Book Review: Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of The Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America By Nancy MacLean

Reviewed by KAY MATTHEWS

Expanding on Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money, which exposes the rise of the Koch brothers’ climb to power, Democracy in Chains contextualizes that power within the framework of the libertarian movement that began in the 1950s under the “intellectual” tutelage of James Buchanan and his minions. As academics based in Virginia, the state that led the rebellion against implementation of Brown vs. Board of Education, these libertarians based their political philosophy on how the elite must wage war against anything that enfranchised blacks and poor whites—voting rights, education, and New Deal public policy—to ultimately change the rules of democratic governance.

Let me describe the elitism of that philosophy in their own words:

• David Boaz of the Cato Institute: A “parasite economy” divides us into “the predators and the prey.”
• Mitt Romney, former presidential candidate: “47 percent” of voters are leeches on “productive” Americans.
• James Buchanan: People who fail to save money for their future needs “are to be treated as subordinate members of the species, akin to . . . animals who are dependent.”
• Tyler Cowen, director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University (academic center for libertarians): With the “rewriting of the social contract” people will be expected to fend for themselves much more than they do now.” Because “worthy individuals” will make it out of poverty “that will make it easier to ignore those who are left behind.”
• Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives: The nation’s school lunch program leaves poor students “with a full stomach—but an empty soul.”

Without the financial backing of Charles Koch, the billionaire oil magnate whose belief that unfettered capitalism was the only path to “liberty” (for whom, you may ask), James Buchanan and the founding fathers of libertarian philosophy, Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, might have been confined to their European society and a few U.S. academic institutions—the University of Virginia and University of Chicago (Milton Friedman)—where they would remain the minority that they’ve always been. Instead, their combined strategy has resulted in the radical right’s     takeover of the Republican Party (or what’s left of it), the current administration, and the majority of state governments with the help of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

MacLean starts with the history of how this radical, political movement, which essentially seeks to destroy whatever semblance of democracy we currently embrace, begins, to no one’s surprise, in the south, where South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun led the fight to protect the “liberty of the propertied class” against the emancipation of slaves, which resurfaced after Reconstruction in its euphemistic “quest to preserve liberty” rather than a defense of slavery (not that the founding fathers, many of whom were slaveholders themselves, hadn’t already put property protections in the Constitution).

Buchanan was a southerner, born and raised in Tennessee, but began his significant academic career as an economist at the University of Virginia in 1956. This was during the throes of the backlash against Brown vs. Board of Education (the state of Virginia had been a defendant in the case) and Buchanan was essentially given free rein to establish a cadre of libertarian activists at the Thomas Jefferson Center for Political Economy and Social Philosophy program within the economics department. No one would be allowed to participate who would “replace the role of the individual and of voluntary association by the coercive powers of the collective order.” Supported by the ultra conservative policies of the infamous Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd, Buchanan and his cadre kept the Virginia schools segregated by establishing vouchers (sound familiar?) to private schools so whites could maintain segregation (they called it “public choice”). Meanwhile, they worked to disseminate their libertarian philosophy and enhance their reputations in the larger neoliberal world.

The state’s resistance to integration through privatization of public schools was finally defeated in the late 1950s and the University, along with Buchanan, eventually had to face the reality that the rest of the country was moving forward toward his hated “collectivism” (despite the brief aberration of the Goldwater presidential candidacy). This is his comment on his brief tenure at UCLA in 1968-69: “I felt that I had landed in a lunatic asylum, a world gone mad.” It was here, in response to campus upheavals, that he wrote the book Academia in Anarchy in which he formulated the case for the corporatization of universities that Koch would later take up with vengeance: a business model of full-cost tuition with no subsidies and no taxpayer support.

It’s after a brief stint at Virginia Polytechnic Institute that Buchanan is able to put his “Ideals in Action,” as MacLean titles Part II of the book. In bringing a group of like- minded associates together he sought to “create, support, and activate an effective counterintelligencia” to begin to transform “the way people think about government.” Hooking up with the California-based Institute for Contemporary Studies, with funding from the Scaife Family Charitable Trusts, and the Law and Economics Center at the University of Miami, under the direction of Henry Manne, the plan was to infiltrate law schools in order to “mold a new jurisprudence” with a campaign “to make the protection and enhancement of corporate profits and private wealth the cornerstones of our legal system.”

And then Charles Koch steps in. This is the first sentence of MacLean’s chapter “Never Compromise”: “Charles Koch did not just become a convert to the ultra–capitalist radical right. He is the sole reason why this movement may yet alter the trajectory of the United States in ways that would be profoundly disturbing to the somewhat undemocratic James Madison, I believe—and would unquestionably take the ‘demos’ out of American democratic governance.” Koch and Buchanan became familiar with one another through Koch’s foundations and institutes that relied on Buchanan’s papers and seminars to shore up its ideas, particularly at the Institute for Humane (Not!) studies and the Cato Institute. During this period Koch first flirted with Libertarian Party politics (his brother David Koch ran as the vice presidential candidate for the party in 1980).

MacLean devotes a chapter to the Chilean coup in 1973 in which the democratically elected president Salvador Allende was murdered. This chapter, almost more than any other, reveals the moral turpitude of those like Buchanan who promoted the libertarian “reforms” of Pinochet’s dictatorship in which many people were tortured and disappeared while the economy collapsed. Industry-wide labor unions were banned; the social security system was privatized; health care was privatized; agricultural was globalized; public universities had to become “self-funding.” Buchanan and Milton Friedman both participated in advising Pinochet in these “reforms.”

Finally, at the apex of Buchanan’s relationship with Koch, and the apex of his career, Buchanan moves to the newly established George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington D.C., to head the economic department in this school dubbed “the Pentagon of conservative academia.” It was here, in the 1990s, that Koch and Buchanan put in play their “operational strategy” to “overcome the impediment to their political vision”—that the majority of the American public rejected this vision. They had to change the rules, not just who rules. They had to set up a chain of small steps that got passed without the American public figuring out what they were doing. And they had to lie to the public that what they were doing was shoring up rather than destroying what the majority of Americans wanted. Ultimately, their target is the U.S. Constitution so that their minority can rule the majority.

Will they be successful? While we currently have the who’s that are changing, or trying to change the rules—Trump, Jeff Sessions, Neil Gorsuch, Scott Pruitt, Betsy DeVos, Ryan Zinke, and others—are the rules already so damaged they won’t withstand the assault? That I don’t know.

Addendum: While I was reading this book I was also reading Michael Lewis’s   Boomarang, published in 201,0 that explores the 2008 economic collapse across the globe. In his chapter on cities in the U.S. that went bankrupt—or nearly so—, he has this to say: “The people who had power in the society, and were charged with saving it from itself, had instead bled the society to death. The problem with police officers and firefighters isn’t a public sector problem; it isn’t even a problem with government; it’s a problem with the entire society. It’s what happened on Wall Street in the run-up to the subprime crisis. It’s a problem of people taking what they can, just because they can, without regard to the larger social consequences.”

This is what capitalism has wrought, with an American twist. Max Weber’s theory is that’s it’s the spillover of the individualistic Puritan ethic once the religious asceticism has escaped from the cage: “In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of a sport.” If we don’t compete we will perish.

I’m posting this on Superbowl Sunday. Take from it what you will.





  1. Good article as usual and timely. Is there an easy link to post to fb? (although it’s a bit long for fb readers so maybe never mind0

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