The deep history of the radical right’s stealth plan for America

A Q&A with author Nancy MacLean about the elusive James McGill Buchanan

Published July 20, 2017 4:00AM (EDT)

Charles Koch; David Koch   (MSNBC/AP/Evan Agostini/Shutterstock/Salon)
Charles Koch; David Koch (MSNBC/AP/Evan Agostini/Shutterstock/Salon)

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Author Nancy MacLean has unearthed a stealth ideologue of the American right. Her book, "Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America," tells the story of one James McGill Buchanan, a Southern political scientist and father of “public choice economics.” MacLean details how this little-known figure has had a massive impact on the ideology of the far right. None other than Charles Koch looked to Buchanan’s theories for inspiration. They are libertarian — but with a twist: bluntly, it “entails restrictions on the freedom of the great majority in order to protect property rights and the prerogatives of the most well off.” MacLean shows how this idea can be traced down through the last 60 years of right-wing politics, starting with Brown v. The Board of Education and continuing with the Koch brothers’ empire. And she demonstrates that those followers and those in thrall to the Koch billions are pumping up their fight under the new administration.

Kristin Miller talked with Nancy MacLean about her books and the influence of James McGill Buchanan on our politics both overt and covert. Read an excerpt of Democracy in Chains.

Kristin Miller: Did you know anything about Buchanan before you started your research?

Nancy MacLean: I did not. I had actually never heard of him, probably like most people in the country. I found him in the course of researching something else and I kept finding him in the archives on different important matters that shocked me, and so I began to make him the focus of the research.

KM: Just what is his theory of “public choice economics”?

NM: Buchanan was trained at the University of Chicago and was part of the same milieu as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and others whose names are more well known. What he did that was different from them is take the tools that he learned at the University of Chicago and apply them to public life. So he looked at public actors, including elected officials, as self-interested, as people who were not really seeking the common good, not really trying to advance the public interest, but really serving their own interests.

So in the case of elected officials, he said that their real interest, their main interest was being re-elected. He was in public finance, so his contribution there was to say that because they were interested in being elected and because they weren’t paying for the things that they were doing from their own pockets, they didn’t care about running up deficits. They would promise one thing to environmentalists, say, and one thing to retirees and another thing to public schools and not care about raising adequate revenue to cover those things. He was not entirely wrong about that. But his theory of the motives of public actors was so cynical as to be utterly corrosive of the norms of a democratic society, as people pointed out along the way, but he would not listen.

KM: How does that theory flow into the idea that it is democracy versus liberty?

NM: He was setting to work in Virginia in the late 1950s. Virginia had the most oligarch elite of the entire South. And he understood the system in Virginia as a kind of outpost of liberty and he posed as his own mission to preserve liberty, the liberty advocated by the leaders of Virginia, like Sen. Harry Byrd. That liberty was very compatible with restrictions on the freedom of the great majority. So labor unions did not have free ability to operate in Virginia. Civil rights activists certainly did not. There was very poor transparency in the state in terms of reporting about the things that were going on. His version of liberty entails restrictions on the freedom of the great majority in order to protect property rights and the prerogatives of the most well-off systems.

KM: How does this differ say from libertarianism as preached by Ron Paul and that sort of wing of the Republican or libertarian parties?

NM: I was really entering a whole new world here. I mean, not just Buchanan’s public choice school of economics, but I had actually not paid much attention to libertarianism before either. But it turns out that most of them do draw from these common sources and one of the key figures in that — a guy named Murray Rothbard, who Charles Koch sustained for a while — he traced the core libertarian idea to John C. Calhoun, the pro-slavery theorist of the 19th century, who had his own version of liberty and basically looked at taxes as exploitative. So here a man who made his living and his wealth by enslaving men, women and children said that that was not exploitation but what was exploitation was when less-wealthy citizens went to government for things like public education, good roads, canals and all those kinds of things. So he actually posed it as what we would call today makers and takers. So Calhoun saw himself as a maker and saw other citizens, white citizens at the time, who were the ones voting for these things, as takers, and that idea flowed into modern libertarianism — this notion that there isn’t exploitation in the economic realm, the exploitation comes from the political realm, where majorities gang up on minorities of propertied individuals.

