Powell's Diagnosis—And Ours

This piece is part of the Prospect's series on progressives' strategy over the next 40 years. To read the introduction, click here.

The Powell Memo is remembered today as a blueprint for business counter-mobilization. So it’s easy to forget that one of Lewis Powell’s principal goals—and, it seems, achievements—was to wake up business leaders to the nature of the challenges they faced: the hostility in some campus quarters, the strength of foes like Ralph Nader, and, above all, the weakness of corporate political organization. Before he could get business leaders to act on his prescriptions, Powell had to convince them of his diagnosis.

A Powell Memo for us likewise has to get the diagnosis right. Today, progressives are having three main conversations—about organization, about messaging, and about policy. Each is crucial. But there’s an even more crucial conversation, and it’s the inverse of the one that Powell sought to start more than 40 years ago. Powell asked why business was losing politically. We need to ask why the American middle class is losing politically. Why is the American political system so weakly responsive to the policy preferences of the majority of Americans?

Consider two linked contemporary debates: the fight over continued tax decreases for the rich and the struggle over how to deal with the deficit. In each case, the majority of Americans have repeatedly expressed views that are consistent with progressive priorities: letting the tax cuts for the rich expire, reducing defense spending, and protecting programs of economic security like Social Security and Medicare with revenue and cost-control measures rather than benefit cuts. In each case, there’s a good chance these priorities will be overruled by America’s political leaders. 

Of course, it matters who the president is. But if the recent past is any prologue, public sentiment will matter a lot less than it should. The proximate cause of a capitulation on tax cuts will be the intense opposition of the Republican Party to any revenue increases; on spending priorities, it will be the bipartisan fixation with deficit reduction, the power of entrenched corporate interests to protect truly wasteful spending, and the (false) portrayal of Social Security and Medicare as runaway entitlements whose reform requires shifting more risk and costs onto Americans. But the underlying cause of these defeats will be the same: a political system that’s highly responsive to the demands of organized economic interests and those at the top of the economic ladder at the expense of the priorities of the middle class. 

A recent poll of the super-wealthy shows that compared with ordinary voters, the rich place a much higher priority on deficit reduction than on combating high unemployment. Their support for Social Security and Medicare is weaker than their compatriots’, and they are opposed to the very tax changes most Americans support. Recent political-science studies also suggest little or no responsiveness of political leaders to the opinions of the middle class when they conflict with the opinions of those at the top. 

 Understanding why this responsiveness is so weak is essential to figuring out a positive agenda for progressive reform. While the story has many parts, we would emphasize three: first, the stark and growing organizational imbalance between progressive forces and ordinary voters on the one hand and corporations and the affluent on the other; second, the hugely asymmetric polarization that has flowed from and reinforced this imbalance, as Republicans have raced to the right on economic issues; and third, the increased incapacity of American government to act effectively on pressing challenges, in part a reflection of the gridlock and immobilization that polarization has wrought.

These three problems are deeply interwoven—and, in turn, reflect the increased mismatch between America’s political structure as it’s evolved over the last generation and the challenges of a complex, interdependent economy. The great achievement of the Founders was to craft a political structure that both required and facilitated compromise. Today, compromise is still required—witness the abysmal legislative output of the last Congress, during which the Republican leadership demonized compromise of any sort—but American political institutions and practices hardly facilitate it. The Republican belief that compromise is treachery is backed up by the right’s aggressive monitoring of politicians and its primary challenges in response to any deviation from party orthodoxy.

Powell’s prescriptions were as gauzy as his diagnosis was concrete. (The closing paragraph in his memo began: “It hardly need be said that the views expressed above are tentative and suggestive.”) His main emphasis was on organization—the need for business to create a standing political operation in Washington whose power could be “assiduously cultivated” and “used aggressively and with determination.” Organization is surely needed by progressives today as well. 

But Powell’s main achievement was to pinpoint the problem. If the strategic and organizational weakness of progressives is ultimately rooted in the breakdown of incentives for compromise around middle-class priorities, progressives have two broad directions in which they can move. They can fight for a more parliamentary politics, emulating the right’s capacity to take and sustain a tough stance while reducing the extent to which our institutions require compromise. This would mean taking a cue from the right to build issue-auditing organizations that increase pressure on Democrats to embrace progressive stands, while pushing back against the supermajority hurdle of the filibuster. Or progressives can argue that they inevitably lose from polarization because of its inherent asymmetry and because a durable progressive politics requires broader consensus. This posture seeks to reduce polarization through measures to empower centrists, such as open primaries and court-overseen redistricting, or through technocratic strategies to remove control from elected officials and place it in the hands of independent experts. Reducing the pull of the hard right might be worth reducing the pull of committed progressives—and sometimes of voters—as well. 

Many progressives lean toward the first approach. But as did Powell, we believe the initial task is to see the situation clearly. Powell chastised business leaders for “a disposition to appease; to regard the opposition as willing to compromise, or as likely to fade away in due time.” We should have no such illusions about the conservative opposition today, which is increasingly aggressive in seeking to overturn all of the checks on corporate power built up over the course of the last century. Above all, we should recognize that the challenges we face, while reinforced by electoral and messaging weaknesses, are deeply structural—rooted in the imbalance between middle-class and corporate political organization, between votes and money, and between action and inaction.

Read the other pieces in this series:


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