A Civil War in the making: The payoff for 50 years of attacks by rightwing interests on democracy
The June 24th Supreme Court ruling nullifying Roe v. Wade should not be viewed as an isolated event in America’s cultural wars but instead as the result of a fifty-year conservative strategy to supplant US democracy with plutocracy.
Although culture wars are an important aspect of this strategy, conservative SCOTUS cultural rulings are not the final objective but merely a stepping-stone to the ultimate goal: weakening the Federal system to the point where the U.S. becomes, in effect, a confederacy. Conservatives are refighting the 1861 Civil War. And they are winning.
Although the American Civil War was a war fought over slavery, from the perspective of constitutional law it involved states’ rights. In this instance, the rights of states to permit slavery – and the expansion of slavery into new states. The debate about states’ rights dates from the beginning of our country.
At the 1787 constitutional convention, concern about the power of the central government versus the power of individual states led to a series of compromises, most notably the baroque electoral college system used to elect our president, the creation of the Senate where each state has two votes, and the “three-fifths” formula where each slave got three-fifths of a vote.
The Dobbs ruling to nullify Roe states that women have no federal right to have an abortion, each state must decide this issue. By implication, this means that each state must determine the right to obtain contraception or to marry a person of the same sex (or different race) or to own property, and on and on. Plutocrats believe that turning the United States into a confederacy will result in a situation where many states permit unfettered capitalism.
The June 30 SCOTUS decision in West Virginia v. EPA is consistent with this trend towards giving more power to the states.
The Dobbs decision is a direct consequence of the conservative plan initiated by Lewis Powell Jr in his 1971 memo “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.” Powells began: “No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack… The sources are varied and diffused. They include, not unexpectedly, the Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries who would destroy the entire system, both political and economic.
These extremists of the left are far more numerous, better financed, and increasingly are more welcomed and encouraged by other elements of society, than ever before in our history.” Powell goes on to blame the success of these attacks on universities, the media, and, in particular, an apathetic business community.
The Powell memo spurred a broad response from Republican politicians, conservative ideologues, and the American business community — led by the Chamber of Commerce. Fifty years later, the consequences are clear:
1. The Republican Party has become the Party of Big Business. In the twenties, Republican President Coolidge said, “the business of America is business.” It is no surprise that today’s GOP is strongly identified with big business. The Republican agenda is the big business agenda. President Reagan, in particular, went out of his way to declare that America’s best minds were to be found in business, not in government. As a consequence, many struggling Americans look to business for salvation, not to their church, and certainly not government,
2. Republicans became opposed to the federal government. in 2001, Grover Norquist, a Reagan disciple, said: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” The Republican mantra became: “if only government would get out of the way, U.S. business would solve all of our problems.” Republicans want a gargantuan Department of Defense, but otherwise they have no use for government.
3. Republican politicians became tools of business. With a fifty-year theme of “government is bad, business is good” it is not surprising that the Republican Party became the disciples of plutocracy. It’s no surprise that Republican officials became the tools of the rich and powerful. It’s an open secret in Washington that Republican politicians can be bought; Senators like Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham do not represent their constituents; they represent big business.
4. Republican presidential candidates became figureheads. Starting with Ronald Reagan, in 1980, Republican national candidates were chosen for their media talents rather than for their intellect or principles – later George W. Bush and Donald Trump. They were not successful businessmen or conservative philosophers, these Republicans were picked because they would faithfully read the lines dictated by oligarchs, and give the right-wing base the “red meat” it wanted.
5. Republicans focused on getting their own media outlets. In his 1971 memo, Powell expressed his opinion that the so-called “attack on the free-enterprise system” was facilitated by the mainstream media. As a result, conservatives developed their own media outlets; notably, Fox TV News and the Rush Limbaugh radio show. As a consequence, millions of Americans do not get “mainstream” news, they get news filtered through the Republican lens. They live and breathe an alternate reality
6. Republicans abandoned democratic principles and Christian ethics. To be clear, business ethics are not Christian ethics. “Love they neighbor and I am my brother’s keeper” may be inspiring words on Sundays but they have little to do with the way American business is conducted. Stated otherwise, business maxims such as “the ends justify the means” and “do what you need to do to satisfy your shareholders” have no basis in Christian principles. Republicans became obsessed with winning at all costs.
7. Republican took advantage of wedge issues. The typical U.S. businessman is amoral; the only ethical issues he cares about are those that reflect on the corporate bottom line. Republicans politicians, in the abstract, do not care about issues like abortions, guns, or gay marriage. But GOP politicians have come to care about these because they are wedge issues. For example, there are some conservative Christians who are single-issue voters; they will only support politicians who oppose abortion. Republicans cynically take advantage of these voters.
8. Republicans focused on controlling the Supreme Court. Shortly after writing his infamous memorandum, Lewis Powell Jr was nominated to the Supreme Court. Republicans became focused on ensuring a conservative majority on the court. A landmark appointment was the 1991 replacement of liberal icon Thurgood Marshall with Clarence Thomas. In 2022, Thomas, the most conservative member of the court, wrote much of the Dobbs decision.
9. Republicans denied climate change. Global Climate Change is bad for business. It is a sad reflection of the times that we live in that most of the largest U.S. businesses should change because of climate change. Some of these changes are major, stopping petroleum exploration, and others minor – prohibiting plastic packaging. But, of course, it is cheaper not to change. U.S. business does not want to change and, therefore, Republicans deny climate change and oppose related government regulations.
10. Republicans brand Democrats as socialists or communists. In 1971 Lewis Powell Jr wrote that the “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System” was being led by communists, socialists, and revolutionaries. The Republican demonization has not changed in fifty years. Instead of saying, Republicans stand for plutocracy, Democrats stand for democracy; or saying, Republicans stand for big business, Democrats stand for workers and limited capitalism, Democrats have allowed themselves to be put in the “socialist” box.
Will the new civil war result in violence? More than 620,000 soldiers died in the first Civil War (approximately 50,000 in the Battle of Gettysburg alone.) We all hope there will not be a second civil war; we all hope that there will not be violence. That said, on January 6, 2021, Donald Trump spawned an insurrection that resulted in the deaths of seven people. There are Republicans who openly advocate violence. As part of their deal with the big business “devil,” Republicans have abandoned Christian ethics and adopted the maxim “the ends justify the means.”
Originally published on Common Dreams as A 50-Year Attack by Right-Wing Corporate Forces Is Leading U.S. Back Towards Civil War