History often has hidden beginnings. There is no blinding flash of light in the sky to mark a turning point, no distinctive mushroom cloud signifying an atomic explosion that will forever alter human destiny. Often a watershed is crossed in some gradual and obscure way so that most people do not realize that an unseen shift has moved them into a new era, reshaping their lives, the lives of their generation, and the lives of their children, too. Only decades later do historians, like detectives, sift through the confusing strands of the past and discover a hitherto unknown pregnant beginning.
One such hidden beginning, with powerful impact on our lives today, occurred in 1971 with “the Powell Memorandum.” The memo, first unearthed by others many years ago, was written by Lewis Powell, then one of America’s most respected and influential corporate attorneys, two months before he was named to the Supreme Court. But it remains a discovery for many people today to learn that the Powell memo sparked a business and corporate rebellion that would forever change the landscape of power in Washington and would influence our policies and economy even now.
The Powell memo was a business manifesto, a call to arms to Corporate America, and it triggered a powerful response. The seismic shift of power that it set in motion marked a fault line in our history. Political revolt had been brewing on the right since the presidential candidacy in 1964 of Senator Barry Goldwater, the anti-union, free market conservative from Arizona, but it was the Powell memo that lit the spark of change. It ignited a long period of sweeping transformations both in Washington’s policies and in the mind-set and practices of American business leaders—transformations that reversed the politics and policies of the postwar era and the “virtuous circle” philosophy that had created the broad prosperity of America’s middle class.
The newly awakened power of business helped propel America into a New Economy and a New Power Game in politics, which largely determine how we live today. Both were strongly tilted in favor of the business, financial, and corporate elites. Trillions were added to the wealth of America’s super-rich at the expense of the middle class, and the country was left with an unhealthy concentration of political and economic power.