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The Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America

The Orwellian use of language is central. “Liberty,” “individual rights” and a “free society” are code terms for discriminatory and anti-democratic legislation.

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Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, by Nancy MacLean, Viking, New York, 2017

Under pressure from student activists George Mason University President Angel Cabrera in late April issued a public apology of sorts for accepting millions of dollars in cash from the Koch Foundation, in a manner that, in his muted words, “raise questions about donor influence in academic matters” at what is a public institution.

The Koch donations are intended to stack the hiring of like-minded far right, libertarian faculty and to support the Mercatus Center, a market fundamentalist research operation housed at George Mason, that is a base camp for influencing public policy a stones throw away in the nation’s capital.

George Mason is hardly an aberration. The Koch network is spending tens of millions to recruit and place economists and other faculty at scores of other colleges, and has even branched out to K-12 schools, says historian Nancy MacLean as part of a permanent plan to transform public education.…

Subverting public schools is just one piece of the Koch agenda of course. It’s tentacles are seen across the landscape in imposing politicians and judges who will carry out its program of destroying unions and worker protections, decimating regulations on environmental pollution and climate change detested by the fossil fuel industry, and a host of other policies hated by the market uber alles crowd.

There’s a backstory here, described in chilling detail by MacLean in her recent bookDemocracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.

MacLean traces the rise of the most extreme modern libertarian ideology represented by Charles Koch today to a little known economist James Buchanan, beginning with his appointment as chair of the economics department at the University of Virginia in 1956.

For Buchanan, and similar ideologues similarly linked to the infamous University of Chicago economics department that also spawned Milton Friedman, the first public expression of their theories were rooted, as is so much in U.S. political, social and economic history, to racism, in vehement opposition to theBrown v Board of Educationschool desegregation decision.

Virginia, encouraged by Buchanan, and allied white politicians and editorial writers, through what became known as a “Massive Resistance” policy, mandated the closure of any public school that sought to comply with the court and desegregate, thinly veiling their response as defending “state sovereignty” and “personal liberty.”

Buchanan subsequently moved on to UCLA, Virginia Tech, and finally George Mason, setting up autonomous rightwing academic “centers” to inculcate and train brethren libertarian economists and lawyers, publish books outlining his ideology, and campaign to popularize his theories.

Unlike more academic oriented economists, Buchanan sought to translate his ideas into public policy with an evolving agenda and action plan that should look all too familiar today, premised on:

  • Eradication and privatization of public services, including Social Security, Medicare, public schools, public health programs, and other social safety net programs – the only exceptions being government functions of the military, police, and courts needed to enforce the new social order.
  • Defunding government and public programs by eliminating taxes, especially income and corporate taxes, described as property theft and an intrusion on “liberty” and the “freedom” of corporations and wealthy individuals to do whatever they want with their own wealth.
  • Dismantling mechanisms for collective action by the majority as a threat to the “rights of the minority”—in this case the super rich, again cloaked as an “undemocratic” coercion of the minority by government and the majority.
  • Putting “democracy in chains” – a rollback of democratic rights and majority rule, through laws, litigation, court ruling and police force. Major goals include disempowering unions, sharp restrictions on voting rights, undermining public education and punishment of public protests.
  • Carrying out this agenda with “shock and awe” speed to limit the ability of the majority to impede the program, and the use of stealth to hide their real goals, including the use of deliberate lies and disinformation.
  • Cemented in place through permanent legal structures to block the ability of opponents to reverse.

The Orwellian use of language is central. “Liberty,” “individual rights” and a “free society” are code terms that mean “discriminatory” legislation, from tax funded social programs to the rights of workers to form unions, as well as collective action and majority rule violate the rights of “the minority” – corporations and the super rich.

“Public choice” theory was Buchanan’s calling card – any government actions that interfere with the market are illegitimate “in a society of free men.”

As articulated in one book Buchanan authored with a libertarian colleague, “the common good” and “the general welfare” are branded as smokescreens to hide a secret agenda of politicians who put their self-interest, receiving favors from the majority or help getting re-elected, against the real interests of a society – an unfettered market. It was this theory that somehow won Buchanan a Nobel Prize in economics in 1986, more a statement on a rightwing tilt by the Nobel judges than a particularly innovative economic theory.

Buchanan’s most lasting success however, may have been his influence on Charles Koch who seized on the Buchanan model to more push an even more aggressive action plan of extreme libertarian market fundamentalism that can be seen in the throughout the political and economic system today.

The rise of the Tea Party and the hijacking of the Republican Party now captive of the Koch influenced agenda

Escalating attacks on unions and worker rights –expansion of right to work laws, restrictions on collective bargaining rights and use of union dues for anything viewed as political activity, and trampling labor law protections through stacking the NLRB with management attorneys, active promotion of union busting, and court attacks on the rights of workers and unions, such as the upcoming Janus decision.

  • Privatization efforts targeting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public schools, and other public programs, including private prisons.
  • Attacks on public health programs, from women’s health programs to budget cuts for programs such as disease prevention and epidemic control, to environmental pollution regulations to workplace safety rules.
  • Targeting liberalism in college campuses, through slashing public university budgets, sharp tuition hikes, ending need based scholarships, eliminating or curtailing tenure protections and faculty governance, and replacing liberal arts programs with corporate and business oriented curriculum.
  • Stacking of the courts with far right ideologues – seen in the successful seating of Supreme Court Neil Gorsuch whose first major authored decision barred workers from actively collective to resolve illegal workplace discrimination, as well rapid confirmation of other far right Trump nominees all handpicked off far right think tank lists. 
  • The Trump/GOP tax bill, the overt drastic tax cut for corporations and the 1%.
  • Rampant voter suppression laws and other restrictions on majority rule, as well as laws to protect corporations from consumers and workers, all model language from the libertarian influenced American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Another example, the emergency manager scheme in Michigan seizing power away from locally elected governments, as designed by the Koch-funded Mackinac Center and pushed by a Tea Party governor, which led directly to the Flint water crisis.
  • Understanding his views expressed openly clash with the real public interest, Koch and allies readily embrace stealth and deception to carry out their goals, MacLean notes. She cites two examples: 1- falsely asserting Social Security is “going bankrupt,” to promote “reforms” intended to advance privatization and, 2- falsely claiming “lack of scientific consensus” as cover to protect the Koch’s fossil fuel industry from real action on the climate crisis.

For Buchanan, the veneer of “liberty” and “freedom,” was rapidly ripped away by an embrace of repression when challenged. At UCLA in the late 1960s, at the height of student activism, Buchanan argued that the state and university governing boards should crack down by expelling student protesters, sharply raising tuition to exclude low income students, especially African-Americans, making higher education far less accessible, and punishing faculty who align with students.

Chile was Buchanan’s ultimate model. 

First Friedman, then Buchanan, were brought in to assist the Pinochet dictatorship after the 1973 U.S.-sponsored military coup as the junta arrested, exiled and murdered political opponents, banned or severely handicapped unions, and in policies encouraged by Buchanan, privatized Social Security, and pushed through a re-write of the Chilean constitution “with locks and bolts” that cemented into place strict limits on majority rule.

Buchanan outlined for Chilean advisers a “science” of public choice governance that “should be adopted” for matters ranging from “the power of a constitution over fiscal policy to what the optimum number of lawmakers in a legislative body should be.”

In what may be a summary for his entire school of thought, he said he and his collaborators “are formulating constitutional ways in which we can limit government intervention in the economy and make sure it keeps its hand of the pockets of productive contributors.”

  Charles Idelson is Communications Director of the National Nurses United, California Nurses Association