New Book: Democracy in Chains

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I’ve heard the story a half dozen times, and every time it is different. But only a little different, and most if not all of the versions I’ve heard are basically correct. Very wealthy individuals and corporations have a stranglehold over the government, and in many cases, call the shots. The only time they are not calling the shots is when a strong movement opposes them, and such movements inevitably weaken and die.

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean is a book much hated by the right wing, and that is very much under attack by them, so it is a fair guess that MacLean is on to something.

The enemy in this particular story is not Barry Goldwater, or the Koch Brothers, but rather economics James McGill Buchanan. Of course, Charles Koch ends up being a disciple of Buchannan’s approach, ad do others. And that is where the money comes from.

MacLean’s key point is that this is not a battle of who rules, but rather, what the rules are, and the key objective is to rewrite those rules so the wealthy elite can, well, rule.

Buchanan was a well established and widely respected scholar, won the Nobel, founded a center for studies in political economy. When he died (2013) the New York times noted that he had influenced the current generation “of conservative thinking about deficits, taxes and the size of government.”

MacLean’s book has shaken up quite a bit of thinking on Buchanan. The book’s thesis is based on documents not previously examined, that are part of the Buchanan archives. Liberarian activists have complained at length about MacLean’s scholarship and arguments.

Democracy in Chains might be an insighful analysis using a fresh examination of previously ignored documents. Many of the attacks on the author and the book have been personal, similar to attacks on, say, evolutionary biologists or climate change scientists. Her Amazon page was covered with negative reviews clearly from people who never read the book, probably organized by the right wing. She was called a rabid feminazi, pathological socialist, etc.

Of the Libertarian attack on her work, MacLean noted in a recent interview:

…look, Buchanan was a gentleman, generous and kind with students and colleagues who shared his commitments and was well-liked by them in return.

And I’m getting the sense from the complaints of movement insiders that they view the book as disrespectful to heroes of the cause.

So it’s perhaps important for everyone to understand that I did not set out to critique Buchanan or other libertarians as human beings. I was not writing a biography or biographies. I was looking at these scholars’ ideas and tracing the impact of those ideas.

This is a group that has been insular since its founding. Now its members are confronted with an outsider’s view of their history. And they don’t like what they’re seeing in the mirror Democracy in Chains puts up to them.

To the criticism that her book oversimplifies the story and demands that we ignore all the other factors leading to the rise of the Right Wing in America, she responded, “As a scholar, I would never say “you don’t need to read anything else.” Of course there were other tributaries feeding the right; we have a huge body of scholarship now that explores them… my work draws attention to a missing piece of the puzzle that had been ignored, one that puts the current alarming state of our politics in an illuminating new light….The book traces the history of an idea — the idea of enchaining modern democratic government, as developed by James Buchanan. It shows how that idea came to appeal to an extremely wealthy and messianic individual, Charles Koch, who has harnessed it and organized other extremely wealthy donors to fund efforts, staffed by thousands of people, to radically alter our government in ways that will be devastating to millions of people and already seem to be producing an utterly unsustainable society in terms of social norms and governance.”

You should just go read it.

Also read Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer.

Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
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