U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Deep in the Soil: Democracy In Chains and Organic American Libertarianism

Nancy MacLean’s new book, Democracy In Chains, does not lack for evidence. Over the course of 234 pages, she amply demonstrates that a network of libertarians have worked for decades to undermine American democracy and, furthermore, recognized somewhere along the way that in order to do so they would have to slip seductive ideas into the national discourse via misrepresentation and secrecy. Exposing this program in the amount of detail MacLean does is an invaluable service at a moment when the twin forces of rising inequality and ocean levels seem poised to overwhelm what small patches of resistance still remain committed to fighting the coming tide. Concerns about her work being overly politicized are not only theoretically mistaken, but brazenly reckless as it becomes ever more clear that we cannot afford to indulge such delusions as “apolitical scholarship” any further.

MacLean does an excellent job at disregarding many such comforting tropes; the tone of her writing, which some found off-putting, I found extraordinarily refreshing — if someone really wants to have a debate about whether or not it’s fair to describe the “Kochtopus” as “diabolical,” I question both their grasp on reality and/or their priorities[1]. Nonetheless, MacLean does not discard all comforting assumptions, and due to her laser-like focus on the activities of the libertarian network surrounding James Buchanan, white Americans in general fall into the role of consistent antagonists to the horrifying plans of Koch and Company. This depiction fails to grapple with the extent to which the American people have not only been deceived or accidental adjuncts to the realization of the libertarian hellscape, but have also actively endorsed the ideas it relies on and willingly participated in the politics that give it fuel.

The most common oversight MacLean makes in this regard concerns the disconnect between the producers of libertarian thought and their audience. When Charles Koch was barely 10 years old, Friedrich Hayek surprised even himself when, in 1945, The Road to Serfdom became a best-seller, surpassing all expectations. The big boost came from an abridged version published in Reader’s Digest, hardly a magazine for an exclusive elite.[2] Who were these thousands of enthusiastic readers? MacLean doesn’t say, but presumably at least some, if not most, came from the same socio-economic background as the working and middle-class activists who, by opposing the closing of public schools, appear as heroes in her narrative.[3] Whoever they were, Hayek’s fans certainly couldn’t claim to being duped – as one of the founding texts of libertarianism, The Road to Serfdom is clear about its political philosophy. The work of Ayn Rand, which gets much less attention by MacLean, is even more blunt, and while hardly embraced by the majority and no doubt bolstered by hundreds of right-wing think tank-sponsored college clubs, has long been cultishly fawned over by Hollywood stars and slimy frat boys alike. As MacLean writes, before Buchanan shifted to outright deception he “understood that cultivating thinkers who could alter the public conversation was essential to the quest to transform political economy in a lasting way.”[4] Buchanan and his allies did exactly this, and somehow, got their hooks into the imaginations of enough voters and opinion makers to change the framing of American political debate. But in MacLean’s narrative, the earlier success of the straight-forward libertarian agenda is inexplicable, and it’s never addressed how a book like The Road to Serfdom could become so widespread. Moreover, she slightly slips into taking her subjects’ despairing sense of failure and isolation too seriously – as we know, feeling a member of an embattled minority despite evidence to the contrary is characteristic of all the eclectic groups on the New Right. But as early as 1979, Barry Goldwater summarized the situation differently, marveling that “[n]ow that almost every one of the principles I advocated in 1964 have become the gospel of the whole spread of the spectrum of politics, there really isn’t a heck of a lot left.”[5]

MacLean’s argument that racism accounts for the convenient appeal of libertarian ideas is undoubtedly true, and this does go a long way to connecting the dots between a small group of libertarian scholars and a general cultural embrace of tribalistic sociopathy. However, in Democracy in Chains these racists, and the racism they either actively or passively partake in, come mostly from the South and embrace a particularly Southern-style of racism. Yet as Charles Koch himself noted, California emerged as a hot spot for libertarianism, as anyone who has ever read an analysis of the politics of Silicon Valley douchebags or been unfortunate enough to have seen the bioepic about their asshole patron saint, Steve Jobs, well knows.[6] And even in a state where Democrats have held nearly uninterrupted power over the legislative branch for the past half-century, California has also failed to maintain its public universities as truly public and the effects of privatization, if not as disastrously advanced as in other states, have been taking their toll on higher education at least since the late 1990s. This points us to the need for an understanding of libertarianism and racism that is not constrained by geography and enjoys a wider base than bigoted nostalgia about the Confederacy.

