Unity is the political flavor of the month. We’re tired of polarized politics. We want unity, but what would unity look like? It isn’t the same as unanimity, which implies uniformity without disagreement. The much desired political unity we seek would overcome decades of increasingly polarizing, divisiveness that has separated the American public and their elected representatives into waring camps unwilling to negotiate with each other in good faith. In its place would be an overwhelming majority of American opinion united around fundamental American principles defined by our founding laws and the highest ideals of our mythology, excluding no one and redressing old injustices. That kind of unity would probably offend a disaffected white minority who believe themselves to be a persecuted underclass for whom being “free, white and twenty-one” is no longer a ticket to a future better than those who don’t have a ticket and can’t get one. They can’t be coddled in their discontent.
Unity that coalesces around American ideals, albeit from different perspectives, goals, and legislative intentions, would seem to be a doable thing, but it faces obstacles, the greatest of which is a decades old libertarian tactic established early in the 1970s. It skillfully moved the fulcrum of debate farther and farther to the right by claiming everything to its left was radical left wing socialism bordering on communism. It’s alive and well today in the language of McConnell, Grassley, Haley, and others like them. They say they’ll negotiate, but every concession is met with another demand farther to the right until it’s clear they have no intention of any agreement other than one they dictate. To be sure, the legislature has its share of left wingers who demand all or nothing, but in the end they seldom block progress.
What happened in the 1970s that set in motion the path to the polarization we experience today? The Vietnam War was in full swing, and so was the anti war movement that disrupted college campuses, sometimes violently. The nation had endured a decade of race riots that were winding down, but not ended. Labeled radical, public figures like Kunstler and Nader rattled staunch conservatives and business leaders. Real leftists like Davis, Rustin and a dozen or so black and socialist liberation “armies” made lots of threatening noise garnering lots of front page headlines. What did they want? They wanted justice from a white power structure that refused to give it. They were anti capitalism in the sense that they were anti big business plutocracy. Were they true Russian type communists? It turned out they weren’t, but the corporate world was convinced otherwise.
Into that mess came the Powell Memorandum mentioned in a variety of political conversations lately. In 1971, Lewis Powell, soon to become Justice Powell, wrote a short essay for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce entitled, “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.” In it he warned that the radical left was attacking the unprepared core of the American free enterprise system, aided by sympathetic organizations and the liberal media. He held up public figures such as Kunstler and a variety of left wing academics as proof that the younger generation, minorities, and college faculties were on the verge of taking America down the socialist path, by which he meant communism. Big business, which he claimed had built this nation and paid most its expenses, was in danger of losing everything if it didn’t do something. He suggested a counter offensive of public speakers, right leaning think tanks, pro business text books, teacher training, and strengthened graduate schools of business, to move the debate fulcrum from favoring to the radical left to a place more favorable to business interests.
There were two straw men in his argument. One was that the radical left was more headline grabbing hyperbole than possessing any real political power in Congress or state legislatures. It’s one of the things that made them so angry. They huffed and puffed and got little for their effort. The civil rights acts of the mid 1960s were supposed to be enough: they would get no more than that. Conservative, big business friendly interests still held most the cards. Moving the debate fulcrum to the right didn’t make things more fair, it shifted what had been tentatively balanced in the middle to the right, and the same set of fear based arguments have been used ever since to keep on moving it.
The second was Powell’s assertion that big business was the heart and soul of the American success story – that it built this country. WWII is partly to blame. News media and the government had produced hundreds of motivational newsreels, animated cartoons, and movies celebrating American industry as the arsenal of democracy. America’s giant businesses were production heroes that won the war and restored the nation to prosperity from the depths of the Great Depression. There was a lot of truth in those films, but they also gave big business leaders the false idea that big business was what America was all about. As “Engine Charlie” Wilson was credited with saying, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.” Powell raised the specter that radical socialists were out to dismantle capitalism: i.e., big business operating with as little government oversight as possible. The threat was vocal but powerless. By rebranding big business as the defenders of free enterprise and American capitalism, he made it the victim of assault by a few weak but noisy left wing pests whom he claimed were taking over the country.
The Powell Memorandum was especially hard on Yale, said to be the hotbed of communist faculty churning out graduates who would spread the infection nation wide. Who were some of those radical leftist graduates of the early 1970s? Samuel Alito, John Ashcroft, John Bolton, Bill Clinton, Clarence Thomas, and a dozen CEOs of big business.
The memorandum was written 50 years ago. The tactics that grew out of the it have continued to work well for the conservative establishment, what Heather Cox Richardson calls Business Republicans, epitomized today by Mitch McConnell and Co. To their right, tea party – freedom caucus types have done what they can to push the fulcrum to the edge of the extreme right, so even center right conservatives are labeled as the radical left.
What has to happen to put an end to this half century old trick? First, stop falling for the illusion that useful negotiation is from the middle, or that it will lead to any agreement. It isn’t and it won’t. Stake out the progressive position. Hold to it, and make the other side move. Second, use every soap box in the land to remind the American public that it’s the “yeoman” workers, small business people, teachers, and community professionals who have built this country, and the government is their servant to see that the playing field is as level as can be for all persons with no exceptions. Third, using every means possible, reeducate the American public on basic civics: the Constitution, federalism, duties and obligations of citizenship, and honest American history that celebrates the good without hiding the bad. Fourth, give big business its due. It’s not the enemy. It’s important to the economic well being of the nation, but it must be regulated it to keep it from predatory practices, and actions damaging to the environment, humanity, and the communities in which they do business. Big business won’t like it, but they can handle it.