Pulling back the curtain on a powerful and hidden apparatus that has spent decades corroding the democracy underpinnings of the United States as a constitutional republic, “The Scheme” is a series of short speeches about the plot by the rightwing donor base to capture the Supreme Court and achieve through that institution’s power what they cannot through other branches of government. The thread running through the spoken essays of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is that the pseudo-conservative majority on the court is no accident, but the product of special interests and dark money – hundreds of millions of dollars in anonymous hidden spending.
The special interests are able to groom young judges, promote them in advertising campaigns and then try to influence them in legal briefs, all lacking in transparency. Whitehouse chose his title carefully. “It implies that this is not random,” he says. “This is not just, ‘Oh, we’re conservatives, and so we’re going to appoint conservative thinking judges,’ which is the veneer. They would like to maintain this is just conservatives being conservatives.”
Whitehouse suggests that the model of “agency capture”, when an administrative agency is co-opted to serve the interests of a minor constituency, was applied to the Supreme Court. “Once you’re over that threshold of indecency, it actually turned out to be a pretty easy target. The other construct to bear in mind is covert operations, because essentially what’s happened is that a bunch of fossil fuel billionaires have run a massive covert operation in and against their own country. And that’s a scheme.”
The first of the senator’s speeches was entitled “The Powell Memo”. It focused on Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer from Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s, a period of political turbulence that rattled America’s corporate elite. The US Chamber of Commerce commissioned from Powell a strategic plan for reasserting corporate authority over the political domain.
One section of Powell’s secret report, called “Neglected Opportunity in the Courts”, described “exploiting judicial action” as an “area of vast opportunity”. He added that “with an activist-minded Supreme Court, the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change”. The report was dated August 1971; two months later, Republican President Richard Nixon nominated Powell to the Supreme Court.
Whitehouse said: “Having given the US Chamber of Commerce that warning and laid out that strategy, he then went on to the court and in three very significant decisions created a role for corporations in American politics that had never existed and was clearly not something that the founding fathers thought about or would have approved. Since then it’s gotten worse, but he teed it up in those earlier decisions and set the Republican justices of the court on that pathway.”
The following video and podcast audio presentations are included here for educational and historical purposes, by the School of Statesmanship at Ascension University. The first speech was presented by the Senator in May of 2021. The latest was presented shortly before the Supreme Court ended its term in June of 2022.