SCOTUS's Gutting of the VRA Is the Fulfillment of Lewis Powell's 42-year-old Battle Plan

Jun 25, 2013 | Updated Aug 25, 2013

In 1971, Lewis Powell wrote a confidential memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, urging corporate leaders to mobilize the massive resources at their disposal to set up an infrastructure to shift public opinion toward business conservative values.

Powell, who would soon become a Richard Nixon-appointed justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, but at the time was a corporate lawyer, was writing at a time when his views were not shared by those in power in Washington. Even though a Republican president occupied the White House, the previous seven years had seen the enacting of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs (the creation of Medicaid in 1965 and other anti-poverty, education and education legislation passed in 1965) and an expansion of the Clean Air Act in 1970 (signed by Nixon), and the Clean Water Act was in the pipeline (signed by Nixon in 1972).

In short, Powell recognized that the country still embraced basic New Deal values, with an acceptance that the government should act to remedy inequality, injustice and other ills that could result from corporate power (like income inequality and damage to the environment). And he (and many other business leaders) didn't like it and wanted to do something to change it.

If Powell was alive today, he would be smiling from ear to ear upon hearing that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned the heart of the Voting Rights Act. Of course, Powell would be happy with the result, but what would really make him happy is that the ruling was a direct effect of the successful effort to institutionalize his business conservative beliefs in the government, especially on the Supreme Court. After all, Powell watched as a young business conservative lawyer named John Roberts spent the 1980s trying to upend the Voting Rights Act, and now Roberts is the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, sitting next to fellow corporate conservatives Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy, and in a position to rule against legislation that went against business conservative values, especially high-profile flashpoints like the Voting Rights Act.

Much to Powell's glee, I'm sure, there are now five justices on the Supreme Court who put the interests of corporations over those of ordinary citizens, and who have a distaste for government that far outweighs any concern about inequality, unfairness or injustice for any non-wealthy Americans, especially minorities.

Powell's vision of 1971 has been realized, as his belief in empowering corporations at the expense of ordinary citizens is no longer a powerless minority view, but rules the mainstream of the Republican Party, and thus controls the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, as well as commanding the 40+ votes necessary to stop the Senate from doing business.

I think it is safe to say that today's ruling gutting the nearly 50-year-old Voting Rights Act cements the idea that Powell's ideals now rule the country (or at the very least have the power to prevent opposing policies from being adopted).

All of this would be fine if the rise to power of Powell's view of America came about by popular vote. That is, if a majority of Americans clamored for the institution of Powell's policies, it would be hard to argue that democracy had worked.

But the problem is that the rise of business conservatism has come despite a lack of majority support. Republicans don't have a majority in the Senate, and yet the party can block anything Powell wouldn't have liked from getting through the chamber. Republicans control the House thanks to gerrymandering, as the party's candidates got more than a million fewer votes in 2012 than Democrats did.

And when Americans were offered a clear choice in 2012 between a presidential candidate who was the classic business conservative with disdain for government and one who offered the government as a partner in solving America's problems, the electorate made a clear choice against the business conservative.

But most of all, the Court's decision today to gut the Voting Rights Act was, by definition, anti-democratic. That is, the legislation was designed to help make it possible for as many people to vote as possible -- and to have their votes count in a meaningful way -- and by striking down the law, the Court made it easier to suppress votes

After all, the challenge to the VRA didn't come in vacuum, but rather it is part of the Republicans' ongoing effort to suppress minority votes, most visibly through enacting voter-identification laws that serve no purpose other than keeping groups who traditionally do not vote for the GOP's platform of business conservatism (minorities, the poor) away from the polls (something that Republicans have admitted to in less guarded moments).

So don't get bogged down in the legal arguments offered by Justice Roberts. First of all, in effect, what the Court did was reject Congress's interpretation of voting data in favor of its own (even though the House voted 390-33 to reauthorize the VRA in 2008). This is Roberts and his business conservative colleagues inserting their far-right interpretation of the law ahead of 48 years of the act being accepted as being well within the bounds of the constitution.

But even more importantly, the legal argument is pretense, an excuse to allow five business conservatives to undo a key piece of legislation that did huge work in giving more Americans the power to vote and govern themselves, but made it harder for business conservatives to win elections.

Today's Supreme Court decision is just the latest blow to American democracy and the ability of ordinary Americans to try and make their way in a country increasingly controlled by corporations and beset by income inequality that funnels all the financial gains of the country to the very wealthiest Americans. Where once the U.S. was a symbol to the world of social mobility, we now lag behind most Western democracies in that regard. And it's due to the rise of Powell's business conservative vision over the last 30+ years.

As long as Americans allow their representatives to look out for the wealthiest at the expense of the rest of the country, Powell's vision of America will be able to thrive. And with devotees of his ideology established in the Supreme Court, business conservatives will be able to protect their interests at the expense of the rest of us for years -- maybe decades -- to come.

Today's ruling on the Voting Rights Act is just one of many in this regard. There are surely more to come.