Democracy’s Critics


You can't understand the modern right without understanding their fundamental contempt for democracy.

The malevolent incompetence of the Trump White House packs a certain entertainment value, but it is also a distraction; a bumbling misdirection in a long confidence game. At stake, as historian Nancy MacLean underscores in her new book, Democracy in Chains, is not just political power, not just the final dismantling of the New Deal order, but the very future of our democracy.

Whatever the fate of Donald Trump and his cronies, the rule of the radical right — in Congress, in statehouses, in the courts — will remain largely unchecked. And with each electoral cycle or legislative session of that rule, the prospects for challenging it fade.

Democracy in Chains is a remarkable book. At its core is a startling archival discovery: the unsorted and unprocessed papers of the University of Virginia economist James McGill Buchanan. Buchanan was a quiet but central figure in the making of the modern right: indeed, in MacLean’s account, Buchanan appears — like a libertarian Zelig — at each critical juncture in this history.

Educated at the University of Chicago, he takes up his first academic post at the University of Virginia as a fierce defender of segregation and “states’ rights.” Discouraged by both the progress of civil rights and Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964, and wearing out his welcome at Virginia, he decamps to UCLA, only to be horrified by the diversity of the setting and the radicalism of the students. He retreats to Virginia Tech for a decade, before being lured to George Mason University on the eve of the Reagan Revolution.

At each stop, he builds a privately funded fiefdom designed to develop and disseminate the libertarian creed. At each setback, he doubles his resolve to put ideas into action. With each year, he grows wearier of democratic institutions and the tyranny of majority rule.

As an economist, Buchanan was instrumental in developing the moral vocabulary not only for a zealous veneration of property rights, but for a deep suspicion of affirmative state action. As a southerner, taking up his appointment at Virginia in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, he did not hesitate to champion states’ rights — and massive resistance to integration — as if these too were just abstractions of economy theory. As an academic, he was a fierce and reliable shill for corporate benefactors, most notably and generously Charles Koch — who shared Buchanan’s blind faith in the market, his contempt for democracy, and his willingness to play the long game.

While this is a work of history, MacLean’s overriding goal is to shed light on our current moment; to better understand the roots, arguments, goals, motives, and methods of the radical right. MacLean is interested in how we got here, but Democracy in Chains is really about what comes next — for the Right and for the rest of us.
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