Brodie Farquhar: Putting the conservative political movement in context
I’d like to present some context to Steamboat Pilot & Today readers – things to keep in mind when considering the conservative political movement and how it relates to today’s politics.
It helps to remember that in the wake of the Crash of ‘29 and ensuing Great Depression, the financial and industrial elites of the country were widely discredited. For the next four decades, too many voters remembered what a mess the elites had made. The public remembered how bad things really got before President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a Democratic Congress rescued the country. FDR helped us avoid emulating the Russian Revolution or the fascist movements taking form in Italy and Germany.
Progressive liberalism had quite a run with FDR’s New Deal and later Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the Civil Rights Act. Eisenhower ran as a Republican, yet the 1956 GOP platform looked as if today’s Bernie Sanders had authored it.
Social Security. Civil rights. Black Panthers. Martin Luther King, Jr. Women’s liberation. Consumer rights and protection. College students rioted against the Vietnam War and the draft. Environmentalism. Hippies. Rock and roll. Almost everywhere one turned, there was progressive change and push-back from the Right, personified by George Wallace and Richard Nixon.
In 1971, a corporate lawyer named Lewis F. Powell, Jr., was deeply alarmed. He was a board member for Phillip Morris and attorney for the Tobacco Institute. That year, tobacco ads were banned from television. Powell felt the industry’s free speech rights were abused by the ban and resented the fact that national media put more credence in science than industry denials that tobacco caused cancer. He was also agitated by Ralph Nader’s expose of the auto industry, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” which Powell believed was undermining public faith in capitalism.
At the behest of a friend and neighbor who was education director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Powell wrote a confidential memo that was anti-New Deal and a blue print for conservative business interests to retake and remake America. Powell called for corporate America to be much more aggressive in remolding the public’s perceptions about law, politics, government and business. You can read it online.
The memo was well-received by conservative foundations and corporations alike. In the following years and decades, think tanks and educational and lobbying groups were founded or reinvigorated by ever-larger infusions of cash. Today, we see the Heritage Foundation staffing the Trump administration while the Federalist Society tilts the national judiciary toward extreme conservatism.
We also see that every state has conservative think tanks, educational and lobbying groups. Here in Colorado, a short list would include the Independence Institute, Steamboat Institute, Colorado Union of Taxpayers, Centennial Institute, etc. And that doesn’t count all the myriad state chapters of national groups and political action committees.
To give credit where credit is due, the Powell Memo triggered a political revolution. All these groups work together to accomplish the following: weaken and destroy unions; keep wages low; punish the poor; foment culture wars; weaken civil rights; weaken public education; privatize public functions; reward the one percent with tax breaks and subsidies; reduce taxes and spending; gut regulations that protect labor, consumers and the environment; rip the social safety net to shreds; support favorable media and crush the opposition; infiltrate academia and have I forgotten anything? Oh yeah: all in the name of empty promises of prosperity, jobs, freedom, accountability, family values, etc.
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