Democracy in Chains: The Radical Right’s Stealth Attack on American Democracy


2018 has been the year of the teacher, as
waves of protest in mostly Republican-dominated states starting in West Virginia, Kentucky,
Oklahoma, Arizona, and most recently North Carolina have challenged not only low pay,
but tax cuts and the privatization that have crippled public education. The state keeps asking more of us every year,
but giving us less resources. So that’s one of the big reasons we’re here
to fight today. These states have all adopted policies backed
by right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers, whose network of dark money funders has poured
untold sums into transforming the American political landscape by shackling the government’s
ability to fund social services and enforce regulations while cutting taxes on the wealthy
and increasing protections for corporations, all while passing a slew of restrictive voter
laws, in the name of advancing so-called liberty. A number of reporters and scholars have written
works that have shed light on the workings of the shadowy networks of the right-wing
billionaires like the Koch brothers. But until now there has been little understanding
of the origins of the ideology behind this assault on democratic institutions. That led our next guest, Nancy MacLean, the
William Chafee Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University, to look into the
ideological foundations of this movement. And what she uncovered is deeply shocking
and troubling; the subject her explosive book, “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of
the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.” Really happy to have you on. Great to be with you. So for the first part of this discussion,
let’s start at George Mason University, where you stumbled upon a remarkably unguarded trove
of documents belonging to the late Nobel Prize-winning economist James McGill Buchanan, and what
you were able to piece together about his role in the Koch brothers’ plans to reshape
America and its democratic institutions. Talk about how you came across this, and what
you started to piece together. Well, James Buchanan had been on my radar
from some historical research that I had done on the state of Virginia’s massive resistance
to Brown vs. Board of Education in the late 1950s, and I became intrigued with him. And when I finally was able to get into his
private archive at George Mason in 2013, I found all of my suspicions confirmed about
the ways that his ideas were being weaponized by the Koch donor network in order to effectively
disable our democracy, and to do things like privatizing public education, inflicting these
radical cuts in necessary social services in the country, changing constitutional law. All kinds of things I was able to find in
that archive. And ironically, I got into the archive in
September of 2013, just as Buchanan’s ideas were guiding a government shutdown in Washington,
D.C. led by Ted Cruz, a figure deeply steeped in both this thinking and rooted in the Koch
network. So very, very, I would say, unsettling experience
to be in the archives during the day while watching the damage being inflicted on Americans
who needed the federal government’s services, and needed the government open during the
time I was at the archives for the first time. So, limiting democratic participation and
empowering the wealthy is nothing new in American history. What’s different about Buchanan’s work? What makes his ideas so radical and so dangerous
to democracy? Yeah, Buchanan was playing on that same team
as the wider right, with people like Milton Friedman and others who believed in a kind
of free market fundamentalism, believed that government was the problem, believed that
the solution was to turn decision making over to the market for just about everything. But what was different about Buchanan is that
he came up with a theory of how government grew over the 20th century, and particularly
the domestic part of government, what is sometimes called the liberal state. So things like Social Security and Medicare,
worker’s rights, environmental protection, antidiscrimination, and so forth. He produced a theory that was aimed really
to discredit government so that people would not automatically look to government in cases
of market failure, and that turned out to be a much more insidious, and in the long
run effective, approach to to undermining the popular achievements of the 20th century. So Buchanan’s approach was complementary to
that of Friedman and the Chicago school and others, but again, much more devastating. And we see it today in all the language about
the swamp, the notion that all public figures are corrupt and misleading the public. All of those ideas really stem from a school
of thought that Buchanan developed called ‘public choice economics’ most broadly, and
his particular variant was often called the Virginia school of political economy. So a historic figure sort of plays big in
this, in your book. James C. Calhoun, who was a slave owner, a
former vice president, a statesman from South Carolina who had a lot of influence in the
first half of the 19th century in the United States. What role-. So, talk about who he is and his significance,
and what role he had on the thinking of Buchanan and other influential figures in this libertarian
arch-right movement. . Yes. Before James Buchanan, John C. Calhoun was
the most significant antidemocratic thinker in America. He was a Southern slaveholder from South Carolina,
onetime vice president, South Carolina member of the U.S. Senate. And he produced two big treatises reinterpreting
the constitution and the purpose of American government in a way that would protect slaveholders’
