In 1970 Lewis Powell, who would soon be appointed to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon, wrote an insightful and prescient memo about what was needed to save capitalism. There were more than 1700 bombings of businesses in 1970 and Powell and his colleagues had every reason to be concerned about the threat to their interests. Powell’s memo has been widely credited with prompting the efforts of the business community to assert their influence. He described the many ways that business could be promoted such as by creating a class of scholars and pundits who could influence public opinion and by efforts to gain political control. He warned that it would require effort “over an indefinite period of years.”
Over the past fifty years, wealthy conservatives have followed Powell’s advice. The result has been the deeply divided country we now live in.
As I predict in my new book, Rebooting Capitalism: How We Can Forge a Society That Works for Everyone, the problems we face will not be eliminated through one or two victorious elections cycles. Our differences are too deeply rooted to think that we can simply eliminate them through even the most sophisticated electioneering techniques.
Many of our problems are unintended consequences of the extensive, well-funded, and largely unnoticed efforts by wealthy conservatives to advance their interests. Their goal was to increase their political power by promoting free market ideology as the way to advance freedom and prosperity. An increasing proportion of our intellectual and political leadership became convinced that government regulation was harmful and that the unfettered pursuit of profits would benefit not only the business community, but the society as a whole. There were so successful that by the 1990s a democratic president could proclaim that the era of big government was over.
Many are inclined to vilify the architects of conservative hegemony. However, in this case — and I believe in every other instance of harm that has been created — a more effective way of thinking about it is in terms of the selection of behavior and practices by their consequences. The network of conservative interests did not set out to increase the oppression of black people, or the proliferation of guns, or the often violent efforts to restrict abortions. They simply set out to win elections because doing so benefited them financially. However, to do so it worked to create a war on drugs in black neighborhoods, to cultivate and align with the evangelical movement and the gun rights movement, and to use dog whistle racism to garner support of the white working class.
Jane Mayer has documented the extensive network of organizations that it has taken to achieve conservative political power. A coalition of conservative billionaires nurtured the careers of thousands of conservative intellectuals, pundits, and career politicians. They realized that to gain political power at the federal level they would need to take control of state governments so that they could gerrymander districts both for state legislators and Congressional candidates. They also realized that they needed to take control of the judiciary, which they have succeeded in doing.
Democratic Party leaders failed to see the deeply rooted system that conservatives were creating. They continued to compete at the level of winning the next election. They lacked a coherent analysis of how society works and what conditions are needed to ensure people’s well-being. Indeed, to a great extent they bought into the free market doctrine. As a result, they did not address the needs and interests of working class Americans.
In Rebooting Capitalism: How We Can Forge a Society That Works for Everyone, I lay out the reforms that are needed in every sector of society. Foundational for this reform is an alternative to free market ideology. That alternative is the scientifically supported understanding of the nurturing conditions that people need in order to thrive. I laid these out in detail in my earlier book The Nurture Effect.
I have created a nonprofit, Values to Action, which organizes study circles — small teams of people who work on a specific aspect of our many problems to produce products that can advance nurturance in society. We are examining the extent to which each sector of society is contributing to the well-being of the entire population. We seek to promote practices that do so, and to eliminate those that harm segments of the population. Here are the areas we plan to address:
· In business we have corporations that market harmful products. In every case we need policies that ensure that corporations lose money as the result of such harmful practices.
· Healthcare is profitable to insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and many providers, but fails to address the social determinants of ill health. need much greater investment in the prevention of social conditions that lead to ill health and premature death.
· Higher education is investing far more in physical sciences than in the behavioral sciences. We need to train a generation of behavioral scientists and practitioners who can deliver the family school and community programs and policies that have proven benefit in increasing the well-being of the population.
· The harm that the criminal justice system is doing — especially to people of color — is increasingly understood. We need to promote programs and policies that can address these problems.
· We are currently promoting an effort to invest far more in research and practice to reduce concentrated disadvantage in our many high poverty neighborhoods.
· We also need to counter the harmful impact of social media, which has greatly amplified racism, discrimination, and division. Watch Social Dilemma, if you have not yet done so.
· Finally, we are working on climate change. I lead a task force that is working to increase the use of behavioral science research on addressing the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Currently the federal government is funding almost no research on this problem.
· These reforms are foundational for evolving a political system in which it is taken for granted that public policies need to be founded on the goal of ensuring the well-being of every person.
All of these efforts will help to create a society that ensures everyone’s wellbeing. However, progress will be slow if we do not also address the fact that as many as 73 million Americans supported Donald Trump. We need to find ways achieve a rapprochement with this diverse segment of the population. The disappointing election results for down-ticket democrats shows that we will not do this simply through political campaigns.
Study circles focused on this problem will begin by summarizing what behavioral science research shows about social influence and how it can be used to begin to reach reconciliation among the diverse groups that are currently feeling so hostile toward each other.