News Release

40 Years Since “Powell Memo” Laid out Corporate Agenda

In 1971, Lewis F. Powell, then a corporate lawyer and member of the boards of eleven corporations, wrote a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr., the director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, titled “Attack of [sic] American Free Enterprise System.” The memorandum was dated August 23, 1971, two months prior to Powell’s nomination by President Nixon to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Powell Memo did not become available to the public until long after his confirmation to the Court. It was leaked to Jack Anderson, syndicated columnist, who stirred interest in the document when he cited it as reason to doubt Powell’s legal objectivity. Anderson cautioned that Powell “might use his position on the Supreme Court to put his ideas into practice … [on] behalf of business interests.”

JEFF MILCHEN, Jeff at ReclaimDemocracy.org
Milchen is a board member of ReclaimDemocracy.org. He said today: “Under the guise of defeating attacks on ‘free enterprise,’ Lewis Powell’s memo to the U.S. Chamber clearly outlined a comprehensive framework by which corporate interests could create long-term shifts in culture, law and ultimately policy to consolidate corporate power and minimize the risk of democracy interfering with their agenda. Groups embracing Powell’s strategy have indeed fundamentally altered our nation. The 1978 First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti ruling (creating a corporate right to influence ballot questions) to the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling (allowing unlimited corporate electioneering) are among the notable results, but most legal and political victories resulted from decades of patient work to shift popular opinion and culture.

“Foundations, organizations and citizens who believe in representative democracy have much to learn from the Powell Memo. In stark contrast to Powell’s call for long-term vision and movement-building, most public interest and pro-democracy groups focus incessantly on damage control and short-term battles, even as they lose repeatedly. The myopic focus on election outcomes, at the expense of changing the electoral process, is just one symptom of this lack of strategic vision.

“Thankfully, the Citizens United ruling may have been a wake up call. Coalitions like Move to Amend, Free Speech for People and others focused on Constitution-level change are gaining momentum, and groups like the American Independent Business Alliance, Business Alliance for Local Living Economies and Sustainable Business Council are building grassroots support for and among independent businesses that underpin our economy in contrast to the corporatization agenda of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”

See overview and copy of the Powell memo