Sunday, July 22, 2018

“Is this the country we want to live in and bequeath to our children and future generations?"--Nancy MacLean

“…[T]wo of the country’s most distinguished political scientists, Alfred Stepan and Juan J. Linz, recently approached the puzzle of U.S. singularity in another way: they compared the number of stumbling blocks that advanced  industrial democracies put in the way of their citizens’ ability to achieve their collective will through the legislative process.

“Calling these inbuilt ‘majority constraining’ obstacles ‘veto players,’ the two scholars found a striking correlation: the nations with the fewest veto players have the greatest inequality. Only the United States has four such veto players. All four were specified in the slavery-defending founders’ Constitution that cannot be altered without the agreement of three-quarters of the states.

“Other features of the U.S. system further obstruct majority rule, including a winner-take-all Electoral College that encourages a two-party system: the Tenth Amendment, which steers power toward the states; and a system of representation in the unusually potent Senate that violates the principle of ‘one person, one vote’ to a degree not seen anywhere else…

“What makes the U.S. system ‘exceptional,’ sadly, is the number of built-in vetoes to constrain the majority… (226). In the dream vision of the apparatus Charles Koch has funded to carry out [James McGill] Buchanan’s call for constitutional revolution, it would be all but impossible for government to respond to the will of the majority unless the very wealthiest Americans agree fully with every measure. The project has multiple prongs…

“[Koch’s] cadre is promoting a view of the Constitution that comes from a unique era of U.S. history: the period after the defeat of Reconstruction and leading up to the Great Depression. Buchanan acknowledged as much in the book that built his career, when he and coauthor Gordon Tullock said that nation’s decision-making rules were closer to the ‘ideal’ in 1900 than in 1960 [in ‘the age of both Lochner v. New York and Plessy v. Ferguson—decisions [that] blocked…meaningful employment reform…’] (227-28).

“[T]he interpretation of the Constitution the cadre seeks to impose would give federal courts vast new powers to strike down measures desired by voters and passed by their duly elected representatives at all levels—and would require greatly expanded police powers to control the resultant popular anger… (228).

“To advance their constitutional revolution, the donor network has pumped hitherto unheard-of-sums into state judicial races. While media attention has focused on the impact of Citizens United on the presidential and congressional races, the opening of the spigots in state judicial races may prove more consequential over the decades ahead as corporate donors invest in those they believe will interpret the constitution and the laws in their favor… (229).

“As the push for aggressive judicial activism on behalf of economic liberty illustrates, for all the small-government rhetoric, the cadre actually wants a very strong government—but a government that acts only in a way they deem appropriate. It wants our democracy to be curbed as Chile’s was, with locks and bolts on what the majority can do.

“Three additional battlefronts illuminate this truth, highlighting the stark restructuring of power under way. One is a power grab by affiliated state legislators reaching down to deny municipal governments the right to make their own policies on matters hitherto within their purview, not least local election rules. Pushed by [Koch’s funded] State Policy Network affiliates and guided by [Koch’s funded] ALEC-affiliated legislators, GOP-controlled states have been passing what are called preemption laws that deny localities the right to adopt policies that depart from the model being imposed by the network-dominated state legislatures… [Consider that] ALEC-backed legislators in forty-one states introduced more than 180 bills to restrict who could vote and how…

“A related strategy further distorts political representation to advance property rights supremacist project. One part of this initiative was the most audacious gerrymander in U.S. history, with the purpose of ensuring systematic underrepresentation of Americans viewed as troublesome by the cause and overrepresentation of the more manageable—while lining up the supermajority of reliably controlled states needed to hold a constitutional convention… [Thus] transforming the nation by using decennial redistricting process to sharply boost the power of Republicans, even where majorities backed Democrats, and to pull the Republican Party to the right of its own voters in the process. (230-32).

”Understandably, many saw the power grab in purely partisan terms, but it was much more. The breathtaking import is conveyed well by Salon editor-in-chief David Daley: ‘Without the protection of a fairly-drawn district, the citizen is a pawn of billionaires who use the map of the country’ to get what they want…

“A final example of the new bullying we can expect from the plan to enchain democracy also harks back to the midcentury South, with its inquisition-minded state and private bodies to investigate and intimidate dissenters. In 2015, the journalist Kenneth Vogel revealed that the Koch network had ‘quietly built a secretive operation that conducts political surveillance and intelligence gathering on its opponents, viewing it as a key strategic tool in its efforts to reshape American public life.’

“A case in point: when Jane Mayer began to expose the operations of the Koch brothers and their network, they dispatched private investigators in a fruitless quest to find dirt with which to discredit her and tried to convince her employer to fire her. Anyone who tries to expose what this cause is up to thus must ask…: Will I become the target of a similar scurrilous attack? Wouldn’t it be wiser to keep quiet? (232).

