In 1955 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its second Brown v. Board of Education ruling, calling for the dismantling of segregation in public schools with “all deliberate speed.”
Thirty-seven-year-old James McGill Buchanan liked to call himself a Tennessee country boy. No less a figure than Milton Friedman had extolled Buchanan’s potential. As Colgate Whitehead Darden Jr., the president of the University of Virginia reviewed the document, he might have wondered if the newly hired economist had read his mind. For without mentioning the crisis at hand, Buchanan’s proposal put in writing what Darden was thinking: Virginia needed to find a better way to deal with the incursion on states’ rights represented by Brown.
States’ rights, in effect, were yielding in preeminence to individual rights. It was not difficult for either Darden or Buchanan to imagine how a court might now rule if presented with evidence of the state of Virginia’s archaic labor relations, its measures to suppress voting, or its efforts to buttress the power of reactionary rural whites by underrepresenting the moderate voters of the cities and suburbs of Northern Virginia. Federal meddling could rise to levels once unimaginable.
What the court ruling represented to Buchanan was personal. Northern liberals—the very people who looked down upon southern whites like him, he was sure—were now going to tell his people how to run their society. And to add insult to injury, he and people like him with property were no doubt going to be taxed more to pay for all the improvements that were now deemed necessary and proper for the state to make.
Find the resources, he proposed to Darden, for me to create a new center on the campus of the University of Virginia, and I will use this center to create a new school of political economy and social philosophy. It would be an academic center, rigorously so, but one with a quiet political agenda: to defeat the “perverted form” of liberalism that sought to destroy their way of life, “a social order,” as he described it, “built on individual liberty,” a term with its own coded meaning but one that Darden surely understood. The center, Buchanan promised, would train “a line of new thinkers” in how to argue against those seeking to impose an “increasing role of government in economic and social life.”
Buchanan fully understood the scale of the challenge he was undertaking and promised no immediate results. But he made clear that he would devote himself passionately to this cause.
Buchanan’s team had no discernible success in decreasing the federal government’s pressure on the South all the way through the 1960s and ’70s. But take a longer view—follow the story forward to the second decade of the twenty-first century—and a different picture emerges, one that is both a testament to Buchanan’s intellectual powers and, at the same time, the utterly chilling story of the ideological origins of the single most powerful and least understood threat to democracy today: the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance.
A quest that began as a quiet attempt to prevent the state of Virginia from having to meet national democratic standards of fair treatment and equal protection under the law would, some sixty years later, become the veritable opposite of itself: a stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and the national levels, back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation.
The goal of all these actions was to destroy our institutions, or at least change them so radically that they became shadows of their former selves?
This, then, is the true origin story of today’s well-heeled radical right, told through the intellectual arguments, goals, and actions of the man without whom this movement would represent yet another dead-end fantasy of the far right, incapable of doing serious damage to American society.
When I entered Buchanan’s personal office, part of a stately second-floor suite, I felt overwhelmed. There were papers stacked everywhere, in no discernible order. Not knowing where to begin, I decided to proceed clockwise, starting with a pile of correspondence that was resting, helter-skelter, on a chair to the left of the door. I picked it up and began to read. It contained confidential letters from 1997 and 1998 concerning Charles Koch’s investment of millions of dollars in Buchanan’s Center for Study of Public Choice and a flare-up that followed.
Catching my breath, I pulled up an empty chair and set to work. It took me time—a great deal of time—to piece together what these documents were telling me. They revealed how the program Buchanan had first established at the University of Virginia in 1956 and later relocated to George Mason University, the one meant to train a new generation of thinkers to push back against Brown and the changes in constitutional thought and federal policy that had enabled it, had become the research-and-design center for a much more audacious project, one that was national in scope. This project was no longer simply about training intellectuals for a battle of ideas; it was training operatives 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. These included the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, the State Policy Network, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Tax Foundation, the Reason Foundation, the Leadership Institute, and more, to say nothing of the Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries itself.
I learned how and why Charles Koch first became interested in Buchanan’s work in the early 1970s, called on his help with what became the Cato Institute, and worked with his team in various organizations. What became clear is that by the late 1990s, Koch had concluded that he’d finally found the set of ideas he had been seeking for at least a quarter century by then—ideas so groundbreaking, so thoroughly thought-out, so rigorously tight, that once put into operation, they could secure the transformation in American governance he wanted. From then on, Koch contributed generously to turning those ideas into his personal operational strategy to, as the team saw it, save capitalism from democracy—permanently.
In his first big gift to Buchanan’s program, Charles Koch signaled his desire for the work he funded to be conducted behind the backs of the majority. “Since we are greatly outnumbered,” Koch conceded to the assembled team, the movement could not win simply by persuasion. Instead, the cause’s insiders had to use their knowledge of “the rules of the game”—that game being how modern democratic governance works—“to create winning strategies.” A brilliant engineer with three degrees from MIT, Koch warned, “The failure to use our superior technology ensures failure.” Translation: the American people would not support their plans, so to win they had to work behind the scenes, using a covert strategy instead of open declaration of what they really wanted.
