Theme: Government & Parliament | Content Type: Book review

Review: Democracy in Chains. The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, by Nancy MacLean

James Cronin


Mirkos Tsarouchidis

| 6 mins read

Democracy in Chains first tells the story of the emergence of a branch of economics, or political economy, known as ‘public choice theory’ and most closely associated with the work of the economist and Nobel Prize winner James Buchanan. It then demonstrates the links between Buchanan and his fellow ‘libertarians’ or ‘neoliberals’ and various right‐wing donors and foundations, particularly the Koch brothers. It is also a warning about what these people and institutions plan for American democracy.

MacLean’s argument is that neoliberalism, at least in this variation, has sought not only to promote markets and market mechanisms, but also to shape the structure of politics. This is done during moments in power, however brief and infrequent. They make rules and construct barriers so that when voters democratically elect governments committed to raise taxes and increase spending and expand programmes, those governments are hamstrung – democracy, in such circumstances, finds itself ‘in chains’.

This is hardly a novel claim (just study the early neoliberals – Hayek, von Mises, Friedman and others – or Thatcher and Reagan). But what makes MacLean's insight newly relevant is how well it describes key features of recent American politics.

There has recently been a systematic increase in Republican power at every level, whether the party wins the majority of votes or not. Riding the wave of Tea Party enthusiasm, benefitting from the growing influx of corporate money and from the natural sorting of voters into districts of the like‐minded, Republicans won large victories in the midterm elections of 2010. They used their momentary success to launch REDMAP, a project designed to reshape the political landscape and ensure their continued domination. This has been combined with plans to curtail the rights of unions, the protections of minorities and the scope of state activity.

MacLean's task, as she sees it, is to discover the origins of such strategies and identify those who have promoted them. It is commonplace to note that even very abstract ideas have consequences, but MacLean shows that the link for Buchanan was explicit and intentional: she begins with a letter Buchanan wrote in 1956 to the president of the University of Virginia (former governor of the state), Colgate Whitehead Darden, Jr., promising that his new research centre would create a “line of new thinkers” who would fight against the “increasing role of government in economic and social life”.

The political implications are transparent. Positing government and bureaucracy as inherently self‐serving and parasitic clearly weakens support for all variety of public policies; and labelling well‐to‐do and often well‐connected businessmen or industries and trade unions alike as ‘special interests’ discredits unions. It is not hard to see how these ideas would gather support among the wealthy.

What MacLean finds most illustrative of this willingness to get involved in politics is the relationship between the Koch brothers and Buchanan and his supporters and centres. Buchanan and Koch inhabited a small political niche and were naturally drawn together. The ties became closer during the 1980s, especially when the Koch‐funded Institute for Humane Studies relocated to George Mason in 1985.

The story MacLean tells becomes more diffuse in the period after the split between Buchanan and Koch's people. It is not her fault, but a reflection of the reality that with Buchanan sidelined, what remained were Kochs and their network, armed with ideas taken from public choice theory. The network, MacLean makes clear, is powerful and extensive, its tentacles stretching across the country and its influence visible on a multiplicity of issues – climate change and environmental regulation, school choice, right to work laws and other anti‐union measures, opposition to Social Security and Medicare and then to Obamacare, and on questions of who gets to vote. Reading though MacLean's last chapter can almost make one dizzy, and also rather fearful about living in a world in which such malicious and anti‐democratic billionaires wield so much influence.

Trump and the neoliberals

Famously, the Kochs and their networks did not back Trump, whose demagoguery, especially on trade, worried zealous defenders of the market. He won without them, of course, but because Trump has no set ideology or coherent set of plans, his administration has of necessity turned to those who do.

The result has been a contradictory mix of policies, but the Kochs have seen Trump's appointees implementing their plans over a wide range of policy areas, from deregulation of banks, to the rollback of environmental regulations, to the effort to replace public schools with private schools and vouchers.

When and if the administration needs intellectual support for their actions, they will likely end up relying on ideas and networks that largely owe their existence to Buchanan and Koch. MacLean has allowed us to see these links, and that is a major contribution.

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, by Nancy MacLean, is published by Scribe. 368 pp. £9.99.

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    James Cronin

    James Cronin is a Professor of modern British and European history at Boston College.

    Articles by James Cronin