By Max Ogden
Book Review: Democracy in Chains (by Nancy MacLean)
I have rarely accepted conspiracies, which are often embraced too readily. What often appears as a conspiracy is usually a stuff up, or a group or a class, acting in the way one would expect.
I have changed somewhat after reading “Democracy in Chains” – “The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America”, by Nancy MacLean. She lays out the history of the US Right from the 1830s, and it is not a pretty picture.
She begins in the eighteen thirties, with John C Calhoun, a former Vice President, and South Carolina Senator, when he began his crusade to preserve and extend the power of wealth, and railed against the Madison constitution as being too democratic. He cleverly, and with some success, sets out to convince slave owners, and the wider community in the South, that as the creators of wealth, they are the group who are downtrodden, while those calling for the abolition of slavery are the elites, and the wasteful class living off the taxes of slave owners.
As we know, the civil war, at enormous cost, put an end to slavery, at least in the form it existed then. That was a major setback for the ideas of Calhoun and his supporters, but those who have followed him, have often suffered setbacks, some very serious, but to this day, they go back, examine the lessons, and continue their strategies, and are prepared to work and plan for decades ahead.
Possibly the most influential anti-hero is Nobel Prize winning economist, James Buchanan, who like several of the people who stroll this history, is described as driven, mean, rude, arrogant with an enormous ego, but never sought the limelight as he liked to work in the shadows. These were not very nice people. First from Virginia Tech., the west coast, and finally George Mason University he proselytised his ideology for strengthening the ruling class hold on power and wealth.
Buchanan, although he was not at their first meeting, became an important member of the Mount Pelerin Society, which emanated from a group of Americans – mainly from Chicago University, UK, Germany, Austrians, who met in nineteen forty seven in Switzerland, under the leadership of Frederik A Hayek, who’s book “Road to Serfdom” had created excitement among right wing economists. They laid out a strategy to prevent the spread of socialist and collectivist ideas. This group has proved to be incredibly influential ever since. An object lesson in understanding how ideas are central to strategy.
By the seventies the likes of Buchanan, and several of his ilk, were picked up by the billionaire Koch brothers, as purveyors of exactly what they had been looking for regarding ideas and strategies for protecting their wealth and power. Since then,they and other wealthy colleagues have provided hundreds of millions of dollars funding their think tanks.
Their major objectives are: Breakdown democracy and where possible eradicate it; have government stripped of every service except that of defence; have education privatised, which is a high priority; smash any form of collectivism, especially unions; minimise tax so it only funds defence.
They then lay out strategies for achieving their objectives. For example, deprive government of services, first have the services sub-contracted out, and then use that experience to have it fully privatised, by making it extremely difficult for the government to take it back.
With public education, introduce various forms of testing, e.g. NAPLAN, manipulate the statistics regardless of the results to embarrass the public system, as a prelude to private takeover, e.g. Charter schools in the US, or individual vouchers so students can shop around private schools. All sounds familiar.
Tie up democratic rights within very difficult to change constitutions. Buchanan and his team were invited by Pinochet soon after he took power in nineteen seventy three, to write a new constitution. They spent quite some time on it, and it was eventually voted on by an electorate, severely curtailed by rules which meant only a small percentage of Chileans could vote. However that constitution is so tight that even to this day under more progressive governments it is almost impossible to change. Requiring at least two thirds of a majority for change, whenever a Chilean government tries to tackle the wealthy, because of the constitution they can mobilise the required one third to protect themselves.
The US constitution, which they regard as too democratic, is very difficult to change, so their strategy is to concentrate on appointments of judges at all levels of the judiciary, blocking, and active measures before the Supreme Court. By the mid-nineties forty per cent of all Federal judges had been through training at the various think tanks the Right and Koch Brothers fund.
Learning from Calhoun, they have proved very adept at posing as part of the ordinary people, suggesting that they are outsiders, and that everyone else is part of the elites. They have set out, with some success, to convince the wider public that like slave owners, it is the wealthy who create wealth, taxes, jobs, so they are the underdogs in US society, who should be supported, not workers, unemployed, the poor, those on welfare, as they are living off the wealthy. Even the titles of their many think tanks are benign, giving the impression of being neutral. By the way Rubio was their preferred Presidential candidate, but when he dropped out, their man is Pence who has been intimately involved with the Koch brothers for decades. Perhaps even more dangerous than Trump.
They have had severe setbacks. However they go back and carefully examine where they went wrong, how they may have overreached, etc. They then return with a new strategy and are happy to think decades down the track, and spend many millions to achieve their objectives.
They are ruthless. In one case while their think tank was stationed in Virginia Tech, Buchanan demanded that one of his team, who had never completed his economics degree, and was in fact their major political lobbyist, be made professor. The Administration rejected the request four times, so Buchanan upped stakes and shifted to George Mason University. Another reason for the move was that GM University is in the suburbs of Washington DC, so they had a more intimate relationship with Congress, and the members whom they never hesitate to threaten, cajole, and stand-over to follow their policies. Buchanan died in two thousand and thirteen.
This brings me to an important article by Peter Harcher in The Age, 14/10/17, which demonstrates the success of the Buchanan/Koch strategies. Quoting from recent research by the well regarded PEW Research Centre, he shows how ideological and psychological changes wrought by constant campaigning, headlines, fake news etc., convinces an ever growing number of people to vote precisely the opposite of what is in their own best interests.
In a couple of case studies they show how a woman was pleased that her young son was saved by Affordable Health Care (Obamacare), which she said, she could not have otherwise afforded, and yet when asked, she said she would still be voting for Trump despite his intention to close it down. In another case, a woman whose life was saved from a blood clotting disorder, because of Affordable Health, when she tried to convince her family to oppose Trump, she was ostracised and a brother refused to allow his daughters to talk to her.
There are several other studies which indicate how these voters remain loyal to their party, especially the Republicans, regardless of the positive impact that the other party’s policies may have for them personally. Among registered Republicans, this type of response has increased from 50% to 80%. These studies raise huge issues for progressives concerned to build a more equal, democratic, and better society. Harcher’s article is a good follow up by seeing the lasting impact of the Right’s strategies, Nancy MacLean so well describes.
This book should be read right across the broad Left. It demonstrates the extremely powerful, and wealthy enemy we are up against, and raises serious questions as to whether we can ever be defeated, and leads to some despair. A US professor colleague told me recently that he just cannot get the book out of his head, it has made such an impact.
Above all, the book demonstrates how ideas are the engine of change, and the urgent need for practical, but long term objectives, strategies and tactics. Our progressive think tanks are severely limited in funds and personnel, and should seriously consider meeting regularly to try and rationalise their work so that they can go beyond just contracted short term research, to more blue sky, long term strategic ideas. Without doubt the success of the Koch and other think tanks is that they have such huge funding backup, which progressive think tanks will never be able to match, and that they can spend time on the big picture, and look how it is paying off.
For myself the book reinforces the urgency of responding with a pro-active, not simply an oppositionist agenda. Serious consideration must be given to a coming together of all progressives from every field of campaigning, sometime within the next eighteen months. Especially given the possibility of a longer term ALP government, something like the Canadian experience which drew up a plan for an alternative better society titled The Leap, to arrive at a united position around many issues, and a rationalisation of effort so we can begin to get ideas out there which start to set the agenda, and not be only oppositionist.
Nancy MacLean’s excellent history, as well as creating some despair, it is also a great starting point to inspire action.