interests. He did this a generation after the founders,
and he did it because he could see that national majorities were developing that would challenge
slavery and he wanted to protect what had become the most profitable capitalist institution
in the mid-19th century when he was writing, or I should say the early 19th century, the
first third of it, and the 1820s and ’30s in particular. And basically he was a theorist of what I’ve
come to think about as property supremacy, a kind of property supremacy that reinterprets
the constitution in a, in order to protect the absolute prerogatives of property holders,
the most dramatic being slaveholders, in order to keep democratic government at bay. And what’s really interesting about Calhoun
is that Buchanan’s own colleagues at George Mason University have called John C. Calhoun
a precursor to modern public choice theory, in particular to the ideas of this figure
James McGill Buchanan, their former colleague. And they actually said that the two systems
of ideas had the same purpose and effect. And I could not agree more with that because
I think the purpose is to protect the rights of property holders, particularly the wealthiest
among them, from the reach of majoritarian democracy. I think that, that kind of sums it up. And can you talk about the response from George
Mason University before and after they were recently forced to admit that this tremendous
amount of money they were getting from the Koch brothers came with strings attached which
actually compromise their entire department? Because the Koch brothers had veto power over
who served, you know, who, who could work at George Mason? You talk about that, and their evolving response
in this case. Yeah, it’s a really chilling story. I will say that I have direct personal experience
of how poisonous a presence this Koch donor network is in our public life, because after
my book came out, you know, the initial review attention and media attention was universally
positive and favorable from professional reviewers from historians and others. And about two or so weeks in, two to three
weeks in, there was this kind of libertarian pile on. And much of it came from faculty at George
Mason University, who had been funded by the Koch network, who were working with the Koch
implant on the campus at George Mason in the economics department, the law school. And something called the Mercatus Center,
which, interestingly, is housed on the campus of this public university but in no way accountable
to it, and Charles Koch has sat on its board for years. So, what we saw there is how the Charles Koch
Foundation and the operatives that it funds basically are weaponizing their implants on
our public university campuses in order to come after anyone who is critical of this
operation. And there were a few researchers from Greenpeace,
and a wonderful group of young people who have built a group called UnKoch My Campus
that researched the people who were attacking me and my book, and found that in 90 cases
these were people who were, received-. Faculty members who received direct funding
from Charles Koch, or operatives in his various operations, who in most cases never declared
their conflicts of interest, basically violating ethics 101 in these attacks. And the important thing about this is not
the personal thing, the attacks on me, but what it tells us about how our higher education
system is being used for this larger political project. And as you say, the recent revelations over
the last few weeks of what has happened over the years at George Mason are quite breathtaking. In one case a faculty member was chosen, hand
selected by a donor for a tenured position at this public university. And ironically, he was also the first out
of the gate to attack me, this individual. So it is really stunning. The other thing that has come out in these
revelations from George Mason is the extent of donor influence over faculty hiring and
assessments of faculty performance. They were actually able to have a voice in
getting rid of faculty if they didn’t adequately advance the Koch donor project. And especially chilling was revelations from
the law school, I should say all made possible by FOIA inquiries associated with UnKoch My
Campus, and a group called Transparent GMU, FOIA inquiries that found that the Federalist
Society, the body that has been vetting and recommending federal judges to Republican
administrations since Ronald Reagan, the Federalist Society had actually set up a front group,
a front group of the kind usually used, in legal terms, for money laundering, to funnel
money to the now-named Scalia School of Law at George Mason, in order to use that law
school as a base of operations for moving our judiciary to the right in terms of faculty
appointments, setting up programs that could assist in this political project, and placing
students in clerkships with judges on the right. So it is really mind blowing for scholars
to see what is being done to our universities. And although George Mason’s administration
at first denied this for years to their faculty senate and to the students who were concerned
on campus, they have had to admit, now that these FOIA requests have become public, that
in fact the donors had grossly undue influence on the campus that has corrupted academic
integrity at this public institution. Well, that’s really tremendous. And you know, it sort of demonstrates the
ideological conviction over the academic, academic conviction of this group. So this wraps up the first part of this discussion
about Democracy in Chains, by Nancy MacLean. In our next part we’ll focus on public education
and why this assault on democracy has been so closely focused on it. Thanks so much for joining us.