“…For what is the substance of James Buchanan’s and Charles Koch’s idea of liberty but Harry Bird’s Virginia, the state subjected to the ‘most thorough control by an oligarchy’[…] Virginia enacts their dream: the uncontested sway of the wealthiest citizens: the use of right-to-work laws and other ploys to keep working people powerless; the ability to fire dissenting public employees at will, targeting educators in particular; the use of voting-rights restrictions to keep those unlikely to agree with the elite from the polls; the deployment states’ rights to deter the federal government from promoting equal treatment; the hostility to public education; the regressive tax system; the opposition to Social Security, [Medicaid] and Medicare; and the parsimonious response to public needs of all kinds… (233).

“The libertarian cause, from the time it first attracted wider support during the southern school crisis, was never about freedom as most people would define it. It was about the promotion of crippling division among the people so as to end any interference with what those who held vast power over others believed should be their prerogatives. Its leaders had no scruples about enlisting white supremacy to achieve capital supremacy.

“And today, knowing that the majority does not share their goals and would stop them if they understood the endgame, the team of paid operatives seeks to win by stealth. Now, as then, the leaders seek [John C.] Calhoun-style liberty for the few—the liberty to concentrate vast wealth, so as to deny elementary fairness and freedom to the many.

“Is this the country we want to live in and bequeath to our children and future generations? That is the real public choice. If we delay much longer, those who are imposing their stark utopia will choose for us. One of them has announced flatly: ‘America will soon make a decision about its future. It will be a permanent decision. There will be no going back. As we consider the future of our democracy in light of all that has happened already, we may take heed of a Koch maxim: ‘Playing it safe is slow suicide’” (234).

MacLean, Nancy. Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. New York: Viking Penguin, 2017.


These are some of the well-funded Think Tanks and Doners of Radical Right-Wing America:  George Mason University/Mercatus Center, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) (Koch funded), Cato Institute (Koch funded), Americans for Prosperity (Koch funded), State Policy Network (Koch funded), the Reason Foundation (Koch funded), Charles Koch Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, Smith Richardson Foundation, Olin Foundation, Earheart Foundation, the Tax Foundation, Citizens for a Sound Economy, FreedomWorks, Club for Growth, Federalist Society, Institute for Contemporary Studies, Institute for Humane Studies, Independent Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Leadership Institute, the Liberty Fund, Scaife Family Charitable Trusts, Mont Pelerin Society…  

We already have witnessed a takeover of the Republican Party and their attacks on democracy, the weakening of our labor unions, right-to-work laws to keep workers powerless, the shutting down of the federal government, the denial of climate change from the executive and legislative branches of government, ALEC-backed legislators who created bills to restrict minority voting, the scapegoating of teachers, the attacks on retirees’ and public employees’ pensions, the attacks on Critical Race Theory, the deprivation of university and college adjunct faculty, the systematic dismantling of public ownership and services, the privatized exorbitantly priced healthcare system, the rewriting of the tax code to benefit the wealthiest Americans, the victimization of immigrant children and their parents, and other forms of oligarchic oppression. 

Are we also going to allow the continuing deregulation of our environmental protections; the continuing privatization of our public schools; the eradication of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; the transformation of the U.S. courts and the privatization of the justice system; and a reinterpretation of the U.S. Constitution to successfully oppress the majority of Americans?


  1. From Nancy MacLean Responds to Her Critics “Such rhetorical bullying would be laughable if it weren’t part of a pattern on the right” by Marc Parry July 19, 2017 The Chronicle of Higher Education:

    “…Has anyone made a criticism of the book that you think has merit? What are those criticisms and how do you respond?
    “Yes. For example, Sam Tanenhaus, in his otherwise favorable review in The Atlantic, said, ‘a movement isn’t the same thing as a conspiracy. One openly declares its intentions. The other keeps them secret. It’s not always clear that MacLean recognizes the difference.’ As a scholar, I understand the problems of conspiracy theories and while I never called this movement a conspiracy in the book, we do face a problem that our language has not caught up to our world.

    “In hindsight, I wish I’d said more about that in my book because we do not yet have a conceptual system adequate to capture what is happening. On the one hand, yes, absolutely, there is a big movement out there on the right that has varied sources and whose many members are openly declaring their intentions. On the other hand, there is also an audacious elite project underway that is not open with even these rank-and-file followers about its endgame.

    “Economic inequality has now advanced to the point that several hundred incredibly wealthy donors, who are hostile to our democracy as it currently operates and are led by a messianic multibillionaire, have contributed vast amounts of dark money to fund dozens upon dozens of ostensibly separate but actually connected organizations that are exploiting what Buchanan’s team taught about ‘the rules of the game’ of modern governance in a cold-eyed bid to bend our institutions and policies to goals they know most voters do not share (such as the repeal of Obamacare without replacement).

    “And they’re operating within the law, informed by some of the best legal talent money can buy, so it’s not a conspiracy, by definition, because that involves illegality. The world has never seen anything like it before; no wonder it’s hard to find the right term to depict it. It’s a vexing challenge to understand, let alone stop, and in hindsight I wish had been more explicit about that conceptual challenge. But so far no criticism has made me question the fundamentals of the research, the narrative, or the interpretation. I stand by those.

