Can a Minority Overthrow the Majority?

Dianne Feeley

Democracy in Chains:
The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America
By Nancy MacLean
Viking Books, 2017, 334 pages, $28 hardback.

THERE IS A growing understanding about the radical liberatarians’ links and operational methods. Many of us are now aware of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) and how it shapes model laws that are then introduced into various state legislatures. These are designed to restrict voter rights, curtail teachers’ union rights to negotiate their working conditions or limit access to birth control and abortion.

Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America traces the construction of this ideology and its methods. She begins in mid-1950s Virginia, as its elites react to Brown v. the Board of Education. She focuses on the work of James McGill Buchanan, a shadowy figure whom she identifies as crucial in codifying “public choice” economics. Given a wide mandate, Buchanan was invited by the University of Virginia to chair the economics department and set up a center, which became the Thomas Jefferson Center for Political Economy and Social Philosophy.

Buchanan’s secret mission statement for the center was guided by two traditions: 1) the unrestricted “free market” economic policies of 19th century England and America and 2) the ideas of “Western conservatives” who feared a “revolt of the masses” and sought new ways to “secure social order.”

He saw his task as “subversive” in that these perspectives challenged the federal government’s New Deal legislation. Using taxes to provide social benefits such as social security, unemployment insurance and aid to the poor, in Buchanan’s view, was intrusive. Such “social engineering” undermined people’s personal responsibility and, in fact, “stole” from those with wealth. (45-46)

In the face of the Brown decision to desegregate “with all due deliberate speed,” Buchanan and his collaborator, Warren Notter, presented a report to the Virginia legislature for unlimited privatization of education. They presented their plan for tax-funded private schools as a race-neutral answer to what they referred to as “government-run” schools that were, effectively, a monopoly.

MacLean analyzes this as an attempt to undercut the arguments of those who said that Virginia “simply could not afford to subsidize private schools to salvage segregation.” Instead of counseling that the law be obeyed and schools desegregated, the two opposed “federal coercion.” Although couched in economic arguments, their first intervention on a public policy issue lined up with the segregationists. (66-68)

Awarded a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1986 for his “contributions to the theory of political decision making and public economics,” Buchanan sought to train a generation or two of right libertarian scholars who could influence the public to regard the federal government negatively. This army would then train businessmen and other decision makers to value individual liberty above all else. He taught that in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus was wrong in preaching that one should love one’s neighbor — even from an outcast group — as oneself. The truly “ethical” answer was to let the person solve his own problem. (142-143)

Buchanan’s economic philosophy — without carrying out any empirical studies — was based on F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Hayek, responding to European social democracy, counterpoised a market economy where price signals of supply and demand provided “spontaneous order” to what he saw as government compulsion.” The market, not government intervention, was the source of individual liberty.

Which Side Are You On?

MacLean points out that Buchanan’s Center fit the needs of the Virginia elite, who demanded states’ rights as the platform for its agenda. Buchanan was there to help Southern politicians come up with a method of circumventing the Brown decision by developing up an infrastructure for private education. Also central to his vision was thwarting unionization through right-to-work legislation.

Buchanan’s goal was more than the creation of a new field of scholarship; he wanted to have “real-world impact.” (83) When the Virginia General Assembly set up the Virginia Commission on Constitutional Government to attack federal legislation as a “misinterpretation of the Constitution,” (82) the Thomas Jefferson Center assisted.

Buchanan was handicapped, however, by his determination to always have his way. In 1967 the Thomas Jefferson Center shifted its funding to a foundation beyond the University of Virginia’s control. Shortly afterward, Buchanan threatened to leave if the University didn’t grant full professorship to an undistinguished collaborator. When the president refused to reverse his decision, Buchanan departed for what turned out to be a traumatic year (1968-69) at the University of California at Los Angeles.

He fled back South, spending 1969-83 at Virginia Tech, where he founded the Center for the Study of Public Choice. Once again in a conflict — this time with the head of the economics department — Buchanan worked out a deal to take his center to George Mason University, just outside Washington, DC.

MacLean’s fascinating intellectual biography of Buchanan, the “father” of the free choice movement, identifies him, even more than Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, as being a central adviser to the Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet.

Following the “privatization, deregulation, and state-induced fragmentation of group power” under Minister of Labor José Pinera, Buchanan visited Chile for a week in May 1980. Over the course of five lectures and private meetings, he provided detailed advice on how to place “locks and bolts” instead of checks and balances in the new Constitution. His road map included a balanced budget (no Keynesian deficits!), the independence of the Central Bank, and a super-majority requirement for any changes.

As a result, the revised Chilean Constitution had over 100 changes to “give the president unprecedented powers, hobble the congress, and enable unelected military officials to serve as a break on the elected members of the congress. A cunning new electoral system, not in use anywhere else in the world and clearly the fruit of Buchanan’s counsel….” (160)

Buchanan saw that the radical libertarian right could not become a majority except through back-door tactics. This involves setting new rules so an elite minority — which in his eyes had the “right” to rule — could impose its governance. Although pleased by Ronald Reagan’s election, he did not believe Reagan would be able to carry out his ideological commitment to seeing “government is not the solution to our problem: government is the problem.” (175)

Along with a program of limited government and a stealth campaign to ward off popular democracy through structural mechanisms, Buchanan saw that it was necessary to develop a “moral language” to replace the notion that there is such a thing as a community that shares interests. This is necessary in order to undermine citizen’s belief that the federal government has the obligation to use taxes to regulate industry or provide collective institutions, including public education.

