[Marxism] How the Radical Right Played the Long Game and Won

Louis N. Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Sun Aug 20 10:53:49 MDT 2017

NY Times Sunday Book Review, August 20 2017
How the Radical Right Played the Long Game and Won

The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America
By Nancy MacLean
334 pp. Viking. $28.

Earlier this year, when the Republican pollster Glen Bolger sat down
with Donald Trump voters who had previously voted for Barack Obama,
one Wisconsinite summed up his reason for favoring Trump this time
around: “I think they all lie, but Trump was more — is more obvious.”
This statement presents quite a puzzle. Why would any voter think that
being a known liar is an asset?

Insight into this conundrum comes from an unlikely source, the life’s
work of the economist James McGill Buchanan — who happens to be the
subject of a new book, “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the
Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” by the historian Nancy
MacLean. Buchanan, who was born in 1919 and died in 2013, advanced the
field of public choice economics into politics, arguing that all
interest groups push for their own agenda rather than the public good.
According to this view, governing institutions cannot be trusted,
which is why governing should be left to the market.

In the United States, promising and then delivering services and
protections for the majority of voters provides a path for politicians
to be popularly elected. Buchanan was concerned that this would lead
to overinvestment in public services, as the majority would be all too
willing to tax the wealthy minority to support these programs. So
Buchanan came to a radical conclusion: Majority rule was an economic
problem. “Despotism,” he declared in his 1975 book “The Limits of
Liberty,” “may be the only organizational alternative to the political
structure that we observe.”

Buchanan therefore argued for “curbing the appetites of majority
coalitions” by establishing ironclad rules that would curb their
power. As he was known for saying, “the problems of our times require
attention to the rules rather than the rulers.” In 1986, he was
awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science for “his
development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory
of economic and political decision making.”

Buchanan, however, also had what MacLean calls a “stealth” agenda. He
knew that the majority would never agree to being constrained. He
therefore helped lead a push to undermine their trust in public
institutions. The idea was to get voters to direct their ire at these
institutions and divert their attention away from increasing income
and wealth inequality.

This is the sordid tale that MacLean lays out in “Democracy in
Chains.” She starts with Buchanan’s early engagement in policy work in
the late 1950s, when he offered to help the state of Virginia respond
to the federal mandate to desegregate public schools. After the
Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that public school
segregation was unconstitutional, Buchanan and a fellow economist
called for the state to issue tax-subsidized vouchers to any parents
who wanted to send their children to private schools. What these
economists were calling for was essentially the privatization of
public education.

But even in 1950s Virginia, public schools were popular with many
white parents, and “a fire sale of tax-funded public schools to
private school operators would be political suicide,” MacLean writes.
Buchanan’s plan failed, and he learned a tough lesson from this foray
into policy making: If the majority demands services such as free
public schools, politicians will acquiesce.

Buchanan decided he needed to influence policy at a deeper level. In
the ensuing years, he sought to lead an economic and political
movement in which he stressed that “conspiratorial secrecy is at all
times essential” to mask efforts to protect the wealthy elite from the
will of the majority. In September 1973, Buchanan held the inaugural
meeting of the International Atlantic Economic Society, arguing for
the need to “create, support and activate an effective
counterintelligentsia” to reshape the way people thought about
government. He believed the center-left controlled academia and
“effectively indoctrinated political actors in both parties,” MacLean
writes. To fight back, conservatives needed to develop new surrogates
who could be “indoctrinated” in turn with right-wing ideas, and then
“mobilized, organized and directed” to disseminate them.

We know all of this because MacLean found documentation of Buchanan’s
plans — including correspondence, meeting minutes and personal papers
— in his previously unexplored archives. She came upon her
biographical subject “by sheer serendipity,” she writes, while
researching how the state of Virginia responded to the Brown v. Board
of Education decision. Seeing the name of an unfamiliar economist
eventually led her to rooms full of documents that made clear how
“operatives” had been trained “to staff the far-flung and purportedly
separate, yet intricately connected, institutions funded by the Koch
brothers and their now large network of fellow wealthy donors.”
Buchanan’s papers revealed how, from a series of faculty perches at
several universities, he spent his life laying out a game plan for a
right-wing social movement.

One part of his plan involved Social Security. The election of Ronald
Reagan as president in 1980 was a watershed for conservatives, yet it
quickly became clear that he, too, would succumb to political
pressure. By 1982, Reagan’s fight to end Social Security — long a
bugbear of Buchanan’s — was faltering. Amid that debate, the
libertarian Cato Institute, funded by the brothers Charles and David
Koch, made privatization of Social Security its top priority and
turned to Buchanan for a master plan. Buchanan told them that “those
who seek to undermine the existing structure” must do two things: Make
people doubt the viability of Social Security, and divide the public
by suggesting high earners be taxed at higher rates — which might
sound progressive but would ultimately undo the universal foundation
of the program itself.

MacLean doesn’t hide her antipathy to Buchanan’s goals. As a historian
of American social movements, she brings this expertise to her study
of Buchanan, showing how his work helped to sow doubt that anyone —
whether individuals, groups or institutions — can act in the public
good. Nevertheless, her overt moral revulsion at her subject can
sometimes make it seem as if we’re getting only part of the picture.

American democracy was unprepared to defend itself against the agenda
of Buchanan and conservative benefactors. Buchanan may not have been
the only actor in this movement, and the role of conservative donors
and economists has been documented elsewhere, but we are now living in
a world he helped shepherd into reality. Public choice economists
argue that those with the most to lose from change will pay the most
attention, which has certainly been the case with Charles and David
Koch. They and their friends have invested enormous sums in
organizations that have changed the national debate about the proper
role of government in the economy. Our politically polarized and
increasingly paralyzed government institutions are the result.

With this book MacLean joins a growing chorus of scholars and
journalists documenting the systematic, organized effort to undermine
democracy and change the rules. In “Dark Money,” Jane Mayer tells the
tale of the Koch brothers. In “Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s
Crusade Against the New Deal,” the historian Kim Phillips-Fein shows
how a small group of businessmen initiated a decades-long effort to
build popular support for free market economics. The political
scientist Steven M. Teles writes about the chemicals magnate John M.
Olin in “The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement.”

Power consolidation sometimes seems like a perpetual motion machine,
continually widening the gap between those who have power and money
and those who don’t. Still, “Democracy in Chains” leaves me with hope:
Perhaps as books like MacLean’s continue to shine a light on important
truths, Americans will begin to realize they need to pay more
attention and not succumb to the cynical view that known liars make
the best leaders.

Heather Boushey is the executive director and chief economist at the
Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

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