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New on American Prospect online: The Legend of the Powell Memo

I've been interested in the history of the American right for a long time, both its institutions and its ideas. One of my convictions, reflected in my comments on David Brooks's "in disunity there is success" column a few weeks ago, is that we on the left often think that the right's ideas and institutions are much more tightly coordinated, planned and unitary than they really are. And for those who hold the structural view -- that is, that the left can achieve comparable political success by emulating the organizations and tactics of the right -- this leads to a misconception that our own structures must be similarly planned and coordinated. One downside of that is that there is a lot of paralysis as we wait for the planning and coordination to emerge.

One aspect of the way we now tell the story of the Rise of the Right concerns the memo that was written by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell in 1971. In very recent years, this long neglected memo has this become a central feature of the story, and I became curious about how and why it was rediscovered, and whether it is accurate to treat is as almost the blueprint for the think tanks and advocacy institutions that the right developed in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. That's the subject of my latest column in The American Prospect online.

Let me also recommend an article that makes a similar argument that there is less conspiracy and coordination on the right than is often thought -- in fact, less than the right itself claims. That's Jonathan Adler's review in Legal Affairs of a new book about the conservative legal organizations.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 27, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Once again, you make an excellent point, and one that liberals of all stripes need to consider as they prepare their intellectual and electoral future. We hate "the right," if I may be so extreme in my language, but we can't let our hatred turn us into the very thing we hate.

More accurately, though, what we hate is what we perceive "the right" to be. And there's a big difference between perception and reality. Just look at how coastal liberalism (New York, Boston, L.A., S.F., etc.) is perceived in conservative Middle America. (There's a great joke in Woody Allen's Annie Hall about how the rest of America perceives New York, and even how New Yorkers sometimes perceive New York.)

What we need to do is to divorce the public face of "the right" -- the Republican message machine, the talking heads on radio and TV spewing the latest talking points -- from the intellectual diversity of "the right". That means divorcing Frist, DeLay, Coulter, O'Reilly, Hannity, et al. from, say, Andrew Sullivan, David Brooks, Bill Kristol (when he's not being a talking head and spewing the latest talking points), and the myriad other interesting, intelligent conservative thinkers out there today.

I have already responded to your post on David Brooks's column, but this bears repeating: Brooks overstates his case, but he makes a valid point. While liberal have grown smug and complacent -- at least since 1964, the high-point of liberalism as America's dominant political philosophy -- conservatives have energized a movement that is both broad and deep. What I know of conservatives, looking at them as a "liberal Straussian" myself, is that they spend much of their time thinking about, and debating, what it means to be a conservative. In turn, what exactly does it mean to be a liberal these days? That's the problem.

www.the-reaction.blogspot.com

Thanks for listening, and keep up the great work.

Posted by: Michael J.W. Stickings | Apr 27, 2005 3:00:05 PM

Michael,

Terrific comment! My feelings exactly.

Posted by: Marc Schneider | May 3, 2005 1:25:12 PM

It's a good point about not copying the right. This idea of liberal talk radio seems to be a case in point. Just because it works for the right to have a bunch of raving lunatics on the air doesn't mean it works for liberals. It seems to me that this is a bad idea that just makes liberals look worse--it doesn't convince anyone other than true believers and Democrats need to convince rather than scream.

Posted by: Marc Schneider | May 4, 2005 9:46:25 AM

Marc - Air America IS working! All across the country people are finally, finally hearing another side of the story. And they aren't "raving lunatics."

And we need all the help we can get, so why are you knocking them?

As for "copying the Right," I think we should STUDY the Right, and then take the lessons of their success and use them. I mean, they have seized control of all the branches of government and gotten much of the public behind them, they must have done something right. So it is time to start understanding how it works.

It's (finally) become clear that their funded network of think tanks and communication organizations is behind their success. For one thing, it offers a huge advantage come election season. THEIR politicians go before a public that is already "prepared" by years of repetition of their issue points and arguments. OUR politicians are developing their issues and messaging DURING the election cycle, from scratch, alone.

There are just so many ways this network works for them, from the intellectual foundations their think tanks provide to a more practical function - thousands of well-paid operatives at their disposal.

They have been at this for decades, gone through a lot of trial and error, so we can take advantage of that. Look at what they learned. Yes, copy that. No, don't lie and threaten and intimidate.

I think one lesson to learn is the way they have focused on communicating their UNDERLYING ideology and then tying it to narrower issues. it is the opposite of what Progressives do - I think largely because Progressives still assume they have a public consensus behind them.

This is getting long. I gave a speech to the Trial Lawyers national convention last year that covers these points. Take a look... Skip past the tort-reform-specific stuff at the start (or substitute in your own narrower issue...)

Posted by: Dave Johnson | May 4, 2005 6:53:02 PM