After hearing people whose opinions I trust talk breathlessly about it, I picked up Nancy MacLean's Democracy In Chains last week and quickly devoured it. It is the kind of book that shows how history can used to fight political battles in the present, and the importance of historical research as a way of uncovering hidden realities.
The book is about James Buchanan, an obscure name despite winning the Nobel Prize for economics in 1986. MacLean essentially argues that while most of us tend to see Milton Friedman as the godfather of modern day right wing (there is good reason not to use the word "conservative") political economy, it is Buchanan who has by far had the bigger impact. A good part of the reason is that Buchanan's ideas were completely embraced by the Koch brothers, who have used their wealth to spread their influence.
MacLean derives her title from one of Buchanan's central tenets, namely that democracy is inimical to freedom. Of course, it is the libertarian notion of "economic freedom," which essentially boils down to the supremacy of property rights. Because those pesky voters want to finance the social safety net with the money of the wealthy, democracy must be limited in the name of "liberty." This is why Buchanan was glad to go to Chile and assist the oppressive Pinochet regime in their neoliberal economic agenda.
Buchanan also vigorously fought against democracy in the United States. MacLean finds that it was the Brown court case that first gave Buchanan, who was Tennessee born and a professor at the University of Virginia in the 1950s, his impetus to apply his ideas to politics. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court ordering schools in the South to be integrated, Buchanan argued for a voucher system, and essentially against the entire notion of public education. He approved of poll taxes and literacy tests, which were onerous in Virginia at the time, as a way to prevent the "ignorant" from voting. While he never discussed race itself as a reason to suppress the vote, if it quacks like a duck etc.
Tactically, Buchanan thought it was best not to reveal to the public the true nature of his preferred agenda. Thus attempts to cut back on Social Security would couched as attempts to "save" it. The safety net was to be gradually weakened to the point of ineffectiveness, at which time it would be easy to eliminate. At that point, according to his strict ideology, freedom and liberty would reign supreme. Notice there was no supply-side argument about boosting the economy in his thinking. Allowing the wealthy to have their money was to him a moral imperative, pure and simple.
I am sure that a lot of this is sounding familiar to you. MacLean also shows how, in the past decade, Buchanan's way of thinking has more fully taken over the Republican Party via the Koch brothers and their largesse. This book has helped me understand so much. For example, on the surface it is confusing how eager the Republicans are to slam through a hugely unpopular health care act. However, it is obvious that ideology trumps everything for these people, and that they are relying on self-consciously anti-democratic means (gerrymandering, voter suppression, propaganda) to shield themselves from the effects. Buchanan's proteges openly talked of a "shock doctrine" that would be used when opportunities presented themselves to destroy "collectivism," and the current Trump administration appears to be just one of those moments.
It is obvious from this book, if it has not been obvious already, that an extremist attempt to roll back the 20th century is at the heart of the political party that now controls all levels of government. This book makes me despair, but it does a valuable service by showing us what we are all up against, and that it is democracy itself that hangs in the balance. This is a battle that we cannot afford to lose.
Footnote: I was glad to see that this book confirmed an argument of mine, that the current conservative movement is best defined as right-wing Bolshevism. Many of Buchanan's proteges explicitly called themselves Leninists in their internal documents, and deliberately copied his methods.