Maurice Vega

45 Responses

  1. Authoritarian Democracy = Demon-ocracy !!!

    And it is raging across the land – within the classrooms of our schools! Within the living rooms of our homes! And throughout the halls of our assemblies!

    Everything has been poisoned!
    Many souls possessed!

    This is not a theory – but a rejection of core Constitutional principles, the rejection of Common Law, and the rejection of God's moral laws —-

    These are the sorrows that seize upon a sinful people !!!

    There is only one solution!
    Repentance! And speedily!

  2. I don't see how these conservatives can be so alarmist when business interests practically control government anyway.

  3. I would challenge the writer of this book to publically call for all outside money and interest groups be banned from donating money and peddling influence within our public schools. So how about it Real News…want to take that step?

  4. The Koch Brothers and their donor network are interested in an oligarchy not a democracy. They deify the free market as if its a virtual paradise if left alone by government. Yet they completely fail to take responsibility for the catastrophic damage done to the environment by their businesses or the structrual problems with capitalism that hurt so many people on this planet. They represent a form of fascism and they should not be underestimated or ignored.

  5. My Thumbs Up is mostly for the bit about how university teachers and researchers are being paid to advocate against other honest researchers. Also called corruption.

  6. This is only one instance of Koch influence. Read “Dark Money” for a much broader description of Koch shenanigans.

  7. The book Democracy in Chains has been out for quite some time now. It has been denounced from libertarians, through the left. From the left see the reviews of Professors Henry Farrell and Steven Teles.
    Nancy MacLean of Duke was asked to discuss her findings in a public forum with other Duke scholars including those who coauthored with Buchanan. To the best of my knowledge she has never talked to those who knew Buchanan and has refused all non progressive interviews and discussions, including requests from her own Duke campus.
    Buchanan’s works are quite public and extensive, the reader of my comment does not need to take my word, they can search all of Buchanan’s works for any reference of John C. Calhoun over all the decades of Buchanan’s writings, and they will discover Buchanan never ever once cited Calhoun. To the best of my knowledge,(and Nancy has never been asked), if she has any evidence that Buchanan has ever read one word of Calhoun. Buchanan did however bring William Hutt to the University of Virginia during the civil rights era. That would be the South African economist William Hutt who authored “The Economics of the Colour Bar” and linked the similarities and egregious actions of South African apartheid and American segregation.

    Public Choice at its foundational base is a triangle of, Methodological Individualism where collective society is made up of the many choices of individual decision makers; Behavioral Symmetry where humans are humans, people are people; and Politics as Exchange where politicians, bureaucrats and voters are human actors in political commerce.
    As someone who lives life in the real world, are those ideas inaccurate or not your lived experience?

    Professor MacLean, there are non progressives who have an interest in this issue, but to this date you have been unwilling to discuss in a pubic forum even on your Campus. Every single interview has been with those who only throw you softballs, so far your book has been Trump talking exclusively to Fox and Friends and no other. If you want to convince those outside your bubble, you need to talk outside the progressive bubble.

  8. If we truly were a civilized society, we wouldn't allow people to become billionaires in the first place.

  9. All the US Tax money is going to buy bombs instead of being used to pay for schools and education. The Radical Right , Its the Radical Left that has destroyed our Democracy.

  10. Spending billions of dollars in war machines for invasion of other countries and killing innocent people are more important for US administration than education, health system, and social welfare of US people. Lack of education, health care and welfare are least concern for wealthy Americans. They just want the government to ensure their policies at national and global level secure more profit for them through wars, exploitation, and invasion of other countries.

  11. "Property owners particularly slave owners". Lost credibility, Nancy Maclean.
    Controlled opposition? Or Communist against property rights.

  12. The irony is that that her platform is provided by DUKE University whose existence was funded through JAMES BUCHANAN DUKE and his Tobacco industry profits in the states of North Carolina and Virginia through the 1800's These profits were reaped off the backs of the slaves and former slaves post civil war oppressed african americans…

    IMHO Duke should provide a number of scholarships to WELL QUALIFIED African Americans from NC and VA for this alone…

  13. "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of property is how the constitution originally read. Regardless, the civil war was not fought over slavery. Casting labels does nothing to improve our society. What if you call Hillary a far left Marxist every time you bring her name up. It gets us nowhere. The left seems to think that calling someone a name is the same as actually debating your side. That is because they believe they have the moral high ground. Besides, still believing in the left/right paradigm is just juvenile. Will you rename yourself "The Far Left/Marxist News?"

  14. WHAT TOTAL B.S. THE THREAT TO THE U.S. IS AMERICA HATING, OPEN BORDERS, MS 13 DESPICABLE DEVILCRATS.

  15. It's all zionist orchestrated. It is according to their agenda. See the prophetic map if greater israel, understand the middle east. Zionism in the U.S. has undermined the will of the people. The whole right left shit is nothing more than distraction.

  16. Such bullshit, point the fingers at Obama and his crappy administration. By the way, America is a Republic, not a Democracy.

  17. Libertarianism, Communitarianism… is THE neoliberal ideology that drives the world's economic policy these past 40 years. It's all about self-interest, or "idios" Greek word for private or self. Isn't it obvious that the present system is run by idiots? Thatcher once said "There's no such thing as society" and there you have "idios" in a nutshell, because you have to be a self-serving nut to believe it!

  18. There are no Dems or Reps anymore. It's been One Libertarian Koch Party for 40 years now. Neoliberalism is an ideology based on economic freedom over social freedom. It was founded by libertarian economist and Austrian aristocrat, Friedrich Hayek and promoted by libertarians such as Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, Ayn Rand, the Koch brothers and others. They would prefer to replace national borders with property lines and end the very concept of “citizenship”:

    “In a libertarian society, there is no commons or public space. There are property lines, not borders. When it comes to real property and physical movement across such real property, there are owners, guests, licensees, business invitees and trespassers – not legal and illegal immigrants.” ~ Jeff Deist, president of the Mises Institute

  19. The Koch brothers and their ilk should realise ( a) They don't get to live forever and (b) the desire to live free from chains is inherent. (C) No one elected them, this fact which will finally hit them as they run just like that devil in Rumania and his wife found out.

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