Book Review: ‘Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America’

31 05 2018

Is there a conspiracy to keep cash from the common folk? Or does it just seem like it? In her book, “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” author Nancy MacLean describes the division of dollars between the haves and have-nots to the detriment of democracy. She was recently at the Greenwood Senior Center as part of the Town Hall lecture series, and there was an interesting age range of people present for the hourlong talk. The subject matter of the book, along with its academic language, appealed to a very specific demographic, though the unfortunate truth is all U.S. residents are affected.

In “Democracy In Chains,” MacLean draws a connection between billionaires, politicians and the practice of law in America and how all of it is weighted heavily toward the side of property owners using ideals that were in place when slavery was still legal. She is a professor of history and public policy at Duke University and author of four other books. She has researched how Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan’s legal interpretations are used in a way that has eroded many of the checks and balances put into place by the original writers of the U.S. Constitution.

Colgate Darden, the president of the University of Virginia, hired Buchanan in the mid-1950s to plan a legal strategy for states to defend against the recent Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education. The Brown case established that separate schools for Black and White students were inherently unequal, and thus unconstitutional. But Buchanan and Darden’s concern was for states’ rights, because they feared states would lose much of the authority they previously enjoyed. Though the intention was merely to protect the Southern way of life, which happened to include the oppression and slavery of others, the phrases “individual liberty” and “economic liberty” began to be applied only to ownership of property as opposed to actual individuals. It is through the bureaucratic tangle of law that MacLean provides an excellent narrative on how the subtle changes in perception of law led to a difference in practice and enforcement of law.

Buchanan was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics in 1986 for his work in building the Public Choice Theory of political economics. He called the theory “politics without romance” because he said promises made in politics are intended to appear concerned with the interest of others, but in reality are the products of selfish ulterior motives. Political decisions, by politicians and by voters, are rarely made with the intention of helping anyone except the one making the decision.

It is rather obvious that to alter the perception and practice of law, altering the perception and practice of lawyers is an essential step. Through the members of groups like Mount Perelin and the Cato Institute, pairs of lawyers were invited to lectures and conventions that outlined the interpretation of law, which would provide the leverage for states’ rights to resist federal rulings as unconstitutional. The Koch family financially backed these events, and they have funded many of the institutes that utilize Libertarian philosophy and Buchanan’s ideas in their practices, including the Center for Study of Public Choice, The Institute for Humane Studies and the Reason Foundation.

There is a Bob Marley song that parallels the road paved by Buchanan’s ideas and the theme that MacLean draws out in the book. “Slave Driver” includes the phrase “only to be chained in poverty, good God I think it’s illiteracy,” which was an actual fear of property owners when federal laws removed polling taxes ­— that illiterate voters would outnumber the conservative constituency. The lines could also be a reference to the fact that many U.S. citizens are unaware of what the laws would actually mean for their lifestyle when enacted. Over and over again, these economists are faced with the task of getting laws passed that they know the majority of people would disagree with if they were not implemented in a stealthy manner.

MacLean reveals an impelling narrative regarding how the Koch family — using the practice of law, properly placed propaganda and millions of dollars — has influenced the public perception of policies that had previously been able to withstand presidents from each party. Social Security, for example, is a successful program that millions of U.S. people rely on. Yet now, as privatization is talked about more and more, the ideals which were venerated when Social Security was enacted are being challenged. The unfortunate truth is that the dollars being used on global warming, economy and liberal business practices are working in the favor of corporations: In 2007 71 percent of Americans believed that fossil fuels altered the climate, and in 2011 only 44 percent held the same belief.

MacLean notes that the practices that the Koch networks are engaging in have been used before, most notably in Chile, where General Augusto Pinochet was involved in a coup that overthrew an elected government, and installed a junta which ruled in the name of economic liberty. The Chilean Constitution of Liberty is said to be virtually unamendable, and it is written essentially to protect economic liberty while restraining majority power. Curiously, Buchanan did not mention his involvement with the Chilean document in his resume afterward.

That a Nobel Laureate would be able to influence the Western world in such a manner, without most people being aware of how his agenda would affect personal liberty, not just economic liberty, is a scary story indeed. MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains” demonstrates that the stealth plan that the right has used may actually be too far gone to reverse.