Future-oriented, Koch’s men (and they are, overwhelmingly, men) gave no thought to the fate of the historical trail they left unguarded. And thus, a movement that prided itself, even congratulated itself, on its ability to carry out a revolution below the radar of prying eyes (especially those of reporters) had failed to lock one crucial door: the front door to a house that let an academic archive rat like me, operating on a vague hunch, into the mind of the man who started it all.
What animated Buchanan, what became the laser focus of his deeply analytic mind, was the seemingly unfettered ability of an increasingly more powerful federal government to force individuals with wealth to pay for an increasing number of public goods and social programs they had had no personal say in approving. Better schools, newer textbooks, and more courses for black students might help the children, for example, but whose responsibility was it to pay for these improvements? The parents of these students? Others who wished voluntarily to help out? Or people like himself, compelled through increasing taxation to contribute to projects they did not wish to support? To Buchanan, what others described as taxation to advance social justice or the common good was nothing more than a modern version of mob attempts to take by force what the takers had no moral right to: the fruits of another person’s efforts. In his mind, to protect wealth was to protect the individual against a form of legally sanctioned gangsterism. Where did this gangsterism begin? Not in the way we might have expected him to explain it to Darden: with do-good politicians, aspiring attorneys seeking to make a name for themselves in constitutional law, or even activist judges. It began before that: with individuals, powerless on their own, who had figured out that if they joined together to form social movements, they could use their strength in numbers to move government officials to hear their concerns and act upon them.
The only fact that registered in his mind was the “collective” source of their power—and that, once formed, such movements tended to stick around, keeping tabs on government officials and sometimes using their numbers to vote out those who stopped responding to their needs. How was this fair to other individuals? How was this American?
Even when conservatives later gained the upper hand in American politics, Buchanan saw his idea of economic liberty pushed aside. Richard Nixon expanded government more than his predecessors had, with costly new agencies and regulations, among them a vast new Environmental Protection Agency. George Wallace, a candidate strongly identified with the South and with the right, nonetheless supported public spending that helped white people. Ronald Reagan talked the talk of small government, but in the end, the deficit ballooned during his eight years in office.
Had there not been someone else as deeply frustrated as Buchanan, as determined to fight the uphill fight, but in his case with much keener organizational acumen, the story this book tells would no doubt have been very different. But there was. His name was Charles Koch. An entrepreneurial genius who had multiplied the earnings of the corporation he inherited by a factor of at least one thousand, he, too, had an unrealized dream of liberty, of a capitalism all but free of governmental interference and, at least in his mind, thus able to achieve the prosperity and peace that only this form of capitalism could produce. The puzzle that preoccupied him was how to achieve this in a democracy where most people did not want what he did.
Ordinary electoral politics would never get Koch what he wanted. Passionate about ideas to the point of obsession, Charles Koch had worked for three decades to identify and groom the most promising libertarian thinkers in hopes of somehow finding a way to break the impasse. He subsidized and at one point even ran an obscure academic outfit called the Institute for Humane Studies in that quest. “I have supported so many hundreds of scholars” over the years, he once explained, “because, to me, this is an experimental process to find the best people and strategies.”
The goal of the cause, Buchanan announced to his associates, should no longer be to influence who makes the rules, to vest hopes in one party or candidate. The focus must shift from who rules to changing the rules. For liberty to thrive, Buchanan now argued, the cause must figure out how to put legal—indeed, constitutional shackles on public officials, shackles so powerful that no matter how sympathetic these officials might be to the will of majorities, no matter how concerned they were with their own reelections, they would no longer have the ability to respond to those who used their numbers to get government to do their bidding. There was a second, more diabolical aspect to the solution Buchanan proposed, one that we can now see influenced Koch’s own thinking. Once these shackles were put in place, they had to be binding and permanent. The only way to ensure that the will of the majority could no longer influence representative government on core matters of political economy was through what he called “constitutional revolution.”
By the late 1990s, Charles Koch realized that the thinker he was looking for, the one who understood how government became so powerful in the first place and how to take it down in order to free up capitalism—the one who grasped the need for stealth because only piecemeal, yet mutually reinforcing, assaults on the system would survive the prying eyes of the media, was James Buchanan.
The Koch team’s most important stealth move, and the one that proved most critical to success, was to wrest control over the machinery of the Republican Party, beginning in the late 1990s and with sharply escalating determination after 2008. From there it was just a short step to lay claim to being the true representatives of the party, declaring all others RINOS—Republicans in name only. But while these radicals of the right operate within the Republican Party and use that party as a delivery vehicle, make no mistake about it: the cadre’s loyalty is not to the Grand Old Party or its traditions or standard-bearers. Their loyalty is to their revolutionary cause.
