Requiem for the American Dream (3)

Throughout the history of the United States, there has been a constant struggle between two tendencies: On the one hand, we have “a democratizing tendency that’s mostly coming from the population—a pressure from below.” On the other hand, there is the tendency coming from the elite to maintain the status quo, and to reverse any concessions that may have been given in response to popular demands—a pressure from the top. As a result of these two tendencies acting and reacting in relation to each other, we see in our history alternating “periods of progress” and “periods of regression.” Thus, the 1960s constituted a period of “significant democratization,” and so the rights and freedoms won during that time brought about a powerful backlash from the elite, resulting in decades of regression and the reversal of those victories.

According to Chomsky:

[In the 1960s] sectors of the population that were usually passive and apathetic became organized, active, started pressing their demands.And they became more and more involved in decision-making, activism, and so on.It just changed the consciousness in a lot of ways: minority rights, women’s rights, concern for the environment, opposition to aggression, concern for other people. These are all civilizing effect. And that caused great fear. . . . I should have, but I didn’t anticipate the power of the reaction to these civilizing effects of the 60s—the backlash!

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Chomsky continues: “There has been an enormous, concentrated, coordinated business offensive beginning in the 70s, to try to beat back the egalitarian efforts that went right through the Nixon years.” Chomsky suggests two key documents from the early 1970s as excellent sources for understanding what the elite were thinking at that time and how they decided to respond to the challenge of democracy: (1) the Powell Memorandum from the conservative side of the political spectrum and, (2) from the liberal side, the first major report of the Trilateral Commission, titled The Crisis of Democracy. Both documents reveal the American elite’s alarm at the fact that the population is becoming too informed, too conscious, and too assertive in demanding its rights, as well as their recognition of the urgent need to influence the institutions that shape public opinion.

Chomsky views the Powell Memo and the Trilateral Commission’s report as representing the two ends of the extremely narrow range of thinking that goes on among the American elite. Despite their apparent differences in ideology, both the conservative and the liberal camps agree on doing everything possible to expand capitalism and keep the population in its place by subverting the democratic impulse.

The Powell Memo: “Attack on American Free Enterprise System”

In the late 60s and early 70s, the U.S. federal government responded to popular pressure by expanding its regulatory control over big business. This included legislation meant to ensure environmental protection, occupational safety, and the safeguarding of consumer rights. The new regulatory regime was seen by the business elite as an attack on their profits, leading them to the conclusion that they must organize politically in order to maintain their economic power.


One of the most important documents that we must study to understand the elite reaction is the famous “Powell Memorandum.” Titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” the memo was submitted to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on August 23, 1971. It was written by a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell, at the request of his friend and neighbor Eugene Sydnor Jr., who at the time was chair of the Education Committee of the Chamber of Commerce. Powell himself was appointed by Richard Nixon to the U.S. Supreme Court only a couple of months after he wrote his famous memo. The document was originally intended to be confidential, but it was soon leaked to the press and subsequently published in the newsletter of the Chamber of Commerce.

The key point of the Powell Memo was that business must use its financial power for political purposes; it was vital for the business elite to gain influence over the government and the legislature in order to ensure the survival and empowerment of the “free enterprise system.” Powell argued that “Business must learn the lesson … that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.” To achieve greater influence over the political sphere, business must organize itself and plan for the long-term. “Strength lies in organization, in 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 national organizations.”

An important part of Powell’s prescription was the necessity of changing public opinion in favor of the “free enterprise system” through influencing the media and the education system. He wrote:

Reaching the campus and the secondary schools is vital for the long-term. Reaching the public generally may be more important for the shorter term. The first essential is to establish the staffs of eminent scholars, writers and speakers, who will do the thinking, the analysis, the writing and the speaking. It will also be essential to have staff personnel who are thoroughly familiar with the media, and know how to most effectively communicate with the public. The national television networks should be monitored in the same way that textbooks should be kept under constant surveillance. This applies not merely to so-called educational programs (such as ‘Selling of the Pentagon’), but to the daily ‘news analysis’ which so often includes the most insidious type of criticism of the enterprise system.

While changing public opinion was a slow and gradual process, Powell emphasized that business must maintain an uncompromising focus on gaining political power.

But one should not postpone more direct political action, while awaiting the gradual change in public opinion to be effected through education and information. Business must learn the lesson, long ago learned by labor and other self-interest groups. This is the lesson that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination —without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.

The Powell Memo is available here, along with other primary sources that provide additional background. Commentaries are found herehere, here, here, and here.

Report of the Trilateral Commission: The Crisis of Democracy


The Trilateral Commission was created in July 1973 under the initiative of David Rockefeller. According to the Commission’s website, it was formed “by private citizens of Japan, Europe (European Union countries), and North America (United States and Canada) to foster closer cooperation among these core industrialized areas of the world with shared leadership responsibilities in the wider international system.” The American members of the Trilateral Commission included, among others, Henry D. Owen (Brookings Institution), George S. Franklin (Council on Foreign Relations), Robert R. Bowie (Harvard Center for International Affairs), William Scranton (former Governor of Pennsylvania), as well as Alan Greenspan and Paul Volcker (later heads of the Federal Reserve). Members of the Trilateral Commission were heavily represented in the Carter Administration, including Walter Mondale (Vice President), Zbigniew Brezinski (National Security Adviser), Cyrus R. Vance (Secretary of State), W. Michael Blumenthal (Secretary of the Treasury), Harold Brown (Secretary of Defense), and Andrew Young (Ambassador to the United Nations). Jimmy Carter himself is a member, so are Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton. It is interesting to note that President Obama has appointed several members of the Trilateral Commission to important positions in his own administration, including Tim Geithner (Secretary of the Treasury), Susan Rice (Ambassador to the United Nations), and James L. Jones (National Security Adviser), among others.

