Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean

If you want to understand American politics, read this book. Professor MacLean is the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. Democracy In Chains was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award and was named by The Nation as the most valuable book of the year.

The book is “deep history” because MacLean delves into the relatively obscure career of an American economist named James Buchanan. She shows how Buchanan’s teachings, beginning in the 1950s, were adopted by right-wing ideologues and eventually came to dominate the thinking of wealthy, powerful and well-connected Republicans all over America.

She uses the phrase “radical right” because today’s Republican Party is radically different from the Republican Party of the 1950s. The party’s leaders used to be conservative. Now they’re bound to an ideology that elevates property rights over almost all other considerations.The party’s guiding principal is that any infringement on a person’s right to accumulate wealth is inherently unfair. Human freedom consists in making money and holding on to it. Nothing is more important when it comes to political policy. In fact, taxation is only justified for national defense and otherwise maintaining order. This is not a conservative position. It’s a so-called “libertarian” position that translates into extreme policies unacceptable to most Americans.

There is indeed a “stealth plan”. MacLean shows how this plan was developed,  and how it was paid for by people like the billionaire Charles Koch. Its goal is to make the United States a very different country. She explains how various academics, lawyers and political operatives, often working for right-wing publications, business groups or think tanks, have been working together for decades to move America to the right, while being secretive about their ultimate goal.

Their many public goals are well-known by now. These goals include lower taxes for the wealthy, minimal regulation of business activity, less funding for social programs (the ones that can’t be eliminated entirely), greater influence of money on our politics, and the privatization of as many government services as possible, including schools, prisons and the military. They also support ever-increasing spending on the military budget and fewer restrictions on the police, so that everyone, here and abroad, is kept in line.

Their overarching goal is much less publicized. It’s to interfere with majority rule. The economist James Buchanan argued strongly that the majority cannot be trusted. Most people want the government to do things that benefit the nation as a whole. They like well-funded public schools, well-maintained public roads, government assistance for the poor, decent medical care for the sick, and clean air and water for everyone.

But those things have to be paid for. That means the government has to collect taxes. Taxes, however, are unfair, since they involve taking property (i.e. money) from people who would rather keep it. Therefore, Buchanan and his ilk concluded, the wrong people should not be allowed to vote. And if the majority does vote for “non-libertarian” policies, the courts should rule those policies unconstitutional. Thus, we see voter suppression and gerrymandering, and undemocratic actions like changing the rules so that newly-elected Democrats will have less power when they take office.

At times, the story MacLean tells is hard to believe. But the story is true. I’ll conclude with an example and a summary from Professor MacClean:

Again and again, at every opportunity he had, [Buchanan] told his allies that no “mere changing of the political guard will suffice”, that “the problems of our times require attention to the rules rather than the rulers. And that meant that real change would come “only by Constitutional law”. The project [i.e. the stealth plan] must aim toward the practical “removal of the sacrosanct status assigned to majority rule”... [184].

“Who will care for America’s children and the elderly”, [historian Ruth Rosen] asks, now that … “market fundamentalism — the irrational belief that markets solve all problems — has succeeded in dismantling so many federal regulations, services and protections?” But the cause [i.e. the plan] would argue that it has answered that question over and over again: You will. And if you can’t, you should have thought of that before you had kids or before you grew old without adequate savings. The solution to every problem … is for each individual to think, from the time they are sentient, about their possible future needs and prepare for them with their own earnings, or pay the consequences [221].

That is the kind of thinking we, the majority, are up against.

Democracy in Chains

Publishers and book critics sometimes say a particular book is one that every American, or every thinking American, or every American who cares about such and such, should read. I’m reading one of them now. If you want to understand U.S. politics, you should read Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. It’s by Nancy MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke University.

MacClean explains how a small group of libertarian and conservative academics began a movement in the 1950s that eventually led to the rightward shift in American politics. So many on the right are so deeply committed to low taxes, privatization, deregulation and making it hard (for some people) to vote because, to borrow a phrase from John Maynard Keynes, they are “the slaves of some defunct  economist[s] … distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler[s] of a few years back”.

This radical right-wing agenda favors property over democracy. They hate the idea that a majority of voters can elect politicians who will interfere with a rich person’s right to accumulate and keep as much stuff as possible. As a result, they look  for ways to dilute the majority’s ability to effect change.

MacClean discusses one case in which the right’s “stealth program” was implemented. The key figure in her book, a Virginia Tech economist named James Buchanan, helped transform Chile after Gen. Augusto Pinochet led a military coup in 1973:

For it was Buchanan who guided Pinochet’s team in how to arrange things so that [Chile’s] capitalist class would be all but permanently entrenched in power….

If Jim Buchanan had qualms about helping to design a constitution for a dictatorship or the process by which [it] was ratified, … he did not commit them to print…

What’s perplexing is how a man whose life’s mission was the promotion of what he … called the free society reconciled himself … to what a military junta was doing to the people of Chile. The new Chile was free for some, … the same kind of people who counted in Virginia in the era when [Buchanan fought desegregation]. It was also, always, a particular kind of freedom the libertarians cared most about. One Chilean [rejoiced] that “the individual freedom to consume, produce, save and invest has been restored”.

… Chile emerged with a set of rules closer to his ideal than any in existence, built to repel future popular pressure for change. [The new constitution] was a “virtually unamendable charter”, … radically skewed by the over-representation of the wealthy, the military and the less popular political parties associated with them. Buchanan had long called for binding rules to protect economic liberty and constrain majority power, and [the constitution] guaranteed these as never before”.

Among the right-wing “reforms” instituted by the Pinochet dictatorship were lower taxes for corporations and the wealthy, devastating restrictions on unions, privatization of the social security system, privatization of health care, a less independent judicial system, limits on the government’s ability to issue regulations, school vouchers in place of funding for public education and forcing state universities to become “self-financing”. If this list of “modernizations” sounds familiar, it should. It’s the public agenda of today’s Republican Party.

Since it isn’t good public relations for a political party or government to say it’s against majority rule, however, the right’s intention to install and maintain minority rule isn’t publicly stated. But after seizing power, Pinochet ruled as a dictator for years. In the U.S., the right-wing justices on the Supreme Court have given more political power to corporations and the rich, while undermining the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and Republican politicians in states like Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin have made it less likely that poor people and certain minorities will vote, all the while claiming they are only interested in fighting a phenomenon, voter fraud, which they know is extremely rare.

The good news is that the resurgent Democratic Party is dedicated to making voting easier and more representative. In addition, there are efforts underway in a number of states to eliminate gerrymandering of congressional districts and to make the undemocratic Electoral College irrelevant. Others are calling for the citizens of Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to be given full voting rights. Changes will come eventually, since the majority still has some power. Meanwhile, if you want to understand our current politics, read Democracy in Chains