So actually, Ron Paul is connected to that whole set of ideas. It’s kind of like the revolutionaries of the left, the Bolsheviks and all the groups they wrought. So there are various differentiations among them, but for the people who are the core ideologues of libertarianism and the core architects in building this movement, there are certain common views and what I’m describing is one of them, the notion that property rights are the crucial human right and that they are central to liberty and that liberty includes the ability of individuals to veto what a democracy comes up with.

KM: You referred to a movement as a fifth column. Is it still a stealth movement, do you feel, or is it more in the open these days?

NM: I think it’s both, and that’s its strength. It’s not actually a conspiracy in the legal definition, because a conspiracy involves illegal behavior, and this cause is so rich, so wealthy, that they can hire the best legal talent to make sure that they’re operating within the law — with the possible exception of nonprofit law. But at the same time, it is so vast and so well-funded — the amount of money being circulated through these operations is larger than the major political parties. There are literally dozens — not just dozens, but hundreds of organizations, if you count the state level ones and the international ones, that are ostensibly separate but really working together on this. So I don’t think “fifth column” is necessarily the best term, but it identifies that element of their thought, which is really so far on the radical right that they have such a hostile attitude toward our democracy; it’s almost as if they’re outsiders bent on what one of them called a hostile takeover.

KM: Who are the people now that we should be watching, and what kind of tactics should we be looking out for?

NM: Well, the first thing I’d say is stop paying such attention to Trump’s tweets. They’re a total distraction. I think we should instead be carefully watching the actions of groups like Freedom Partners, Chamber of Commerce, the Koch’s big donor operation. The Club for Growth is another part of this, and Americans for Prosperity on the ground.

I think you could also watch for their language. This is a cause that has opposed social security from its creation. These people are totally hostile to the principle of social insurance. They think we should all be individually responsible for our needs, ultimately. But they also know that that’s a terribly unpopular thing to say. Huge majorities of American people support Social Security, support Medicare, want to make them better and stronger. Buchanan advised in great detail about Social Security at the beginning of the early 1980s. What they need to do is fear monger and create a sense of crisis that these programs are unsustainable, they’ll never be solvent. So they use an Orwellian language of reform when really what they want to do is undermine the program. I think the first thing to do would be ask them fundamental questions, like do you support the principle of Social Security, do you support the principle of Medicare?

I think people should also resist any further effort to privatize anything until we get to the bottom of this. They are using privatization not because it was more efficient, as they would say publicly, but as they talked about among themselves, privatization radically alters power relations in our society by weakening groups like public employees and public school teachers.

There is really a calculated effort going on to undermine all of our collective institutions and some of the great social reforms of the 20th century — such as labor unions, the AARP, civil rights groups. We’ve seen the attacks, beginning in Wisconsin, on the right of workers to collective bargaining. We’ve seen passage of right to work legislation in many states and efforts even to put right to work legislation into the constitutions of states so that it cannot be changed by future generations.

So I think if we understand what the strategy is and what the endgame is, we’ll be in a better position to stop it and get the country back on a course that most of us would want of fairness, of sustainability, of one person, one vote.

KM: And I mean, Trump himself said he was not one of these people, but do you see things that he’s done in his administration that are right out of their playbook already?

NM: Yes. I don’t think there’s as much light between Donald Trump and the Kochs as they would all like us to believe. I’m a historian, not a journalist. That will be for future journalists to cover. But I will say that Trump certainly shares much of this ideology. When he speaks of the swamp, he’s using a language and a code that’s different from what most liberals think. So people keep saying, “You’re not fulfilling your promises of draining the swamp in your conduct in office,” but his view of the swamp is a Buchananite view of the swamp, so it refers to all of those who make claims on government for things they cannot get alone in the market. So he has actually acted to destroy basically our system of environmental regulations, to undermine workers’ power, to stop civil rights enforcement. All of those things flow from the Buchanan-Koch playbook. And Donald Trump is surrounded by people who are veterans of this Koch apparatus. So, I saw by one report, 70 percent of his top senior appointees are coming from that network, and that includes of course his vice president, Mike Pence. It also includes the White House liaison to Congress, Mark Short. It includes Scott Pruitt at the EPA.

