Democracy in Chains: The Radical Right’s Stealth Attack on American Democracy
In part one, Nancy Maclean reveals Nobel prize-winning economist James M. Buchanan as the architect of the Koch Brothers’ secret campaign to undermine public education, unions, and to reshape America
JAISAL NOOR: 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.
STRIKING NORTH CAROLINA TEACHER: 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.
JAISAL NOOR: 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.
NANCY MACLEAN: Great to be with you.
JAISAL NOOR: 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.
NANCY MACLEAN: 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.
JAISAL NOOR: 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?
NANCY MACLEAN: 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.
JAISAL NOOR: 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. .
NANCY MACLEAN: 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.
JAISAL NOOR: 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.
NANCY MACLEAN: 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.
JAISAL NOOR: 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.