Wednesday, June 7, 2017
Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean
Many publishers claim “explosive new content” for their nonfiction but in this case it is not hyperbole. This political history of the Radical Right is a worthy companion to Jane Mayer’s Dark Money. It reveals what Mayer did not: what on earth were the Radical Rich thinking?
This is the book we’ve been waiting for—a book which explains the philosophical underpinnings of the Radical Right and the scope and direction of their plan for political and economic control. For years I have struggled to understand how they could imagine a small group of people should be more privileged than the majority, but now I get it. The Radical Right has divided human beings into makers and takers, “makers” being those who own the means of production (and pay taxes) and “takers” being those who do not. For some reason I still don’t understand, they have concluded that the superrich fit the first category and the bulk of the economy’s workers fit the second. Which, as we all know, with regard to taxes at least, is a logical fallacy in today’s America.
Though sometimes it may appear the Radical Right are inarticulate because they never seem to explain what they are aiming at, they apparently wanted to keep their philosophy and intent quiet, to work in secrecy. This is because most people in our democracy would oppose their thinking. The Radical Rich freely acknowledge this. The Right believes that the majority in a democracy can coerce individuals to pay for things the minority do not want to pay for, like public schools, health care, welfare programs, jails, infrastructure. The Right believe they should be free to do as they choose, and services should be privatized. The market will take care of any climate change-related environmental controls that the majority might wish businesses to adopt. The Right’s view of an efficient business and political environment might look like the early 20th Century when oligarchs roamed the earth.
It sounds bizarre, I know. The Right knew we would react this way, which is why they have been unable to say what they were thinking straight out, but instead made common cause with the Republican Party, and the Religious Right, cannibalizing both and leading those two groups to their own demise. An important piece of their thinking is that only the national government has enough clout to stop them from dominance, which is why they are so insistent on weakening the central government and passing “power” to individual states, which would of course diffuse power.
Things are so much clearer to me now. When the Black Lives Matter movement said opposition to President Obama was about race, they were right. Opposition to Obama was ginned up by this group, who spread rumors and undermined his attempts to compromise by refusing cooperation. The genesis of the thinking in this far right group has its roots in slavery.
The roots of Radical Rich thinking goes back to John C. Calhoun, slave holder intent upon “preserving liberty” [of the elite], and keeping the demands of the many off his “property.” Up until the 1960’s, the majority of wealth in this country was in the South, leftover generational wealth from slave-holding days now invested in tobacco, cotton, energy products like oil and coal, etc... MacLean calls it “race-based hyper-exploitative regional political economy…one based first on chattel slavery and later on disenfranchised low-wage labor, racial segregation, and a starved public sector.”
It is fascinating to hear how Nancy MacLean, investigating a tangential issue to those she explores in this book, came upon the personal papers and writings of Nobel Prize winner James M. Buchanan (October 3, 1919 – January 9, 2013) at George Mason University in Virginia, which included private letters between Buchanan and Charles Koch. The letters illuminated the train of thought of both men, including their insistence that their thinking be kept secret lest people object to their belief that democracy would ruin capitalism and their right to rule. Eventually the two men diverged in thought and Koch sidelined Buchanan decisively.
At last I can understand why the Republicans would put forth a health care plan that actually harmed people. It bothered me that I didn’t understand, but I do now. I struggled to understand why this group of individuals, which include Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, Mitch McConnell, and a host of others, oppose government-subsidized affordable college education, corporate and personal taxes, environmental protections, and state-subsidized drug rehab programs. They actually believe the majority of the American people are stealing their wealth.
Of course there is room in the world for people with fundamentally different ideas about what man is. But there may not be enough room for these thoughts together in one nation. They can go off to live by themselves if they wish, on an island somewhere outside a country founded on the principle of “by the people for the people.” But, you know, without our willing slavery, they are just old men stashing meaningless bits of paper. They can’t even eat without our labor. They can’t live in all the houses they own. They can’t get where they are going without us. They can’t dress themselves without us. No, in order for them to win we must agree to be ruled by them, and we don’t.
You will want to preorder this book and read it immediately. I understand now why there was no buzz about this. Remember when Jane Mayer was asked in an interview1 if she was afraid to criticize the secretive Koch brothers because they were so powerful? MacLean, I am quite sure, had to be extremely careful until this became public. The audio is excellent, read by Bernadette Dunn, produced by Penguin Audio. The audio file is about 11 hours, and it is completely enthralling. Now I can tell a conservative from someone indoctrinated by Koch. I can see the strategy.
1Pamela Paul’s January 24, 2016 podcast for NYTimes Book Review
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