Nace charts the growth of corporate power through the Gilded Age, including the bloody repression of organized labor and the rise of social Darwinist thinking among American elites. He recounts how that expansion came to a halt under the New Deal, as organized labor gained legal protections, social Darwinism fell into disrepute, and Franklin Roosevelt asserted a vision of American society that placed democratic limits on corporate power. To many observers, it seemed that the corporate Frankenstein had finally been tamed by “countervailing power.”
According to Nace, that optimistic view was dashed in the final decades of the twentieth century, as Big Business mounted a remarkable comeback. The corporate political resurgence began with a 1971 memorandum written by Lewis Powell, Jr., shortly before Powell was appointed to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon. In the memorandum, Powell urged corporate America to apply its full organizational and strategic resources to politics, a course of action that proved highly successful.
Gangs of America describes the expansion of corporate legal empowerment onto the global stage through international agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which boosted the legal powers of corporations to the level of sovereign nations. The book pays special attention to recent events, including campaign finance reform, the financial scandals of 2002, and the growing movement to redefine the corporation and limit corporate power.
A prescient quote by Abraham Lincoln is used in the book:
We may congratulate ourselves that this cruel war is nearing its end. It has cost a vast amount of treasure and blood…. It has indeed been a trying hour for the Republic; but I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless.
He was correct.