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The Right’s War Against Liberal Democracy

Nancy MacLean discusses her new book about James McGill Buchanan, who helped shape the modern right’s antipathy toward democracy itself.

FBI/Getty Images

James McGill Buchanan, the political economist who died in 2013, had a hand in some of the most important ideological developments in the American right in the 20th century. From the 1950s to the late 1990s, when a spat with the influential billionaire Charles Koch led to his retirement, he was seemingly everywhere. Starting with Brown v. Board of Education, which he abhorred, Buchanan helped jumpstart the resistance to integration and the right’s embrace of school vouchers; worked to reduce the power of unions and the public’s trust in the government and the welfare state; and assisted Pinochet in Chile and the Kochs in America.

Above all, he was a theorist who believed that democracy and liberty—defined as free market capitalism—were incompatible and that it was necessary to limit participatory democracy to protect the property rights of the extremely wealthy. Though he did no empirical work, he was remarkably influential in the field of public choice theory, which essentially argued that markets could never fail and governments always did.

Four years after Buchanan’s death, he is largely forgotten—but his vision of a government with little power over schools, housing, or health care, toiling in the shadows of wealthy individuals and corporations, is closer than ever to being realized. Thankfully, the historian Nancy MacLean has documented Buchanan’s influence over both the Kochs and contemporary politics in a remarkable new book, Democracy in Chains, which argues that the radical right revolution engineered by Charles and his brother David is not just about accruing political and economic power, but about restricting democracy itself.

Democracy in Chains exposes the frightening intellectual roots of the radical right, as well as its ultimate ambition: to erode American democracy. I spoke to MacLean, who teaches at Duke University, about Buchanan’s remarkable life, the “velocity of change” that has occurred in America over the past six months, and how Donald Trump fits into all of this. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

James Buchanan has largely existed in the shadow of Milton Friedman, despite the fact that both won the Nobel Prize in Economics. How did you first encounter his work? Why do you think it has largely flown under the radar?

I had never heard of him either! Ten years ago when I started the research that ultimately became this book, I was interested in learning how the case for vouchers—for breaking down the government monopoly on schooling, as it was put—was first made popular in response to Brown v. Board of Education. I started looking into what happened in Virginia, which was shutting down its schools to defy the federal courts and shift public monies to new, all-white private schools that were beyond the reach of the Supreme Court. When I discovered Milton Friedman had intervened in that debate with his 1955 manifesto for vouchers, and found that others were picking up that case and pushing it in Virginia, I thought, “Wow. What’s going on here?” He was talking about a free society, but was providing academic ammunition for Virginia’s most ardent segregationists and repressive political figures.

So, at first I was on the trail of Milton Friedman. But Buchanan kept appearing. He authored a very important 1959 report that he circulated to state legislatures, and ultimately published in newspapers to try and get the state to essentially privatize the public education system—before we had “privatize” as a verb. Then I discovered that he had won the Nobel prize and invented this new school of thought: the Virginia school of political economy, which focused on political actors and public life. And then someone alerted me to a footnote that argued that the Virginia school had played a more important and lasting role in Chile under Pinochet than the Chicago school.

I had those two data points and I started to become more and more interested in Buchanan. I moved to North Carolina in 2010 just as the Tea Party was winning the majority in the General Assembly. As I watched this program roll out, which was being advertised by the Koch affiliate here as a Big Bang approach to social change, I realized, “Oh my gosh, this is what Buchanan was talking about!” I was struggling through this obtuse theory while seeing it being rendered concrete in my own state. Then, after he died in 2013, I got into his archives and found out I wasn’t crazy. In fact, his ideas really were guiding so much of what we have been seeing unfold.  

Buchanan argues that any action by a political movement is coercive because they’re often attacks on the property rights of (extremely wealthy) individuals. And yet, individuals and corporations are never seen as being coercive, even as they accumulate massive amounts of power.

This worldview does not recognize that private, economic power has a capacity to coerce. They trace back to [antebellum slavery advocate and Vice President] John C. Calhoun. These libertarians, particularly Murray Rothbard, said that Calhoun gave them their fundamental core concepts. These concepts included that it’s government that creates exploitation, and that it’s the government that creates coercion, whereas private economics is about freedom and free exchange. All you have to know is that Calhoun was a slaveholder—a man making his wealth from keeping other people in shackles. This is where their notions of wealth as non-coercive comes from.

