Progressive Powell Memo

The Powell Memo is an infamous 1971 document in which Lewis Powell laid out a strategy to enlist corporate power on behalf of the conservative movement. This memo is credited with empowering a whole host of efforts to lower taxes, deregulate the economy, and privatize government functions. No doubt the Powell Memo by itself was not sufficient to create the modern conservative movement; it was accompanied by a great deal of persuasion and organizing, and it took many years to see significant impact.

It’s possible to consider a similar kind of effort, but reversed - that is, to enlist corporate power on behalf of progressive goals. In particular, there are two goals which are well suited to this kind of campaign:

  1. Preventing climate change. This goal directly benefits some companies - such as solar panel providers or energy efficiency retrofitters. Moreover, it indirectly benefits a wide variety of other companies whose long-term health is threatened by climate change - especially insurance and agriculture. In some cases relatively small organizing efforts, especially at the state and municipal level, carry tremendous opportunity for some companies, especially the first type of company. Such efforts can serve as an entry point for larger involvement in progressive efforts.
  2. Protecting democracy. This goal has fewer direct beneficiaries, in the sense that there are comparatively few companies which profit directly from the workings of democracy. But it has very broad impact on almost every company and particularly trade associations. There are very few companies which benefit from chaos and civil unrest. A campaign to enlist corporations and trade associations into a more robust defense of democracy would be a fitting rejoinder to the campaign described by the Powell Memo; if effective, it might also significantly weaken the conservative movement.

There is a significant problem with these ideas. They implicitly endorse the notion that business has a role to play in policy making, and that moneyed interests should have an impact on the policy making process. More practically, they make somewhat strange bedfellows of progressive groups and corporate leadership, who are more frequently at odds. The overlap between progressive groups and corporate leadership is relatively sparse when compared with that of conservative groups.

At the same time, it is possible to imagine a campaign which could be mildly successful. To some degree these efforts have already gone underway. Some green companies already engage in advocacy efforts and campaign donations. Some large businesses were, infamously, shamed into suspending donations to Republican groups in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection.

Progressives should pursue these efforts more fully, and should create a more robust campaign to drive a wedge between corporate interests and the conservative movement.