Remember Margaret Thatcher’s famous remark, “There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.” This indicates the extent to which Buchanan’s ideology spread over the latter half of the 20th century.

Enter the Koch Brothers

Of course Buchanan’s influence was only possible because of his close collaboration with political elites and corporations that provided massive funding. However, it was only in the mid-1990s that Buchanan developed a close working relationship with Charles Koch.

Although Koch money had been funding James Buchanan’s Center at George Mason University a decade before, Koch determined to double down after the inability to make a breakthrough under Ronald Reagan’s presidency, followed by the failure to implement the “Contract with America” after the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. MacLean explains why Buchanan stood out from other libertarian thinkers:

“Only James Buchanan had also developed an operational strategy for how to get to that radically new society, one that took as axiomatic what both Buchanan and Koch understood viscerally: that the enduring impediment to the enactment of their political vision was the ability of the American people, through the power of their numbers, to reject the program. What was holding the movement back now was clear: the lack of a strategy to break that power, or at least to debilitate it, the very approach Buchanan had spent a lifetime thinking about and designing.” (195)

This meant focusing not on who was elected, but changing the rules in two steps:
• A path laid out in small legislative steps. Each was a stepping stone, but one where the public would focus on the particular issue, failing to see the overall design.

• These individual pieces of legislation had to be sold to the public as benefiting them. The framing should be about “reforming” the program in order to protect it; actually the reform would weaken it. Along with this step would be offering different outcomes to subgroups in order to weaken the possible unity of those affected.

Social Security is a good example. At least in the first phase, Social Security would remain in place for the retired group that would be the most militant in opposing any downgrading. The purported “reform” is to privatize the system so that individuals can “manage” their own money, which is supposedly better since the federal government is bureaucratic and “corrupt.”
Having heard the propaganda, many young workers don’t feel Social Security will be there for them. Why should they fight for something that truly isn’t sustainable?

“Right-to-work” legislation is another two-stepper. Its supporters claim that having to pay union dues (or at least agency fees) is impinging on the right of the individual worker to make it on their own — negotiating their own wages and working conditions. This legislation is one step in a series to rid workplaces of the right of workers to organize collectively.

Another key plank is the attack on voter rights, waged as attempting to weed out “fraud” in American politics. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 was to remove obstacles to the ballot box, instructing states to open up registration by mail and facilitate registration or re-registration at motor vehicle facilities.

MacLean notes that nine million more people registered within the first four years of the act’s passage. Buchanan, in a phone conversation, grumbled “We are increasingly enfranchising the illiterate.” (197)

The collaboration between Buchanan and Koch did not last. With two authoritarian types, one was bound to squeeze out the other, and given that Koch had the immense resources of his money and a variety of institutions he had set up/funded over the years, Buchanan was pushed to the background. Eventually he retired but remaining loyal, continued to be feted at various conferences.

Relevance of the Buchanan-Koch Pact

Rather than implement desegregation back in the 1950s, the board of education in Prince Edward County, Virginia closed down its public schools and set up private ones for white students. Since that was subsequently outlawed, one might see segregation’s defeat and public education secured.

At a book talk in Detroit, however, MacLean urged people to view the incident from a wider lens. Today we can remember the shutdown as the first attempt to undermine public education and replace it with charter schools. The current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is an enthusiastic advocate of charter schools.

Buchanan brought an anti-union message to his classes. MacLean cites his teaching that the Wagner Act licensed “union monopolies” that distorted wages. Concretely, he pointed out how the United Mine Workers and their demands led directly to the state’s rising unemployment. He invited Hayek and other celebrities to lecture against the “coercive” power of unions.

At that time “right to work” legislation was confined to Virginia (the first state to pass it) and other Southern states. Today it is the law in 28 states, including the industrial heartland (Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin).

We can also find Buchanan’s success in the school of thought espoused by judges who belong to, or have been influenced by, the Federalist Society, heavily financed by Koch money. The Society advocates a philosophy that the Constitution should be understood according to its original meaning. If gay rights or abortion rights aren’t mentioned in the Constitution, they are beyond its protection.

This view proscribes the power of the federal government, unlike the view that the Constitution is a living document. MacLean mentions that by 1990 two of every five sitting judges had participated in legal programs that promote free market economic analyses to legal decision-making. (195) Currently four out of nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices — Neil M. Gorsuch, John G. Roberts, Jr., Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas — can be considered “originalists.”

As an historian, Nancy MacLean lays out the Buchanan-Koch project. Both as a social historian and an engaged citizen, she is hopeful that a clear-eyed mass movement is capable of responding to the crisis of democracy. In her book talks she compares this moment to other periods of mass upheaval — the abolitionist struggle, the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s and ’70s, the fight for women’s and LGBT rights.

The radical right has publically attacked her scholarship, and she has been defended by a number of scholars of the left. But other leftists find her account too much of a “conspiracy” story, and too simple in drawing the connections among various elites. They feel that this underplays systemic racism and inequality and glorifies the accomplishments of the New Deal.

What I found most valuable about Democracy in Chains was the elites’ recognition that they cannot win a majority to their ideas. Therefore they must aim for laws that handcuff the majority from decision making and use populist rhetoric to cover up their intentions. I found the book a masterful and contemporary story that reads like a mystery, but where the story remains unfinished.

In her talks, MacLean points to the fact that Koch’s tentacles have spread to over 500 U.S. universities, and underscores the importance of the campus-based movement UnKoch My Campus ( You could say that’s part of the next chapter, or perhaps MacLean’s next book.

May-June 2018, ATC 194