    “Any broader thoughts on the state of scholarship and academic debate spurred by this episode?

    “The modus operandi of today’s right wing goes well beyond normal book reviewing and customary academic debate. ‘Nancy MacLean is Either Grossly Incompetent or a Liar,’ is a sample headline. Yet this mock debate is not really about me, at the end of the day. When discussion about ideas and research gives way to insulting swagger and personal attacks, the more important damage is to our civic discourse and our society’s institutions.

    “In the past, publishers and media outlets often assumed ‘both sides are equally at fault.’ Those assumptions may have once applied, but in the current context they rarely do. We are experiencing what Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann called ‘asymmetric polarization,’ in a book aptly titled It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. The coarsening of dialogue that we often now see from the radical right is hurting people, norms, and all that enables a society to work. In order to deal with this shift effectively, we need to stop reacting case by case and understand the trouble as systemic. That’s part of the message of my book.

  2. “Anything else that I didn’t ask that you’d like to add?

    “One thing has really stood out for me. For all the thousands of words that they have written, my critics still fail to engage the central message of the book: Leading libertarian thinkers concluded they could never win over the majority to their agenda. Therefore, they decided to achieve their utopia by attempting to radically change the rules of governance in order to change society.

    “In their writings, Buchanan and other libertarian thinkers lay out a vision for a certain kind of society. It’s a society where capitalism has free rein and the rights of the wealthy few are protected, while the many are prevented from exercising countervailing power. It’s a society where government is so shrunken as to be unrecognizable. In the country they envision, most protections that benefit average Americans have vanished: Social Security has been abolished, worker and public-health protections are gone, and public schools are shuttered in favor of private education. It’s a country where national parks and water supplies are sold to the highest bidder.

    “That’s not a country most Americans would recognize. And it’s not a country most of us, from any political party, would want to inhabit. Yet it’s the America Charles Koch and his fellow donors dream of bringing into being by applying Buchanan’s insights. It’s critical to bring this vision out into the open, so we can have honest debate about the kind of country we want. That’s why Buchanan’s vision of enchaining democracy — and the frightening degree to which it has become a reality — is a central focus of my book.”

  3. From the Southern Poverty Law Center, March 8, 2018:

    “…You’ve received both praise and criticism for your work, and a lot of the criticism appears to be emanating from the right and from libertarian sources.

    “No serious historian reviewer who is not on the Koch payroll has made any major criticisms of my work. On the other hand, most of those who have attacked the book and me as author are economists, political scientists and legal scholars who are connected to this operation, and who don’t understand what historians do: that our job is to analyze sources through close reading in context. So they’re criticizing me for doing what a historian does.

    “It’s the kind of thing these guys do to climate scientists. They try to make it appear that something is controversial when it’s not, by nitpicking to find what they imagine to be holes in the research that they can use to construct a case that the work is so flawed people should ignore it. When they get desperate, they are not at all averse to trying to undermine the reputations of legitimate scholars whether they be climate scientists, tobacco researchers, or in my case, a historian.

    “I don’t think that our newspaper editors, our foundations that focus on education, our higher education administrators — I don’t think these people are ready for what is essentially a campaign against truth on multiple fronts. I don’t think they understand what they’re faced with or how to ensure that people who are doing legitimate scholarship or research are protected.

    “What are the goals of this movement?

    “They want to change the U.S. Constitution so they can put locks and bolts on what popular majorities can do in our politics. They want to transform our society radically — transform it into a society that most of us would not recognize and I don’t think many of us would want to live in.

    “What they seek, ultimately, is a system with total personal responsibility for all needs, where you’re on your own for everything, with personal savings accounts and no hope of help from government. In their dream world, government would not have any obligation to citizens other than to provide for the national defense, to ensure the rule of law, and to police people to keep social order, which will become more and more of a challenge as this radical inequality develops.

    “The period that’s closest to what this cause wants is the late 19th century, what is often called the Gilded Age. So if you think about 1900 with, again, the inability of people to secure reforms even though they were desperately wanted; the inability of workers to organize into unions and wield collective power so we had rolling civil wars between capital and labor; and the oppression that went on in the South that was upheld by the Supreme Court under the doctrine of states’ rights— those are the kinds of constitutional rules they’re talking about as liberty.

    “What might be solutions?

    “The most important takeaway from my research is that this is a movement that is self-consciously a minority cause: they know that they will never persuade the majority, never win agreement if they tell the truth, so they’re operating by stealth. The fact that they fear the majority getting on to what they’re doing is a potentially colossal source of strength, I believe. Thus, the most pressing task of people who don’t like what is happening, who think it is wrong, is to patiently inform that majority and organize to activate that majority to protect and renew our democracy. Given how quickly this Koch agenda is being pushed through in the Trump era and how much money the donor network is investing, we don’t have time to waste. It’s an all-hands-on-deck emergency for those who believe in government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”