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The malevolent incompetence of the Trump White House packs a certain entertainment value, but it is also a distraction; a bumbling misdirection in a long confidence game. At stake, as historian Nancy MacLean underscores in her new book, Democracy in Chains, is not just political power, not just the final dismantling of the New Deal order, but the very future of our democracy.
Whatever the fate of Donald Trump and his cronies, the rule of the radical right — in Congress, in statehouses, in the courts — will remain largely unchecked. And with each electoral cycle or legislative session of that rule, the prospects for challenging it fade.
Democracy in Chains is a remarkable book. At its core is a startling archival discovery: the unsorted and unprocessed papers of the University of Virginia economist James McGill Buchanan. Buchanan was a quiet but central figure in the making of the modern right: indeed, in MacLean’s account, Buchanan appears — like a libertarian Zelig — at each critical juncture in this history.
Educated at the University of Chicago, he takes up his first academic post at the University of Virginia as a fierce defender of segregation and “states’ rights.” Discouraged by both the progress of civil rights and Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964, and wearing out his welcome at Virginia, he decamps to UCLA, only to be horrified by the diversity of the setting and the radicalism of the students. He retreats to Virginia Tech for a decade, before being lured to George Mason University on the eve of the Reagan Revolution.
At each stop, he builds a privately funded fiefdom designed to develop and disseminate the libertarian creed. At each setback, he doubles his resolve to put ideas into action. With each year, he grows wearier of democratic institutions and the tyranny of majority rule.
As an economist, Buchanan was instrumental in developing the moral vocabulary not only for a zealous veneration of property rights, but for a deep suspicion of affirmative state action. As a southerner, taking up his appointment at Virginia in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, he did not hesitate to champion states’ rights — and massive resistance to integration — as if these too were just abstractions of economy theory. As an academic, he was a fierce and reliable shill for corporate benefactors, most notably and generously Charles Koch — who shared Buchanan’s blind faith in the market, his contempt for democracy, and his willingness to play the long game.
While this is a work of history, MacLean’s overriding goal is to shed light on our current moment; to better understand the roots, arguments, goals, motives, and methods of the radical right. MacLean is interested in how we got here, but Democracy in Chains is really about what comes next — for the Right and for the rest of us.
This Little Piggy Went to Market
At the core of Buchanan’s worldview, and of those in his orbit — ranging from self-congratulatory business titans like Charles Koch to Ayn Rand–addled frat boys like Paul Ryan — is a near-religious faith in the autonomy and infallibility of markets.
Buchanan’s singular professional contribution (for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1986) was the development of “public choice” economics — a field whose largely untested insight was that markets never failed but that state interference in them almost always did. In this view, all were market actors, simply responding to incentives and maximizing selfish gain. Politicians did so to get elected. Civil servants did so to build bureaucratic empires. Citizens did so to garner state benefits. And the only way to pay for this was to extract more and more wealth from the real producers.
Imposing market expectations on public institutions, as Buchanan did with the state in The Calculus of Consent (1962) and with the university in Academia in Anarchy (1970), of course, distorts their very purpose and — by questioning their efficiency — erodes their legitimacy.
It is strangled logic to view the university as a setting in which student-consumers pay discounted prices for a service they do not value, faculty-producers lose all incentive with tenure, and taxpayer-investors are taken for a ride. But, more so today than in 1970, it is pretty effective politics. In the bargain, as MacLean laments, all other motives for private or public action — “compassion, fairness, solidarity, generosity, justice, and sustainability” — fall by the wayside.
This market fundamentalism, and the policies that flow from it, are essentially faith-based — and either blind or indifferent to their own contradictions.
Here, MacLean echoes the recent work of the sociologists Margaret Somers and Fred Block, underscoring the many ways in which “free” markets are embedded in social relations. Ignoring this fact simply camouflages advantage and disguises the reliance and dependence of successful market actors on conditions (property rights, contract law, patent protection, worker suppression) secured by state action.
The Color Line
Market fundamentalism, as MacLean notes, is rooted less in the nation’s liberal traditions than in the illiberal institutions of slavery and Jim Crow.
