Lewis Powell’s godchild has broken bad

Back in 2008, I wrote a 12-part series titled The Propaganda Machine in which I laid out how the right-wing propaganda machine works in the US. Much of that machine became created because of what is now known as the Powell Memo.

In 1971 Lewis Powell, just two months before he was nominated to the US Supreme Court by Richard Nixon, wrote a confidential memo to the US Chamber of Commerce arguing that the business establishment needed to be willing to invest a lot of resources into creating a counterweight to what he perceived as the anti-business attitude of academia. He said that they needed to create institutions that had the veneer of academia to give them gravitas and credibility, while pursuing an agenda favorable to business.

Thus began the explosion of well-funded right-wing so-called ‘think tanks’ in Washington and elsewhere that hired people with PhDs to churn out position papers that had all the trappings, if not the substance, of the ones that academics published in peer reviewed journals. The Heritage Foundation was set up in 1973, the Cato Institute in 1977, the Manhattan Institute in 1978, and many more later. Right –wing politicians now had a ready source of seemingly scholarly arguments to push whatever agenda they wanted.

Julia Ioffe writes in The New Republic that the Heritage Foundation, the most venerable of them all has, much to the consternation of its founders and present-day greybeards, shifted away from even the veneer of scholarly work done by PhDs and, under the direction of a new generation of MBAs, created a subsidiary called Heritage Action that now pretty much runs the show and is little more than a political lobbying outfit using naked power plays to bully Republican lawmakers into following its extreme agenda.

It was they who were principally responsible, over the objections of many Republican party members, for pursuing the strategy of shutting down the government and risking default in the attempt to derail the Affordable Care Act, even though legislators warned them that this was a losing strategy, a prophecy that came true. Although apparently most of the party is not sympathetic to the Heritage Action, they had about 20 true believers signed on and that was enough to drag the party into that abyss.

Sorting through the wreckage, Washington conservatives can barely contain their anger at Needham for his ideological inflexibility and aggressive, zero-sum tactics. “Their strategic sense isn’t very strong,” griped a prominent Republican lobbyist. “They’ve repeatedly been wrong about how to handle this.” Says a senior House Republican aide, “Mike Needham played a large role in defeating ideas that would have worked out better.”

But the wrath is not solely reserved for Needham; his employer now inspires plenty of disgust among conservatives, too. Increasingly in Washington, “Heritage” has come to denote not the foundation or the think tank, but Heritage Action, Needham’s sharp-elbowed operation. Instead of fleshing out conservative positions, says one Republican Senate staffer, “now they’re running around trying to get Republicans voted out of office. It’s a purely ideological crusade that’s utterly divorced from the research side.” (“If Nancy Pelosi could write an anonymous check to Heritage Action,” adds the House aide bitterly, “she would.”)

Ioffe’s article is an interesting read, shining yet more light on the nature of the fight for control of the Republican party and the schisms that have emerged as a result.


  1. says

    Sorting through the wreckage, Washington conservatives can barely contain their anger at Needham for his ideological inflexibility and aggressive, zero-sum tactics.

    So the party of “personal responsibility” are now trying to blame all of their disastrous actions on one small organization.

    I guess this is why extremists like Heritage Action have so much power within the GOP: they’re the only ones willing to make any decisions at all.

  2. henry gale says

    I love how a TV show can take a southern colloquialism and turn it into something a physics professor uses in a blog post.

    Yeah, Breaking Bad is that good.

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