of Chile who overthrew and executed a democratically elected president.
  7. Thanks for this chart to an Australian website: https://www.australiaremade.org/powell-memo.
  8. Vox article, July 29, 2019, “One Chart That Shows How Much Worse Income Inequality Is in America Than Europe.”
  9. The Daily Californian article, April 21, 2017, “Remembering ‘Bloody Thursday’: 1969 People’s Park Riot.”
  10. Rolling Stone magazine, May 15, 2017, “Flashback: Ronald Reagan and the Berkeley People’s Park Riots.”
  11. History.com article, August 31, 2018, “The NRA Supported Gun Control When the Black Panthers Had the Weapons.” The specter of armed black citizens was sufficiently terrifying to pacify the NRA’s normal fervor for the Second Amendment that has won their recent support for both mental patients and people on the terrorist “no-fly lists” to purchase weapons.
  12. https://www.avjobs.com/salaries-wages-pay/historical-aviation-wages.asp
  13. According to FOIA documents turned over to Seth Rosenfield, reported in the New York Times, September 1, 2012.
  14. New York Times, August 21, 2023, “Airline Close Calls Happen Far More Often Than Previously Known.”
  15. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_American_crisis and https://repmcgovern.medium.com/decades-of-us-intervention-have-destabilized-central-america-now-we-have-a-moral-obligation-to-67713f23a406. Latin American massacres tied to Reagan include horrific events in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The murders continue today (2023) as a result of Canadian mining company, Calibre, urging civilians to find gold in the territory of Indigenous people. See https://www.oaklandinstitute.org/calibre-mining-group.
  16. Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Making of an Imperial Republic (updated and expanded edition), Picador, 2021.
  17. George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller, Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception, Princeton University Press, 2016.
  18. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Benny. Those born after the 1970s might not realize that Jack Benny was the Jerry Seinfeld of his day. Legendary on radio, TV, and films, his persona as a vain, bitter, and inept violinist was remarkable for its subtlety during a period that favored broad jokes and rapid-fire patter.
  19. Bob Avakian, head of the Revolutionary American Communist Party, could rightly accuse me of centrism for not including communism as an option on the left. Despite the fact that Marxist China has recently created more wealth for more people than any nation, its authoritarian structure and my failure to find a single example of a democratic communist nation have led me to set my left wing’s longest feather marking socialism. Avakian is brilliant enough, but in the same way that Bernie Sanders fights an uphill battle by describing his underpinnings as socialism, the word “communist” is so tainted in the American mind (and in failed overseas states) that I think it is beyond inclusion in political discussions in the near future.
  20. Rand Corporation. See https://www.rand.org/news/press/2019/05/14.html.
  21. More accurately, the two parties are really the Janus, the double-faced aspect of the one true business party.
  22. The “energy” produced may be carbon neutral, but the building of the plant requires tons of concrete and fossil fuel-powered equipment during the decade required for construction. Christopher Groskopf, Quartz Magazine, May 11, 2016.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Daily Beast article, August 11, 2019, “The Inside Story of How Newt Gingrich Single-Handedly Destroyed Congress.”
  24. Jeffrey Toobin’s comprehensive new book, Homegrown: Timothy McVeigh and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism, Simon and Schuster, May 2023.
  25. Joel Dyer, Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City Is Only the Beginning, Westview Press, August 1997.
  26. “Households and Nonprofit Organizations; Net Worth, Level.” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. June 7, 2018. “S&P 500.” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. July 3, 2018.

Have you signed up yet?

We’re building a guide for everyday life, where experts will educate you about our world.