How an eight-page memo ruined our political system | Guest Opinion


The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, held its 44th annual conference in Denver on July 21st of this year. Trump Administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos addressed the convention and discussed “educational choice.” This is typical since, to its critics, ALEC represents a dangerous corporate influence on public policy and a way for corporate America to write and disseminate laws to be introduced to state legislatures across the country. The group is funded primarily by Charles and David Koch, longtime libertarians and billionaire brothers who inherited family fortunes and have spent millions on behalf of Republican political candidates.

So how did ALEC come into being, and why should you care? I’ll try to answer.

To begin, let’s go back to 1971. Corporate attorney and future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell was commissioned by a neighbor (and member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) to write the so-called “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,” an 8-page, anti-Communist, anti-Fascist, anti-New Deal blueprint for conservative business interests to “retake America for the chamber.” It was based in part on Powell’s reaction to the work of activist Ralph Nader, whose 1965 exposé on General Motors, “Unsafe at Any Speed,”focused on the auto industry putting profit ahead of safety, which triggered the American consumer movement.

Powell argued, “The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism came from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.” In the memorandum, Powell advocated “constant surveillance” of textbook and television content, as well as a purge of left-wing elements. The Powell Memorandum thus became the blueprint of the rise of the American conservative movement and the formation of a network of influential right-wing think tanks and lobbying organizations, such as ALEC, which was formed in 1973.

So what does ALEC stand for? According to Sourcewatch, the group seeks to “undermine environmental regulations and deny climate change; support school privatization; undercut health care reform; defund unions and limit their political influence; restrain legislatures’ abilities to raise revenue through taxes; mandate strict election laws that disenfranchise voters; (and) increase incarceration to benefit the private prison industry,” as well as “stand your ground” laws among many other issues (the group is most commonly aligned with the Republican Party).

ALEC had operated largely out of the media spotlight until John Nichols of The Nation wrote an  expose of the group in 2011. This came after numerous electoral wins in 2010 in state legislatures across the country and the subsequent redrawing of congressional districts to favor Republicans, the result of the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP, which aligned with ALEC’s interests.

The result? Republicans won 13 of the 18 congressional seats in Pennsylvania last year, three more than would be expected based on the party’s vote share, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, attributed this to gerrymandering as a result of REDMAP.

There’s a lot more to be explained about ALEC, such as its affiliation with like-minded groups such as the Commonwealth Foundation (a member of the State Policy Network closely aligned with ALEC), which carries influence in Pennsylvania (many current and former state politicians have been or are group members). ALEC also seeks to change the Constitution to limit what it views as the “power and largesse” of the federal government; it is also trying to stretch its influence to the city and county level, according to The Guardian.

It is hard to imagine how an eight-page memo written by a corporate attorney about 46 years ago could have had such an influence on public policy, reflected among politicians, the judiciary, academia and the media among others (ruinously so, I would argue), but that is where we are. At times like this, I reflect on a quote from another Supreme Court Justice aside from Powell, and that would be Louis Brandeis, who said that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” And I believe that, when it comes to ALEC, we can use all the sunlight we can get.

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Wayne E. Kroger, Lower Makefield, is a technical writer who works in Hamilton, N.J.

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