The first report of the Trilateral Commission was published in 1975 under the title The Crisis of Democracy. The chapter on the United States was written by Samuel P. Huntington, who is now known mostly s for his “clash of civilization” thesis. Huntington begins by identifying the democratizing tendency that has become unleashed in the previous decade:

The 1960s witnessed a dramatic renewal of the democratic spirit in America. The predominant trends of that decade involved the challenging of the authority of established political, social, and economic institutions, increased popular participation in and control over those institutions, a reaction against the concentration of power in the executive branch of the federal government and in favor of the reassertion of the power of Congress and of state and local government, renewed commitment to the idea of equality on the part of intellectuals and other elites, the emergence of the “public interest” lobbying groups, increased concern for the rights of and provisions of opportunities for minorities and women to participate in the polity and economy, and a pervasive criticism of those who possessed or were even thought to possess excessive power or wealth. The spirit of protest, the spirit of equality, the impulse to expose and correct inequities were abroad in the land. … It was a decade of democratic surge and of the reassertion of democratic egalitarianism.

Huntington then goes on to explain what he believes to be the heart of the problem, the inverse relationship between the “vitality” of a society and its “governability.” Too much vitality in the general population leads to the erosion of authority, making the society less governable from the viewpoint of the elite.

The essence of the democratic surge of the 1960s was a general challenge to existing systems of authority, public and private. In one form or another, this challenge manifested itself in the family, the university, business, public and private associations, politics, the governmental bureaucracy and the military services. People no longer felt the same compulsion to obey those whom they had previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise, character, or talents. Within most organizations, discipline eased and differences in status became blurred. Each group claimed its right to participate equally —and perhaps more than equally—in the decisions which affected itself.

Huntington attributes the erosion of older forms of authority to the fact that the population has become too assertive in demanding equal rights, including the right to participate in both private and public decision-making. It is this change in popular ideology that poses the greatest danger to the ruling class. For Huntington, it is perfectly fine to believe in egalitarian and democratic values so long as it is understood that they cannot be fully established in the real world. Motivated by a new egalitarian ideology, the population is seen as demanding large-scale changes that will effectively turn the structure of society upside down.

American society is characterized by a broad consensus on democratic, liberal, egalitarian values. For much of the time, the commitment to these values is neither passionate nor intense. During periods of rapid social change, however, these democratic and egalitarian values of the American creed are reaffirmed. The intensity of belief during such creedal passion periods leads to the challenging of established authority and to major efforts to change governmental structure to accord more fully with those values.

Huntington predicts that the democratizing tendency of the 1960s, being part of a normal political cycle, will gradually lose steam with the passage of time. Moreover, he argues that it is important that this tendency loses steam, otherwise it would become difficult for the elite to continue their task of governing the masses.

Predictively, the implication of this analysis is that in due course the democratic surge and its resulting dual distemper in government will moderate. Prescriptively, the implication is that these developments ought to take place in order to avoid the deleterious consequences of the surge and to restore balance between vitality and governability in the democratic system.

Democracy is a good thing, according to Huntington, but only in moderation. American population has recently become too passionate in demanding greater participation in shaping the nation’s political and economic system. This democratizing tendency is giving birth to an “excess of democracy,” and must therefore be restricted within limits determined by the ruling elite.

Al Smith [former Governor of New York] once remarked that “the only cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy.” Our analysis suggests that applying that cure at the present time could well be adding fuel to the flames. Instead, some of the problems of the governance in the United States today stem from an excess of democracy — an “excess of democracy” in much the same sense in which David Donald used the term to refer to the consequences of the Jacksonian revolution which helped to precipitate the Civil War. Needed instead is a greater degree of moderation in democracy.

Huntington identifies two areas in which he would like to see this “moderation in democracy” implemented. First, he insists that “democracy is only one way of constituting authority, and it is not necessarily a universally applicable one.” In fact, democracy is not desirable in most spheres of social life, and the “arenas where democratic procedures are appropriate are … limited.” Secondly, a well-informed and politically active population poses a serious threat to the maintenance of a democratic system of government, and “the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups.” This is evidenced by the fact that “every democratic society has had a marginal population, of greater or lesser size, which has not actively participated in government.” Huntington admits that the marginalization of some groups “is inherently undemocratic,” but then immediately claims that it “has also been one of the factors which has enabled democracy to function effectively.” For Huntington, we can either have a society in which some groups are severely marginalized or one in which all groups are moderately marginalized; what we cannot have is a society in which all groups have equal access to resources and political power. To help stabilize the American democracy, Huntington wants to see greater apathy and less political involvement on the part of the population; group clamoring for more rights should accepts some reduction in its egalitarian agenda and agree settles for whatever they’ve already achieved: “Less marginality on the part of some groups thus needs to be replaced by more self-restraint on the part of all groups.”

Insofar as The Crisis of Democracy reflects the views of the Trilateral Commission, it reveals the mindset of the liberal wing of the American elite and its similarity to the mindset of the Framers of the U.S. Constitutions. In both cases, there is a clear desire to prevent an “excess of democracy.” In both cases, a small group of people decides that it represents the rational and enlightened element of society, and then arrogates to itself the right to rule in a way that bypasses the demands and opinions of the majority. The only difference is that the Framers never claimed that they were establishing a democracy, while the contemporary elite are far more cynical in their use of the English language.

The complete text of The Crisis of Democracy is available here. Commentaries can be found herehere, here, and here.

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