Ep 29: Nancy MacLean on ‘Democracy in Chains’

Nancy MacLean is the William H. Chafe Distinguished Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. Her book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction, was described by Booklist as “perhaps the best explanation to date of the roots of the political divide that threatens to irrevocably alter American government.” It won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Current Interest, the Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Award, and the Lillian Smith Book Award. Read more here

In this episode, we examine a direct and material challenge to democracy in the United States. 

For centuries, democratic reformers have sought to wrest power from authoritarian systems. We tend to take for granted that republican democracy has successfully supplanted authoritarian oligarchy in the United States, but some extreme thinkers continue to view democracy as a threat to their power. 

In her research into the archives of James McGill Buchanan, Prof. Nancy MacLean discovered original documentation of a multi-decade coordinated effort by Charles and David Koch, and their network of political donors and allies, to capture our institutions of self-government and obstruct our avenues of redress. 

The Magna Carta—though it intended less a modern democratization and more a sharing of power between the monarch and aristocracy—included this foundational commitment to universal justice: 

To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice.

The Declaration of Independence is structured largely as an indictment of an abusive autocrat. The Constitution’s call for collective work toward “a more perfect Union” recognizes the aspiration to move toward full embodiment of that world in which no one is denied right or justice. 

The First Amendment prohibits any action by Congress to abridge the right of the people to petition the government for redress of grievances. In other words: No action within our system is legitimate if it aims to reduce the protection of even the least powerful person’s rights. 

From the beginning, it was evident the American republic would have to recognize the rights of every individual, or it would fail to be that “more perfect Union”. John C. Calhoun was one of the leading opponents of that project of liberation; his mission was to defend slaveholders, whatever the cost. His secessionist politics preached transactional disloyalty to the Constitution: do as I demand, or else. It was a politics of hostage-taking, in defense of those who enslaved and tortured other human beings; it led to the Civil War. 

After the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education ordered the desegregation of public schools, Calhoun’s secessionist thinking was revived by racist politicians who sought to defund public education and move everyone into private schools, where they hoped to reinstate racist educational exclusion. 

Having become the new chair of economics at the University of Virginia, James McGill Buchanan sought to help those Virginia politicians overthrow desegregation. Buchanan developed “public choice economics”. Charles Koch viewed these ideas as a “technology” that could allow a tiny minority, maybe less than 1% of the population, to impose its will. 

What is that will? 

MacLean explains that extreme libertarians like Charles and David Koch believe government has only three legitimate functions: defense, rule of law, and political order. To their mindset: government funding for such basic needs as education, the Postal Service, Social Security, environmental protection, or infrastructure, is illegitimate. 

In other words, if they can impose their will, most people’s lives will become unlivable, and democracy will functionally cease. This is why, she notes: 

They deliberately never tell us what their vision of government looks like, because if they did, most people would recoil in horror. 

The more we learn about this anti-democracy agenda, the more evident it seems that, like Calhoun and the Virginia segregationists who weaponized his ideas, the goal is to make room for a powerful few to do as they wish, with impunity. 

The big question is: Can democracy win? 

In the beginning, the abolitionists were just a few dozen people in the American Abolition Society. Eventually, their work led to a progressive anti-slavery Republican Party, Emancipation, and Reconstruction. 

Today, MacLean reminds us, majorities of the American people support labor rights, human rights, environmental protection, women’s rights, science, innovation, and the building of human capital. The threat is that well-funded anti-democracy ventures remake our democracy so we are less able to use it to defend our common humanity.

The rest of us need to come together and reclaim the meaning of the word “freedom”, she says. Freedom should not mean the conditional “liberty” allowed only to a powerful few, but the universal right to freedom from domination, freedom from arbitrary abuse and unaccountable harm. 

Listen to the full podcast for a lot more detail and exploration of hard questions regarding the state of American democracy. 

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