Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains fills in blanks in Jane Mayer’s Dark Money narrative

According to the standard leftwing narrative about the current dominance of Republicans on both the state and national levels is that the economic rightwing has contrived a deal with racists and social conservatives (among which groups there is some but not complete overlap) by which the ultra-wealthy have manipulated poor and middle class whites to vote against their own economic interests while seeking to disenfranchise large groups of left-looking voters. It’s a storyline which I think pretty accurately describes American politics over the past three decades.

Duke University history professor Nancy MacLean, however, makes a strong case in Democracy in Chains, that the techniques for gaining absolute power and the ultimate objective of the Koch, Mercer, Anschutz, Bradley, DeVos, Prince and other ultra-rich, ultra-right families derive from the original racist reaction to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which outlawed segregation of the races in public schools.

According to MacLean, the key figure in transforming the reactions of segregationists to the working game plan of the 21st Republican Party was James McGill Buchanan, who stands out among Nobel Prize winners for Economics for his focus on theory and disuse of empirical evidence. His great contribution was to bring economic ideas into the realm of politics, primarily through what is called the “public choice theory,” primarily the idea that individuals always behave in politics in their own best interests. While at the University of Virginia, Buchanan put together the plan in Virginia to resist segregation by ending public schools and giving parents vouchers for private schools. Later he founded the Center for the Study of Public Choice, into which the Koch brothers poured millions of dollars. Once Buchanan transferred the program to George Mason University, the focus shifted from educating thinkers to dispute the constitutional thought that led to Brown v. Board to training operatives for the far-flung network of think tanks and lobbying groups funded by the Kochs and their pals. This network, which includes the Cato Institute, the Mt. Pelerin Society, the Heritage Foundation, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth and Reason Foundation, among others, spews out deceptive information and ideas on a variety of matters such as healthcare policy, gun rights, climate change, school policy and public sector employment. You see their bogus work all the time as opinion or expert pieces in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Atlantic and elsewhere.

Underlying the convoluted gobbledygook of public choice theory is the basic belief that the majority should never constrain the minority. Public choice theory “elevates property rights as to paralyze the use of government for democratically determined goals,” as MacLean puts it. At the same time, public choice theory insists on the primacy of individual players, believing that collections of individuals, such as unions and other special interest groups, too often get their priorities approved by government, a terrible situation for Buchanan, Koch and others if it leads to any constraint on property. Buchanan and his ilk (disciples all of Hayek and Milton Friedman) want the government to operate like an absolute free market—each entity representing only itself, even if a small number of ultra-wealthy entities can therefore control everything.

Constraint of the majority was the original Southerners’ idea during the debate on the Constitution to prevent the growing, non-slave-owning North from gaining too much power through the federal government, leading to the Electoral College, Senate and the counting of slaves as three-fifths of a person for census purposes. Later it became the basis for all segregationist arguments, and still later the rationale for the opposition to environmental regulations, higher taxes on the wealthy, LGBTQ rights and a variety of other policies approved by a majority of Americans. In its extreme, as presented by Buchanan (and co-author Gordon Tullock) in The Calculus of Consent, it means that only those who agree to being taxed for public schools or building a road should pay and only programs with unanimous consent of all governed can be implemented by the government.

MacLean reports that after losing the battle against integration, Buchanan and some associates used what she calls Leninist ideas to put together a stealth plan to inject public choice theory into the mainstream of American political thinking and to turn the United States into the type of oligarchy that existed in Virginia and other southern states in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The plan seems to follow the lead of corporate mobilization called for in Lewis Powell’s famous 1971 memo in which the future Supreme Court Justice calls for corporate American take a more aggressive role in shaping America’s social and political ideas. It’s not mentioned by MacLean, but the process that Buchanan outlined and the Kochs and their pals funded seems right out of socialist G. William Domhoff’s public policy model. In simplified terms: rich folk put together foundations and think tanks, which propose ideas that rich folk find politicians to endorse; once elected, the politicians form commissions and committees on which sit the rich folks’ experts to promulgate the policies and laws that the rich folk wanted in the first place. like the plot of Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, required reading for anyone interested in learning why our democracy has been commandeered for the benefit of a few ultra-wealthy and very selfish families.

Right-wingers have panned MacLean’s book, asserting that she made a selective use of Buchanan’s work, citing what damned him as an anti-democratic racist and ignoring other evidence that suggests otherwise. But as with the more than 150-year-old defense of the racist and strategically mediocre Robert E. Lee, the defense is based on snippets in an ocean of information. Democracy in Chains joins Dark Money, Domhoff’s Who Rules America Now and The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy and C. Wright Mill’s The Power Elite as essential reading to understand how rich folk manage to always get their way in the United States, even if their way hurts just about everyone else.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.