Our trouble in grasping what has happened comes, in part, from our inherited way of seeing the political divide. Americans have been told for so long, from so many quarters, that political debate can be broken down into conservative versus liberal, pro-market versus pro-government, Republican versus Democrat, that it is hard to recognize that something more confounding is afoot, a shrewd long game blocked from our sight by these stale classifications.
The Republican Party is now in the control of a group of true believers for whom compromise is a dirty word. Their cause, they say, is liberty. But by that they mean the insulation of private property rights from the reach of government, and the takeover of what was long public (schools, prisons, western lands, and much more) by corporations, a system that would radically reduce the freedom of the many. In a nutshell, they aim to hollow out democratic resistance. And by its own lights, the cause is nearing success.
The 2016 election looked likely to bring a big presidential win with across-the-board benefits. The donor network had so much money and power at its disposal as the primary season began that every single Republican presidential front-runner was bowing to its agenda. Not a one would admit that climate change was a real problem or that guns weren’t good, and the more widely distributed, the better. Every one of them attacked public education and teachers’ unions and advocated more charter schools and even tax subsidies for religious schools. All called for radical changes in taxation and government spending. Each one claimed that Social Security and Medicare were in mortal crisis and that individual retirement and health savings accounts, presumably to be invested with Wall Street firms, were the best solution.
Although Trump himself may not fully understand what his victory signaled, it put him between two fundamentally different, and opposed, approaches to political economy, with real-life consequences for us all. One was in its heyday when Buchanan set to work. In economics, its standard-bearer was John Maynard Keynes, who believed that for a modern capitalist democracy to flourish, all must have a share in the economy’s benefits and in its governance. Markets had great virtues, Keynes knew—but also significant built-in flaws that only government had the capacity to correct.
As a historian, I know that his way of thinking, as implemented by elected officials during the Great Depression, saved liberal democracy in the United States from the rival challenges of fascism and Communism in the face of capitalism’s most cataclysmic collapse. And that it went on to shape a postwar order whose operating framework yielded ever more universal hope that, by acting together and levying taxes to support shared goals, life could be made better for all.
The most starkly opposed vision is that of Buchanan’s Virginia school. It teaches that all such talk of the common good has been a smoke screen for “takers” to exploit “makers,” in the language now current, using political coalitions to “vote themselves a living” instead of earning it by the sweat of their brows. Where Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek allowed that public officials were earnestly trying to do right by the citizenry, even as they disputed the methods, Buchanan believed that government failed because of bad faith: because activists, voters, and officials alike used talk of the public interest to mask the pursuit of their own personal self-interest at others’ expense. His was a cynicism so toxic that, if widely believed, it could eat like acid at the foundations of civic life. And he went further by the 1970s, insisting that the people and their representatives must be permanently prevented from using public power as they had for so long. Manacles, as it were, must be put on their grasping hands.
Is what we are dealing with merely a social movement of the right whose radical ideas must eventually face public scrutiny and rise or fall on their merits? Or is this the story of something quite different, something never before seen in American history? Could it be—and I use these words quite hesitantly and carefully—a fifth-column assault on American democratic governance?
The term “fifth column” has been applied to stealth supporters of an enemy who assist by engaging in propaganda and even sabotage to prepare the way for its conquest.
This cause is different. Pushed by relatively small numbers of radical-right billionaires and millionaires who have become profoundly hostile to America’s modern system of government, an apparatus decades in the making, funded by those same billionaires and millionaires, has been working to undermine the normal governance of our democracy. Indeed, one such manifesto calls for a “hostile takeover” of Washington, D.C. That hostile takeover maneuvers very much like a fifth column, operating in a highly calculated fashion, more akin to an occupying force than to an open group engaged in the usual give-and-take of politics. The size of this force is enormous. The social scientists who have led scholars in researching the Koch network write that it “operates on the scale of a national U.S. political party” and employs more than three times as many people as the Republican committees had on their payrolls in 2015.
For all its fine phrases, what this cause really seeks is a return to oligarchy, to a world in which both economic and effective political power are to be concentrated in the hands of a few. It would like to reinstate the kind of political economy that prevailed in America at the opening of the twentieth century, when the mass disfranchisement of voters and the legal treatment of labor unions as illegitimate enabled large corporations and wealthy individuals to dominate Congress and most state governments alike, and to feel secure that the nation’s courts would not interfere with their reign. The first step toward understanding what this cause actually wants is to identify the deep lineage of its core ideas. And although its spokespersons would like you to believe they are disciples of James Madison, the leading architect of the U.S. Constitution, it is not true.
Their intellectual lodestar is John C. Calhoun. He developed his radical critique of democracy a generation after the nation’s founding, as the brutal economy of chattel slavery became entrenched in the South, and his vision horrified Madison.
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America
by Nancy Maclean
Nancy K. MacLean is an American historian. She is the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University and the author of numerous books and articles on various aspects of twentieth-century United States history.
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