KM: How do we make the Koch organization more visible, if it’s not for work like yours and Jane Mayer’s?

The crucial thing for people to realize that this cause is doing what it is because it knows it is a permanent minority cause. And if the vast majority of people ever understood what it is really about or what it is trying to do to our society and our politics, they would rally against it. You see it again and again where they realize, “Oh my gosh, people will never support us” you know, “if we tell the truth,” from Barry Goldwater’s campaign forward. Frankly, our legislators in Washington are going to need to be reinvigorated by the grass-roots understanding of these things.

We’re trying to expose this and to help people to understand that what they’re telling even the voters they’re relying on is not the truth. And that to me is especially chilling. There are a couple of great social scientists, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, who wrote a book about the tea party in which they went out to talk to as many tea party groups in the country as they could. They met with just hundreds and hundreds, I think, of rank-and-file tea party members, and they could not find a single rank-and-file tea party member who wanted the privatization of Social Security and Medicare, and yet that’s what the Koch operation is doing in putting itself at the head of these tea party groups. It’s using them as a kind of battering ram to get this billionaire donor agenda.

Most Americans believe in fairness; we believe that people should work hard but there should be a safety net. We believe in saving the quality of our air and water for our children. Most Americans want action on climate change. You can just go through the list. Most Americans believe in progressive taxation. The people are not as divided as this operation has made us with its endless agitation of kind of culture war issues.

And one more thing I think I should add on that front is we also need to pay attention to the state level, because this cause has very strategically gone after power over state governments. We saw, after 2010, the most radical gerrymander in history, and with that gerrymandered power, they’ve pushed through very unpopular agendas in numerous states. What you’re seeing at the state level, what you’re seeing at the federal level, what you’re seeing in pulling out of the Paris climate talks — all of these things come together and are being driven by this huge apparatus. I think just having that clarity to see the connections and realize that it’s not our fellow citizens who are doing this to us so much as that class of radical-right donors. I think that will be hugely empowering to people.

KM: And you believe that they have that messianic strain to them?

NM: I think the left and liberals have grossly underestimated Charles Koch. I think he’s an absolutely brilliant man. The guy has three engineering degrees from MIT. He refuses to take his company public because he doesn’t want to answer to stockholders who will want to think about the next quarter when he’d like to be thinking about 30 years from now. I think he is a very deep and strategic thinker and I think he is also — yes, has a messianic vision. He’s compared himself to Martin Luther — saying that he wants to unleash the kind of force that propelled Columbus to his discovery.

Now, he’s also though enough of a good manager to think about the self-interest of others. What he’s done is beautifully exploit the self-interest of varied people who can get him what he wants. Maybe they believe in these things, maybe they don’t, but they share an interest in moving the ball down the field.

Similarly, he’s exploiting the religious right. I mean, this is a man who, from everything I’ve read, is not very religious himself, and libertarianism as a cause has always had lots of committed atheists who sneer at people who believe in God. You certainly think of Ayn Rand, right? But they are activating the religious right to provide a source of votes that otherwise they would lack.

I do not believe he’s acting from crude self-interest, venal self-interest, as many people have implied. I think this is his mission, to change the world and to enshrine his version of liberty. But he’s a shrewd enough actor to bring all these other people into the fold.

I think another really interesting approach would be for voters around the country to start holding their elected officials accountable, and I hope that would include moderate Republican voters too. Are you willing to stand on principle even if they primary you and drive you from office?

The Senate health care bill’s support is under 20 percent around the country. In not a single state is there majority support for this bill, and yet most of the Republican candidates in the Senate are lining up to support this bill. Why is that? That’s because they’re afraid of the Koch donor network. We have to just really help people to understand the deep spine of this — to X-ray what’s happening and understand where the real forces of power are moving and be able to focus on those.

By Kristin Miller

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