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After 48 Years, Democrats Still Haven’t Gotten the Memo

Lewis Powell once drafted a how-to guide for maximizing political power. Only one party took his advice. Here's how Democrats can catch up.

Spencer Platt/Getty

In 1971, soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote a memo to Eugene Sydnor Jr., the education director at the United States Chamber of Commerce. Powell told Sydnor and the Chamber that if the capitalist class wanted to be taken seriously in the halls of power, it would have to engage in a decades-long, well-funded, wide-ranging campaign to inject its voice into American political institutions.

“Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations,” Powell insisted.

Indeed, no institution was too insignificant for Powell. From the media to schools to the halls of Washington, D.C., injecting the corporate viewpoint into the discussion was paramount. He even called for school textbooks to be monitored.

Democrats—almost 50 years since the Powell Memo—have utterly failed to grasp its basic argument: that the ability to make change comes to those who strategically and methodically focus on the levers of power.

Republicans and their donors, on the other hand, got the message. In fact, not long after the memo was written, a handful of billionaires—including John Olin, who made his money in chemical and munitions manufacturing, newspaper publisher Richard Scaife, heir to Mellon fortune, and petrochemical scions David and Charles Koch—began to create an apparatus to shift politics rightward in much the way Powell outlined.

Though there were many members to this billionaire cabal, the Koch Brothers, in addition to being the most infamous, were particularly critical in modern conservatism’s rise to power. Much of the duo’s notoriety derived from their political expenditures to help GOP candidates win election, yet the root of their influence is far deeper. As Professors Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez noted in their landmark study “The Koch Effect,” the Koch Network coordinated “big money funders, idea producers, issue advocates, and innovative constituency-building efforts in an ongoing effort to pull the Republican Party and agendas of U.S. politics sharply to the right.”

The realization of Powell’s vision and America’s rightward shift did not happen overnight⁠—as Jane Mayer of The New Yorker exposed in her book Dark Money, the road to power took decades, with many disappointments along the way. But, from the formation of think tanks to legitimize radical economic viewpoints to the funding of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to create corporate-friendly, right-wing bill templates for state legislators; from corporate lobbying and targeted political campaign contributions to Astroturf political mobilizations; from the bolstering of the Federalist Society to reclaim the federal judiciary to the attacks on unions and education, the Kochs and their billionaire allies ultimately succeeded. And once power was obtained, they began rigging the system, via voter suppression and gerrymandering, to prevent Democrats from contesting elections on an even playing field.

Over time, there have been attempts to form a “Koch Network of the left”—for example, there’s the Democracy Alliance, a group of wealthy liberal donors who financed wide-ranging efforts to reclaim American political institutions. This endeavor, however, has had questionable effectiveness in comparison to the work of David and Charles Koch.

Moreover, Democratic donors and elites are generally far too focused on federal elections, a particularly egregious oversight given the sizable governing power found at the state and local level. “One of the deeply frustrating things about the left is that we often forget that there are three branches of government, not just one,” said Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society (ACS). “There are non-federal and local offices, and all of them are important.” Billionaire Democratic donor Tom Steyer jumping into the presidential race is but the latest illustration of the left donor class’s inability to stay focused and act strategically.

“We are so caught up in the glamour of the presidential race,” Fredrickson told The New Republic, “that we are losing focus on what else is going on.”

Right now, Democrats do not have the luxury of 50 years to reclaim the political institutions in the manner detailed by Lewis Powell. Climate change is ravaging the planet, economic inequality has reached dangerous levels, and concentration camps are a central part of U.S. immigration policy.

But all is not lost if the Democrats get creative with electoral strategy and use the one resource they have in wide supply: people power. And they should use it not merely for short-term partisan gain, but to fix the institutions that enable fair and competitive governing.

What would such an electoral strategy look like?

Daily Kos election expert Stephen Wolf told TNR that, for maximum results, the Democrats should target the Texas State House, Florida State Senate, and both legislative chambers in Pennsylvania in 2020. Each of these chambers only require a handful of seats to flip to win Democratic control. Doing so, in the case of Texas and Florida, would block some of the worst and most devastating partisan gerrymanders of the next decade. Creating a Democratic trifecta in Pennsylvania, on the other hand, would open the door to a major voting rights expansion in a key swing state.