06 Sep 1957, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA — Elizabeth Eckford ignores the hostile screams and stares of fellow students on her first day of school. She was one of the nine negro students whose integration into Little Rock’s Central High School was ordered by a Federal Court following legal action by NAACP. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Even when considering just the Southern scene, MacLean paints an overly rosey picture of the white Southern electorate. True, thousands of Southern “moderates” organized against the school closures in Virginia and battled against similar policies throughout the South, as is chronicled in exacting detail in Matthew Lassiter’s The Silent Majority. And indeed, the vast majority of white Americans, Southern or otherwise, are not interested in losing their Social Security. Yet this is exactly where the policy-focused, poll data approach comes up short; most whites may indeed hope to hold on to government services that assist them, but it is not at all clear how that translates to a willingness to take substantial political action to defend an underlying logic which justifies both their benefits and those redistributed to poor black and brown people. If they will create moderate coalitions to persuade business-oriented neoliberals to politely dispose of de jure segregation in favor of a cleverly crafted de facto segregation, this is one thing; but the power of the (white) people is also being expressed when it shows up in the streets for a clear defense of bigotry. MacLean argues that the people of Little Rock were “overruled by the power elite of their state,” but who made up the mobs that showed up to harass and assault the African American students attempting to attend school? Surely they could not all be classified as members of a proto-libertarian “power elite,” even if they did not all live in Little Rock. They, too, represented the desires of some substantial segment of the white Southern population. When the struggle against segregation moved North and focused on housing, the mob showed up there, too – as Martin Luther King famously quipped, “I think the people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”[7]

MacLean correctly points out that libertarians wormed their way into control of the Republican Party largely through the power of the pocket – in America, money means votes. And because of the near-universal use of the primary system, which selects for more ideologically committed candidates, a well-funded libertarian represents a real threat to an old Republican stalwart. Yet neglected in MacLean’s account of the libertarian takeover of the GOP is any detailed discussion of how, exactly, this money translates to electoral victories. A few short case studies would have helped to identify the process through which a Koch candidate achieves the critical number of actual votes needed to win office. From that perspective, perhaps we can come closer to sorting through how the clashing priorities of white voters – to simultaneously enjoy government benefits while refusing to relinquish the white privilege they originally came encased with – result in the election of so many Republicans apparently hostile to even the notion of a government that takes responsibility for the well-being of its citizens.

MacLean, for her part, simply points the finger at Buchanan and Koch. At different moments, each appears as a singular Mover of History, as when she argues that without Buchanan the libertarian movement would “represent another dead-end fantasy of the far right, incapable of doing serious damage to American society,” or insists that if the libertarian agenda triumphs, that Charles Koch can be credited as the “sole reason” why.[8] Granting singular individuals such epoch-changing power is not a viable argument. Not only does it require ignoring the deeply grass-roots nature of American racism, but it asks us to dispose of a key tenet of historical study – that power relations can never rely on the wherewithal of one man or woman, but rather require the participation, to some degree, of at least a substantial amount of non-elites. It is perfectly possible, of course, that this truism is merely that, and does not hold under this or other circumstances. Yet making the argument that, as MacLean puts it, the “paralyzing suspicion of government came originally not from average people but from elite extremists such as Calhoun,” not only involves an oddly simplistic “single author” mode of explaining the genesis of ideas, but also ignores the huge amount of evidence that white Americans of all classes and backgrounds willingly and enthusiastically participated in the construction of a republic constrained so as to service only white supremacy. True, Calhoun may have had the education and time to articulate a political theory bolstering one such manifestation of this vision, but to exonerate the role of average white Americans by pointing the finger solely at elites and saying, “you started it” makes little sense of the data on the ground.

Let me be clear: there is no doubt, along the lines articulated by Edmund Morgan in his classic American Slavery, American Freedom, that elite manipulation of the meaning of whiteness played an absolutely central role in the development of American racism. Moreover, I empathize with an unstated political angle MacLean seems to be winking at – Occupy had it right, and we really are the 99 percent, and if we don’t bind together on that shared basis and do it soon, the future not merely of our limited democracy but the planet itself is at stake. But any such attempt at unity cannot be successful if it refuses to grapple with how consistently ordinary, everyday white Americans – be they working-class or middle-class – have actively and passively opted for the preservation of white supremacy over the creation of a genuine social democracy. If one wants for just one heartbreaking illustration from recent scholarship, they need only look to Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood In The Water to see how white Americans from many backgrounds – and one of the last remaining “moderate” Republicans, Governor Nelson Rockefeller – had to cooperate to brutally suppress the attempts of black inmates to assert their humanity and dignity. Solidarity cannot be forged on a politics that downplays such events – rather, it must grapple with the way ideologies of power infect everyone within that society if we ever hope to build a truly new foundation for unity and equality.

