Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America – Part I can be found here.
Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America is disturbing reading. Last week, I outlined how she exposes the missing link of the Right’s plan to “save capitalism from democracy—permanently.” As centrally important as it is to understand that basic premise of the Right’s agenda, it is equally valuable for progressives to learn precisely how and why that is the case and what, ultimately, the end-game looks like.
MacLean is very clear about why the Right came to believe it necessary to systematically lie about their intentions:
These libertarians seemed to have determined that what was needed to achieve their ends was to stop being honest with the public. Instead of advocating for them frontally, they needed to engage in a kind of crab walk, even if it required advancing misleading claims in order to take terrain bit by bit, in a manner that cumulatively, yet quietly, could begin to radically alter the power relations of American society.
She then goes on to tell the story of how the beginning assaults on Social Security were framed not as ways to kill the program but as ways to “reform” or save it from itself. Even as those attempts failed, the lesson learned from defeat was not that American public opinion was against them but that it was better to take a dishonest and incremental approach.
The key here was the embrace of privatization as the point of the spear, the starting point for their greater, unstated war on government and democracy itself. One of the things that made this effective, of course, was the fact that many neoliberal Democrats were unwitting accomplices in this slow-motion demolition of democracy. MacLean again notes:
Many liberals then and since have tended to miss this strategic use of privatization to enchain democracy, at worst seeing the proposals as coming simply from dogma that preferred the private sector to the public. Those driving the train know otherwise. Privatization was a key element of the crab walk to the final, albeit gradual, revolution—the ends justify-the-means approach that allowed for using disingenuous claims to take terrain that would make the ultimate project possible.
In this way, every time a Democrat supported privatizing a public service, outsourcing, or applying “market approaches” to solving problems, they were unknowingly doing the bidding of the wrecking crew. Hence, the free trade agreement-pushing, corporate education and charter school-loving, and Wall Street-abetting crew of New Democrats at all levels have really been tools of the highest order unless, of course, they knew better all along and were simply comfortable making deals with the devil. Either way, they too are responsible for the mess we are in at present.
What are the central targets of the Right’s strange creatures and what sort of Brave New World do they imagine?
MacLean carefully outlines their list of enemies: regulation loving environmentalists, health policy crusaders, progressive tax advocates, all tax-funded public education, and feminism with its tendency toward “socialism.” All these things and more were seen as threats to their vision where the only legitimate roles of the government were its policing and national defense functions—and even those could stand for a good amount of privatization.
Also seen as a danger to liberty is “a broad and inclusive electorate” that would inevitably have the inclination to want more than a servile role in American society. James Buchanan, the intellectual architect of this current in right-wing philosophy, explicitly complained that the U.S. was “rapidly enfranchising the illiterate” and saw mass voting as a problem to be contained.
If they are successful, those in this Buchanan-inspired movement envision a Social Darwinist paradise where “some will flourish” and others “will fall by the wayside.” No one will deserve health care, clean water, housing, education, labor rights, retirement security, fair criminal justice, or even democracy except those who can buy them. Voting rights will be restricted, state and municipal governments shackled, and the Constitution loaded with multiple “vetoes” to collective power.
MacLean notes that one of Buchanan’s heroes was James Calhoun, a great enemy of broad-based franchise in American history. And his vision fell right in line with the intellectual legacy he cherished:
Buchanan’s desired constitutional order enabled an era of unmatched corporate dominance, in which elites of North and South reunited in a shared disdain for the political participation of the great mass of the citizenry. His view of the Constitution allowed mass disenfranchisement in the South, suppression of working-class voting in the North and the West, treatment of workers that was odious enough to set off veritable civil wars between capital and labor, ruin the environment in community after community, and more.
Buchanan’s dream, she notes, was “plutocracy,” and we are well on our way to enshrining it. That is why MacLean goes so far as to describe the right-wing movement of think tanks and the subsequent political movement they inform as a kind anti-democratic “fifth column” set to undermine all that any lover of democracy holds dear.
MacLean ends her book by asking if we want to live in a society where we “value liberty of the wealthy minority above all else” and change our nation’s governing rules “play by play” as the Koch machine is currently doing. Do we want a society that “extinguishes ‘the political we’”?
That, she rightly notes, is the real “public choice” we face.