The founding father of choice here is not Jefferson or Madison but John C. Calhoun — a fierce defender of property rights (at a time when nearly half the population of Calhoun’s South Carolina were property), with a “yen for repression” and an abiding distrust of majority rule. Calhoun, who understood “liberty” as nothing more than the freedom to enjoy and exploit his property, was unfazed by any contradiction between constitutional democracy and chattel slavery.
Calhoun, of course, ended up on the wrong side of history. But his ideas lived on in both the nostalgia for the Confederacy that persisted in the New South and in the segregation and terror of the Jim Crow era. Here again, the preservation of liberty and poverty depended upon extreme inequality and fundamentally “antidemocratic and racist strategies of rule.”
This was the setting in which Buchanan found himself in 1956 — libertarian credentials from UChicago in his back pocket, massive resistance to the Brown decision unfolding outside his new office at the University of Virginia.
Buchanan did not hesitate to align himself with white supremacist minority rule (represented by the political machine of Harry Byrd), and urged voucher-based privatization as the solution to the Virginia schools crisis. “[E]very parent could cast his vote in the [educational] marketplace and have it count,” Buchanan argued, fleshing out an argument that the Cato Insitute and Betsy DeVos would champion unchanged a generation later.
In some respects, Buchanan seemed either indifferent to the racial underpinnings of the Virginia schools issue or willing to cynically exploit the moment. Yet he championed not only school privatization, but massive resistance as well.
Like Calhoun before him, he saw the real threat as the advance of federal power and the enfranchisement of those without property. “In these final hours of the massive resistance era,” MacLean observes, “can be found the seed of the ideas guiding today’s attack on the public sector and robust democracy alike.”
In the short run, in Virginia and in the nation, Buchanan and his ilk lost ground. But the bitter anxieties of massive resistance persisted — most markedly in the gradual political realignment punctuated by the campaigns of Goldwater, Wallace, Nixon, and Reagan. Over this span, Buchanan helped transform “a regional libertarian creed into a national counterrevolution.”
By 2017, the post-racialist wisp of the Obama years has evaporated entirely, Congress is wagged by the overwhelmingly southern Freedom Caucus, and the counterrevolution is ably represented in the West Wing by the likes of Mike Pence and Jeff Sessions.
At the intersection of Buchanan’s market fundamentalism and his embrace of Jim Crow lies a fundamental reservation — nakedly evident on today’s radical right — about equal political citizenship and majority rule. This stemmed in part, from Calhoun onward, from a conviction that the polity could be cleft between “makers and takers,” and that it was the “takers” who, by employing state power to tax wealth and income, were doing the exploiting.
Buchanan’s “public choice” economics dressed this up as an iron law of both human nature and democratic rule (“a cynicism so toxic,” MacLean suggests, “that, if widely believed, it would eat like acid at the foundations of civic life”). Politically, Buchanan and his allies looked to gird the advantage enjoyed by the makers (by removing the last constraints on campaign finance, for example) while muffling the votes and the voices of the rest of us.
The combination, of course, is the hallmark of neoliberalism, whose interest is not in rolling back the state but in employing state power toward particular ends, including the protection of wealth and property and the suppression and surveillance of the poor. For all its thin distaste of “big government,” Buchanan’s radical right betrays a healthy appetite for repression.
Calhoun exemplified this view, routinely “denying the legitimacy of government power to act for the common good while using government power to suppress others.” Buchanan himself offered no objections to Jim Crow rule in Harry Byrd’s Virginia, advocated harsh punishment of student radicals at UCLA and at Virginia Tech, and lent admiring counsel to the brutal Pinochet regime in Chile.
In turn, as MacLean writes, the radical right is less interested “in fighting big government per se as in elevating that branch of government they can best control.” Across this history, the Right’s jurisdictional safe space is state government. This is evident, of course, in two centuries’ worth of “states’ rights” fulminations against the threat of federal intrusion. And it was evident as the federal promise of equal protection — gradually extended by the jurisprudence of the civil rights era — began to ebb.
In some areas (such as school integration) the law retreated. In some (such as education or housing or equal employment), the law was not enforced. And in some (such as social policy), devolution of funding and administration invited state-level discretion and inequality.
As importantly, and again echoing through our current politics, is the push to quash local authority. The oft-stated goal of shrinking government to its most local and tangible form is belied by the determination of Calhoun, Byrd, Buchanan, and the reactionary presence in statehouses today (best represented by ALEC and its offshoots) to preempt the initiative of states or counties to act on their own. The goal, quite starkly, is to stem majority rule by weakening those jurisdictions in which it is most easily exercised, and vesting power in those in which representation is most skewed and one-party rule increasingly common.
