The myth of the Powell memo.

Author:Schmitt, Mark
Position:'Right Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture Since 1945' by Jason Stahl - Book review

A secret note from a future Supreme Court justice did not give rise to today's conservative infrastructure. Something more insidious did.

Right Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture Since 1945

by Jason Stahl

University of North Carolina Press,

264 pp.


At one end of a block of Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C., sometimes known as "Think Tank Row"--the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Brookings Institution are neighbors--a monument to intellectual victory has been under reconstruction for a year. It will soon be the home of the American Enterprise Institute, a 60,000-square-foot Beaux-Arts masterpiece where Andrew Mellon lived when he was treasury secretary during the 1920s. AEI purchased the building with a $20 million donation from one of the founders of the Carlyle Group, a private-equity firm.

In the story of the rise of the political right in America since the late 1970s, think tanks, and sometimes the glorious edifices in which they are housed, have played an iconic role. The Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the libertarian Cato Institute, along with their dozens of smaller but well-funded cousins, have seemed central to the "war of ideas" that drove American policy in the 1980s, in the backlash of 1994, in the George W. Bush era, and again after 2010.

For the center left, these institutions have become role models. While Brookings or the Urban Institute once eschewed ideology in favor of mild policy analysis or dispassionate technical assessment of social programs, AEI and Heritage seemed to build virtual war rooms for conservative ideas, investing more in public relations than in scholarship or credibility, and nurturing young talent (or, more often, the glib but not-very-talented). Their strategy seemed sawier. Conservative think tanks nurtured supply-side economics, neoconservative foreign policy, and the entire agenda of the Reagan administration, which took the form of a twenty-volume tome produced by Heritage in 1980 called Mandate for Leadership.

In the last decade or so, much of the intellectual architecture of the conservative think tanks has been credited to a single document known as the Powell Memo. This 1971 note from future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell to a Virginia neighbor who worked at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged business to do more to respond to the rising "New Left," countering forces such as Ralph Nader's nascent consumer movement in the courts, in media, and in academia.

Powell's note went unheeded and unnoticed when he sent it, but enjoyed a brief flurry of...

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