What if all American right-wing politics were shaped by the vast fortunes of two men?
“(Buchanan) shifted from diagnosis to prescription. He set out to design the kind of legal regime that could … protect capitalism from government — that could enshrine the rights of the wealthy minority to a degree that no society anywhere had ever done.”
On Monday, Duke professor of history and public policy Nancy MacLean said in her lecture at Purdue on her most recent book, "Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America," which portrays the wealthy minority's agenda as a clandestine plot to derail the American political system.
“In its essence, the book is the story of two men: a thinker and a CEO," MacLean said, "whose lives came together through a shared commitment to transform the model of government that citizen action built up in our country over the 20th century."
"Democracy in Chains" describes the records of thinker James McGill Buchanan, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1986, and how his views have impacted the radical right wing today. The book also describes Buchanan’s plan to restrict democracy as well as corporate donors, such as CEO Charles Koch, who are willing to support and carry out his view.
While Buchanan represented the "brains" of the agenda, MacLean said Koch provides the money to make this a reality. He and his brother, David Koch, created Koch Industries, one of the largest privately owned companies in the United States.
“The very notion of a democracy in chains is breathtaking, and not in a good way,” said Valeria Sinclair-Chapman, a professor of political science and the Purdue chapter president of the American Association for University Professors. “A painful interruption to what we would otherwise like to believe.”
MacLean discussed her view of the current political climate in the United States.
“It has become ever more obvious that our politics are in pretty profound crisis in Washington and in many of the states, and they seem to be hurtling downward,” she said. “But what you might be struggling to figure out is how we reached this point, and what that means for us.”
MacLean described current politics as “yield(ing) the vote of radical policy change” and being “fed by many streams,” including movement conservatism, religious rights and white supremacist rights.
However, she noted political discussions often fail to acknowledge Charles Koch, a billionaire-funded libertarian right-wing politician, and his donor network.
“I believe that knowing about these ideas and understanding how the Koch network’s operations have weaponized a particular stream of ideas is not just important in its own right,” MacLean said. “Having this knowledge may equip people … to begin to lead the way out of mess before it is too late.”
She said Koch’s extreme plan is to rewrite the rules of society permanently. Although it not well-known and is driven by a small cause, MacLean said it is “breathtakingly well-funded.”
“(The plan) is behind all the appearance of chaos and dysfunction,” she said. “There is also a cold-eyed strategy in play.”
Over the last decade, Koch has invested a fortune in American politics, according to MacLean. However, she also said Koch’s lesser-known technological ideas are what have made his investments effective.
She said Koch spent most of his adult life trying to find a way to make the world conform to his vision of free-range capitalism beyond voter reach.
“The history that my book conveys is first of the crucible in which James Buchanan came up with this idea of enchaining democracy,” she said. “Then, the book turns to how Charles Koch began funding an apparatus to make that idea of enchaining democracy a reality.”
MacLean also explained how she began her book. She did not intentionally set out to look at the lives of Buchanan and Koch, but instead came across American Friends Service Committee documents in Prince Edward County, Virginia, whose white officials tried to segregate schools by eliminating public schooling.
“They found me, you can say, in the archives,” she said.
Their plan entailed depriving black children of education while providing their white counterparts education in private segregated schools beyond the reach of the government, MacLean explained.
“I initially picked this up as a community story … but became deeply moved by oral histories that I was finding,” she said.
As MacLean began studying Southern segregationism, however, she came across a footnote pointing to economists Buchanan and Koch. Their report called for privatizing public schools.
“The economists issued this report in the full knowledge that the schools that would be funded by these vouchers would be white, private segregation academies,” she said. “It intrigued me that they did this — not in an irrational frenzy … but in economic terms, quite self-consciously … to back up the state’s powerful, right-wing elite,” who referred to this as the “free society.”
MacLean said she was shocked that she knew nothing about Buchanan prior to this, and was interested in his agenda.
Another source of her interest in right-wing policies was found “by coincidence,” she said, after moving to North Carolina in 2010.
“We had barely unpacked our boxes before there was low turnout in those midterms of 2010 and a radicalized Republican party dominated by Koch-backed Tea Party figures won majorities of both houses of the state legislature for the first time since reconstruction."
MacLean discussed the agenda she believes these politicians have.
“(Buchanan's) argument was deliberately from the onset of trying to debunk what was a common trust and confidence in government and intellective action, and undermine that,” she said. “To a libertarian, like Buchanan, there is no such thing as the common good.”
MacLean continued to explain how Buchanan persuaded donors on the right to build a “counter-intelligentsia” to fight against the current political system.
She then described the implications his actions have today.
“A constitution of locks and bolts is now coming to the United States … thanks to pressure from the Koch network, which is determined to achieve the kind of binding changes that Buchanan urged in the law in the Constitution without warning the public of their true goals,” she said. “This is an incredibly radical and reckless gambit that is perhaps a few years away.”
MacLean concluded her talk by discussing her views on the radical right wing.
“This agenda was backed by an ethical system,” she said. “I understand why this was hard for people to see.
“It is one that has belligerence and one that I think that we need to understand if we are going to figure out how we to deal with the crisis that the combination of Buchanan’s ideas and Koch’s money has created.”
Anna Adamsson, a sophomore in the College of Liberal Arts, said Maclean’s talk was intriguing despite not having much prior knowledge on the topic.
“It was one of the best talks I’ve ever been to,” she said. “It was incredibly interesting to see the intersection of all these different issues.”