The idea that wealth cannot be coercive is also the basis of their case for freeing corporations to spend unlimited amounts in politics and harangue their workers. They argue it is merely an exercise of free speech. It’s interesting that they are also pushing these measures that make it more possible for employers to essentially have what’s referred to in union terms as captive audience meetings, where they push out their political views to their employees and try to sway their vote. That, and these huge infusions of dark money, are being represented as a First Amendment freedom, as if it doesn’t skew the outcome. But it all connects back in a perverse way to the notion that only government is coercive and that wealth is all about freedom, and enabling the free exchange between economic actors who are totally free.

As we’re talking, the Koch brothers are wrapping up their annual retreat and Mitch McConnell is plotting to take health care away from millions of people—we seem to have reached a kind of culmination of a lot of the intellectual trends that you write about in Democracy in Chains. Did you see this happening as you worked on the book? Have the past six months surprised you?

I’ve been surprised by the velocity of the change. I believed that this is where we were heading, because if you block off the political process from answering people’s needs, as the radical right managed to do throughout Barack Obama’s two terms on so many major issues, then people get frustrated. They get frustrated that politics has become so polarized between right and left and they believe that liberal democracy does not work—they start to believe that we need a radical alternative. It’s very much like the interwar period of the 20th century with the rival poles of fascism and communism.

There were times when I thought, “Am I being melodramatic?” But this seemed to be the necessary outcome of what these people were doing to the political process. I am not surprised, but I am gobsmacked by just how cynically the Republicans have been operating and the extent to which the Kochs have taken over one of our major political parties, and how the whole situation is poisoning our public life and public debate.

One thing that helped Donald Trump get elected is that he didn’t represent the Republican status quo, which is heavily tilted towards a political philosophy pushed by Buchanan and Charles Koch. Many Republican voters seem to be turned off by this philosophy—particularly its emphasis on privatization and on dismantling the welfare state.

This is a challenge in our polarized environment because I really want to reach Republican voters. It’s been said that political parties are a lot like sports teams. People have a loyalty to their team. But what longtime Republican voters need to understand is that their team is no longer playing for the home crowd. 

On issue after issue you see vast majorities of Republicans who actually agree on some of the fundamental needs of the country: They support a progressive income tax, they want to address global warming, they care about the preservation of Medicare and Social Security as originally construed as social insurance, they care about public education. They are not the enemies of Democrats. But they have been riled up by this apparatus, and by very cynical Republican leaders, to support a party that is undermining the things that they seek.

A recent study produced by the Voter Study Group found that libertarians basically don’t exist in the American body politic. And yet your book lays out the extent to which they’ve essentially taken over the Republican Party over the last few decades.

The Republican Party leadership bases its pitch to voters on a set of anodyne phrases. “We are the party of freedom, and liberty, and small government.” And that sounds good. Who is against freedom? Who wants super-intrusive government? But when you actually look at what they’re doing, they are freeing corporations to do whatever they want to their workers, the environment, retirees, and so forth and so on. When they say they’re for limited government that isn’t really true. 

If you look closely, what they’re doing is limiting the branches of government that are the most responsive to voters: local government and federal government. But they are for extreme power for state governments, which they find much easier to control. We are seeing this happen all around the country where these Koch-funded state policy network organizations and the American Legislative Exchange Council are working hand-in-glove to push what is called “preemption.” They use the power over state governments to prevent localities from doing things like raising wages, enacting anti-discrimination ordinances, even passing plastic bag ordinances! It’s just a huge power grab.

One of the most fascinating and terrifying chapters in Democracy in Chains investigates Buchanan’s role in Chile, where Buchanan and Friedman pushed economic liberalization and extreme constitutional protections for the wealthy. Both have been disastrous for democracy. Do you see similar tactics right now, with the rush to push through health care legislation in the House and Senate?

Short answer: yes. They understand that sunshine and deliberation are not helpful to this project, and that it is very important to move things along as quickly as possible. I absolutely think the Chilean experience is what emboldened Buchanan and Koch to think, “Wow, we can actually do this. It’s going to be more complicated to do it in a functioning democracy, but we could actually achieve this constitutional revolution because we did it in Chile.”

Most of the resistance that has appeared over the past six months has been focused on Trump, rather than people like Mitch McConnell or Charles Koch. Is this a mistake?

It’s a huge mistake to imagine Trump as being separate from this story and sui generis. He was the logical culmination, in some ways, of this effort to derail our government and totally discredit norms of public service, the idea of a common good, and the belief that elected officials were actually working—in the flawed ways that ordinary mortals do—toward the public good. Trump’s election is the fruit of this project, even if Trump was elected, in part, because he was the only Republican candidate not carrying Koch baggage. And yet, the Koch and Trump stories are not separate at all, and it would be a terrible mistake for those trying to resist this agenda to treat them as such.