All of that said, MacLean makes a vitally important point in the closing pages of her book: the very political institutions of America make empowering such solidarity incredibly difficult. The “checks and balances” – especially the Senate and, looking ahead, the judicial branch – that school children are taught to revere are also the institutions that will check any attempt they may make to push back against the 1 percent. And this is why MacLean remains on solid ground when she insists that a relatively small group of men with yes, Very Bad Intentions have exercised an incredibly lopsided amount of power in the last several decades. She has done us all a service by exhaustingly documenting this reality and alerting us to the plans of those opposed to equality and freedom. But whether this represents a subversion of, or a continuation of what “American democracy” is all about remains to be determined – not by single Masters of the Universe, but by whether or not the people in the streets and the suburbs are willing to let go of the myths and legends that prop up the structures that oppress them.

[1] Nancy MacLean, Democracy In Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (New York: Viking, 2017), 189, xxv.

[2] MacLean, Democracy In Chains, 38.

[3] MacLean, Democracy In Chains, Chapters 3 & 4.

[4] MacLean, Democracy In Chains, 83.

[5] Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal (New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2009), 212.

[6] MacLean, Democracy In Chains, 146.

[7] Jefferson Cowie, The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016), 174.

[8] MacLean, Democracy In Chains, xvii, 127.

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  1. “Nancy MacLean’s new book, Democracy In Chains, does not lack for evidence”

    Yes, actually. It does.

    p. 33 – Unsupported claim that Buchanan was influenced by southern Agrarian poet Donald Davidson.

    p. 71 – Unsupported claim that Buchanan “learned lessons” about politics from the segregation fight

    p. 71 – Unsupported claim that Buchanan took “cues” from Harry Flood Byrd

    p. 70 – Unsupported insinuation that Buchanan coordinated his school choice paper with a segregationist newspaper editor

    p. xxxiii – Unsubstantiated claim that John C. Calhoun was the “intellectual lodestar” of Buchanan’s movement

    p, 155 – Unsubstantiated claim that Buchanan advised the drafting of Pinochet’s constitution

    p. 244 – Unsubstantiated claim that public choice theory has a direct “lineage” to Calhoun

    p. 36 – Unsubstantiated insinuation that proximity to a 1946 labor strike in Chicago influenced Buchanan’s ideas

    p. 101 – Unsubstantiated claim that Buchanan’s troubles with the UVA admin in the late 60s derived from the segregation issue

    And those are just a few examples out of several dozen similar errors that have been documented.

  2. We can all play this game. You write “Occupy had it right”. Occupy was endorsed by David Duke. I assume this means you are pursuing a hidden neo-Nazi agenda.

  3. This is a fascinating review. The reviewer notes that MacLean is compelled to give “an overly rosey picture of the white Southern electorate,” lacks any theory of how money actually “translates to electoral victories,” and must grant “epoch-making powers” to a wizard-like Charles Koch, effectively disempowering (and exculpating) “non-elites.” In other words, MacLean apparently felt compelled to tell a story in which the “people in the streets and the suburbs” cannot be at fault.

    The reviewer correctly notes that, pace MacLean, we must “grapple with how consistently ordinary, everyday white Americans – be they working-class or middle-class – have actively and passively opted for the preservation of white supremacy over the creation of a genuine social democracy.” This implies that we don’t yet have a theory to sufficiently explain the “preservation of white supremacy” that does not return, almost superstitiously, to grand villains, “Masters of the Universe,” such as that supporter of DACA, prison reform, and gay marriage, Charles Koch.

    The irony of the controversy is that James Buchanan and public choice economics do have such a theory, that of rent-seeking. (See especially the work of Buchanan’s colleague, W.H. Hutt on racism and South African labor unions.) This is a fascinating review, but it never cites Buchanan’s work or show any familiarity with his ideas. Why is that? It’s almost as though the one idea that can’t possibly be entertained is that the redistributive state and white supremacy are deeply entwined and not accidentally. What is unthinkable can quickly–perhaps inevitably–appear sinister.

    • Your point on Buchanan’s theory of rent-seeking–and indeed, much of Buchanan’s later collaborative work with Brennan–might be leveraged to better situate this review. Rather, I question how your commentary can possibly draw on Buchanan’s literature. You were, without doubt, a luminary in the field of electromagnetics. But the financial ruin of the London Electrical Society, which you had a hand in founding, suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of some basic economic principles that belie a penetrative understanding of Buchanan’s theories. At best, your comments are misleading or misinformed. I know this, because 177 years ago, I watched you die.

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