Bill Moyers: How the 1970s backlash against the environmental movement morphed into today’s class war

  • Published on November 12th, 2011

How did America, a society founded on equality, become so unequal? How did power shift from voters to corporations? Bill Moyers concludes his keynote address to Public Citizen by showing how it began: with the corporate backlash against the environmental movement in the 1970s. (Part 1 is here.)

Comments Prepared for Delivery (video here)
Public Citizen 40th Gala
Washington, DC
October 20, 2011

1971 was a seminal year.

On March 29 of that year, Ralph Nader bought ads in 13 publications and sent out letters asking people if they would invest their talents, skills, and yes, their lives, in working for the public interest.  The seed sprouted swiftly that spring: By the end of May over 60,000 Americans responded, and Public Citizen was born.

But something else was also happening.  Five months later, on August 23, 1971,  a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell – a board member of the death-dealing tobacco giant Philip Morris and a future Justice of the United States Supreme Court – sent a confidential memorandum to his friends at the U. S. Chamber of Commerce.  We look back on it now as a call to arms for class war waged from the top down.

Let’s recall the context:   Big Business was being forced to clean up its act.   It was bad enough to corporate interests that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal had sustained its momentum through Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson.  Suddenly this young lawyer named Ralph Nader arrived on the scene, arousing consumers with articles, speeches, and above all, an expose of the automobile industry, Unsafe at Any Speed.  Young activists flocked to work with him on health, environmental, and economic concerns.  Congress was moved to act.   Even Republicans signed on.

In 1970 President Richard Nixon put his signature on the National Environmental Policy Act and named a White House Council to promote environmental quality.   A few months later millions of Americans turned out for Earth Day.  Nixon then agreed to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.  Congress acted swiftly to pass tough new amendments to the Clean Air Act and the EPA announced the first air pollution standards.   There were new regulations directed at lead paint and pesticides.  Corporations were no longer getting away with murder.

Corporate backlash

And Lewis Powell was shocked – shocked! – at what he called “an attack on the American free enterprise system.”    Not just from a few “extremists of the left,” he said, but also from “perfectly respectable elements of society,” including the media, politicians, and leading intellectuals.  Fight back, and fight back hard, he urged his compatriots.  Build a movement.  Set speakers loose across the country.  Take on prominent institutions of public opinion – especially the universities, the media, and the courts.  Keep television programs under “constant surveillance.”  And above all, recognize that political power must be “assiduously (sic) cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination” and “without embarrassment.”

Powell imagined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as a council of war.  Since business executives had “little stomach for hard-nose contest with their critics” and “little skill in effective intellectual and philosophical debate,” they should create new think tanks, legal foundations, and front groups of every stripe.  It would take years, but these groups could, he said, be aligned into a united front (that) would only come about through “careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and united organizations.”

Next page >> The birth of plutocracy

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