Similarly, Wolf suggests Ohio’s two Supreme Court races should be a priority, as a dual victory would give liberals a majority on the bench, providing the only vehicle moving forward to striking down GOP gerrymandering and voter suppression in the Buckeye State. (Wolf has been a major critic of Democrats’ inept handling of a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court race, one in which liberal Appeals Chief Judge Lisa Neubauer lost by less than 6,000 votes. Had Neubauer won, Democrats could have controlled the state’s Supreme Court by 2020. Now, the soonest the left can reclaim the Badger State’s judiciary is 2023.)

Senior fellow at The Justice Collaborative Daniel Nichanian, on the other hand, highlights the urgency of district attorney elections. “When you read that one in four black adults can’t vote in Kentucky [due to felon disenfranchisement],” Nichanian explained to TNR, “part of what’s exposed there is a systematic bias in how prosecutors exercise their discretion—for instance, against whom they choose to file a felony-level charge, which carry lifetime disenfranchisement.”

“There will be hundreds of prosecutorial elections in 2019 and 2020,” he continues. “Will the people sitting in law enforcement offices understand that their practices have outsized consequences on so many areas relevant to social justice, among them the fact that millions of U.S. citizens are deprived of the right to vote?”

Both Wolf and Nichanian also advocate for the use of pro-democracy ballot initiatives in 2020. Popular initiatives were successful at expanding voting rights in 2018,” Nichanian says. “Why not blanket the 2020 ballot with similar measures?” In point of fact, over 20 pro-democracy ballot initiatives passed in 2018, a handful of which were in conservative states. These campaigns are often perfect opportunities to work across the aisle and develop cross-partisan mobilization.

Wolf would like to see two ballot initiatives in Florida to create redistricting commissions—one for congressional maps, the other for state maps. Though ballot initiatives in Florida are expensive and require 60 percent support for adoption, the Second Chances campaign last year proved Floridians are open to reform, having passed the largest voting rights expansion since the Twenty-Sixth Amendment.

As Brian Kemp’s dubious handling of his own, ultimately successful bid for Georgia governor in 2018 makes readily apparent, secretary of state contests should also be a focus. In 37 states, this is the office that manages elections, overseeing such potentially consequential items as voter rolls, the certification of candidates, and the conduct of recounts. Thirty-one of these states directly elect the secretary of state, with Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi up for grabs in 2019.

Supplementing any electoral strategy must be presidential candidates who recognize the broken system and use their bully pulpits to draw attention to these localized efforts. Though they did fail to bring attention to the 2019 Wisconsin Supreme Court race, the Democratic primary field has shown a willingness to wade into other nonfederal matters. For instance, when New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen asked presidential candidates to sign a petition calling on New Hampshire to repeal a student poll tax, 16 candidates did so.

Of course, elections are just the beginning. Movement building and left-wing institutional development are paramount in any strategy to reclaim power. And it will take a reshaping of the Democratic donor mindset to learn from a generation of GOP activism. Right now, according to the ACS’s Fredrickson, the left likes to fund “projects,” and not “general operating support.” Wealthy donors on the right will “give their grantees really long lead time[s] to find success,” she said. On the left, however, “if you don’t produce in three months and show your metrics on this pet project … [they] cut you off. It’s an incredible contrast.”

But in the near term, there is no more pressing task for the Democratic Party and its activists than ridding itself of the belief that defeating Donald Trump will itself solve all the nation’s problems. The 2020 election cannot be a quixotic attempt to return to the imagined Valhalla of the Obama years—a time that was actually defined by an inability to legislate. No candidate alone can eliminate all the structural disadvantages now preventing majority rule. Over the next few years, Democrats must embrace their inner-Koch and be as laser-focused on strategic elections, ballot initiatives, and movement building as the right has been since Powell penned his memo. The fate of the party, and democracy itself, depends on it.