Lewis Powell

Forty years ago, not only was Greenpeace formed, but a then-obscure corporate lawyer (later appointed by President Nixon to the Supreme Court) drafted a memorandum for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that forever changed the influence of big business on our political and cultural landscape.

As part of our investigation of the history and subsequent consequences of Lewis Powell’s Memorandum for the Chamber, Greenpeace has compiled a series of references and related analysis that trace specific corporate activities to the overall strategy that Powell sketched out in his memo.  

In four inter-related pages, we describe how the Chamber and other leading members of Corporate America targeted specific public areas for increased influence, if not outright takeover:

Politics – With particular focus on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Lewis Powell advocated that corporations take a much more aggressive and direct role in politics. Since Powell’s day corporate lobbying expenditures and donations to politicians have exploded in size and relative importance, pulling elected officials away from various public interests towards the enduring priorities of big business.

Judicial and Legal System – Powell identified the judiciary as one of the most important arenas for business activism. His suggestions led to the swift formation of dozens of corporate-funded legal foundations, many of which succeeded in using strategic litigation and distorted constitutional doctrines to overturn regulations on public health and the environment. The U.S. Chamber and its allies in particular have waged a multi-decade attack on the rights of victims of corporate crime and abuse. Perhaps the most infamous example of how corporate power has been advanced through the strategies seeded by Powell is last year’s Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate contributions to influence elections.

Mass Media and Communications – Lewis Powell encouraged corporations to leverage their ownership and advertising power to influence mass media.  Recent decades have seen massive consolidation of mainstream media, resulting not only in the decline of independent and investigative journalism, but a clear pro-corporate news bias.

Schools and Education – One of the most important themes of the Powell Memo was for corporate America to invest in a long-term effort to influence educational curricula and reduce their most outspoken critics’ influence on campus. Corporations have since used a variety of means to influence university research and campus culture.

Greenpeace has dealt increasingly with the growing corporate-oriented framework that was created in part by the suggestions of Lewis Powell. A broad network of corporate think tanks, trade associations and legal foundations that has rapidly expanded since the 1970s is at the heart of the climate science denial movement, funded by the likes of Koch Industries and ExxonMobil.

Numerous other examples exist of industries harnessing the power of their money and public relations resources to trample scientific integrity and environmental or public health protections. Chemical companies avoid responsibility for looming disasters and are even willing to spy on opponents in order to avoid accountability. Familiar tuna brands turn a blind eye to their role in destructive fishing practices. The nuclear industry continues to push for false solutions to climate change even as Japan continues to struggle with a nuclear disaster. Dirty U.S. coal companies threaten the health of residents in frontline communities and fuel global climate disruption. And global warming is further intensified by U.S. companies that drive deforestation operations around the world.

One wonders if corporations have already crossed a line in dominating the key institutions so crucial to a robust democracy that even Lewis Powell would have been alarmed.

For more on the Powell Memo, check out our previous blog (Corporate Blueprint to Dominate Democracy) written on the 40th anniversary of its release, and be sure to read the Powell Memo yourself.