Devolution and preemption have given the Right an edge in the states, but, as MacLean argues in the closing chapters, such advantages are not enough. For the radical right, victory depends on two further strategies for evading majority rule.
The first, to put it bluntly, is to lie: “what was needed to achieve their ends,” as MacLean puts it, “was to stop being honest with the public.”
Over time, Buchanan and his allies tacitly admitted that they had no popular constituency; that the voting public — even those who had supported Reagan and cheered the congressional “Contract with America” — hesitated “when they learned that freed markets would leave them with sole responsibility for their fates.” The solution, first floated in the early debates over Social Security privatization and starkly evident in tortuous repeal of the Affordable Care Act, is to “crab-walk” around the issues, to claim that frontal assaults on popular social insurance programs are efforts to “shore them up” rather than destroy them.
The second, and more chilling, solution is to junk the rules entirely; to tilt an already unlevel playing field decisively and irrevocably against the popular will.
The American political system is already strewn with veto points and eagerly attentive to the demands and resources of the wealthy. But, for the Right, holding sway in “the least responsive of all the leading democracies to what the people want and need” is not enough; the goal is to make it “all but impossible for government to respond to the will of the majority unless the very wealthiest Americans agree full with every measure.” Calhoun would be proud.
Buchanan and his followers are coldly dismissive of democratic institutions and democratic principles. “If American political institutions render market-oriented reforms too difficult to achieve,” as Tyler Cowen (who succeeded Buchanan at the helm of George Mason’s Mercatus Center) argues, “then perhaps these institutions should be changed.”
Harry Byrd’s “preoccupation with manipulating the rules for voting and representation” lives on in ALEC’s efforts to strangle the franchise through vote suppression and redistricting. For all the ink spilt trying to figure out what combination of backlash, cynicism, or fetishism mobilized Trump voters, the real story is the disenfranchised and demobilized.
The Right is aggressively shackling the popular will on a number of fronts. Fiscal constraints, pioneered by Buchanan and others in Pinochet’s Chile and pressed in the United States by Grover Norquist and others, aim to “starve the beast” of resources and flexibility. Legal constraints, particularly the profusion of mandatory arbitration in consumer and employment contracts, aim to strip away recourse to the courts. And a combination of legal activism, expansive police powers, and preemption aim to defang any opposition or alternatives.
A Frightening Whole
Democracy in Chains is a revelation, as politics and as history.
We know a lot about the rise of the Right in postwar America. We have plumbed its social history, calling attention to the singular importance of Southern resistance to civil rights; the ways in which the “crabgrassroots politics” of white resentment flourished in the suburbs of Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Orange County; and the peculiar amalgam of fundamentalism and libertarianism — a “strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers,” as Rick Perlstein puts it — that mobilized, distracted, or conned its followers.
We have traced the contours and timing of the “right turn,” the business mobilization that stuttered through the postwar era before riding the turmoil of the 1970s to deal decisive blows against labor, against the economics and politics of growth, and against the entire postwar social contract. And we have begun to unravel the predatory logic of neoliberalism, that toxic combination of “free” markets and unfree people.
We know a lot about the ways in which a “winner-take-all” society marked by rising inequality and insecurity is an essentially political project, created and sustained not by the retreat of policy but by policy choices. Economically and politically, the system is rigged, the rules rewritten to redistribute income upwards and ensure that it stays there. And we now have a pretty good grasp of the political infrastructure — nationally and in the states — that bankrolls, advances, and disguises this agenda.
Democracy in Chains assembles all of these fragments into a much more coherent, and much more frightening, whole.
It establishes the Jim Crow roots of the modern right, not just through the GOP’s southern strategy but through shared doubts about the compatibility of property rights and democratic rule. It demonstrates that the lurch right in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Iowa represents not some existential crisis of a forgotten working class but the triumph of a long push to use statehouses as laboratories for autocracy. It understands the post–Citizens United wave of “dark money” as but the most recent chapter in a long history of corporate stealth and influence.
And it reminds us that, however incompetent the current White House and legislative leadership, they are winning handily.