Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America

by Nancy MacLean

Paperback, 2018


"An explosive expose of the right's relentless campaign to eliminate unions, suppress voting, privatize public education, and change the Constitution. "Perhaps the best explanation to date of the roots of the political divide that threatens to irrevocably alter American government." --Booklist (starred review) Behind today's headlines of billionaires taking over our government is a secretive political establishment with long, deep, and troubling roots. The capitalist radical right has been working not simply to change who rules, but to fundamentally alter the rules of democratic governance. But billionaires did not launch this movement; a white intellectual in the embattled Jim Crow South did. Democracy in Chains names its true architect--the Nobel Prize-winning political economist James McGill Buchanan--and dissects the operation he and his colleagues designed over six decades to alter every branch of government to disempower the majority. In a brilliant and engrossing narrative, Nancy MacLean shows how Buchanan forged his ideas about government in a last gasp attempt to preserve the white elite's power in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. In response to the widening of American democracy, he developed a brilliant, if diabolical, plan to undermine the ability of the majority to use its numbers to level the playing field between the rich and powerful and the rest of us. Corporate donors and their right-wing foundations were only too eager to support Buchanan's work in teaching others how to divide America into "makers" and "takers." And when a multibillionaire on a messianic mission to rewrite the social contract of the modern world, Charles Koch, discovered Buchanan, he created a vast, relentless, and multi-armed machine to carry out Buchanan's strategy. Without Buchanan's ideas and Koch's money, the libertarian right would not have succeeded in its stealth takeover of the Republican Party as a delivery mechanism. Now, with Mike Pence as Vice President, the cause has a longtime loyalist in the White House, not to mention a phalanx of Republicans in the House, the Senate, a majority of state governments, and the courts, all carrying out the plan. That plan includes harsher laws to undermine unions, privatizing everything from schools to health care and Social Security, and keeping as many of us as possible from voting. Based on ten years of unique research, Democracy in Chains tells a chilling story of right-wing academics and big money run amok. This revelatory work of scholarship is also a call to arms to protect the achievements of twentieth-century American self-government"--… (more)



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Penguin Books (2018), Edition: Reprint, 368 pages

Media reviews

This book ticks a lot of boxes. First, it does not shrink from acknowledging the existence of a conspiracy working against the interests of the ordinary folk. That it centres on neo-liberal economic theories and the money of – amongst others – the Koch brothers and the Mont Pelerin Society will
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come as no surprise to readers of this journal. The surprise may be the scope and depth revealed. Second, it respects the evidence and produces chapter and verse collated by an eminent historian who had the sense to fall on the archives of her anti-hero James Buchanan, the Nobel Prize winning neo-liberal economist. Third, it does not fail to identify the smoking guns and culprits responsible for many of the bad things going on in the world. Finally, it is written with verve and plenty of entertaining anecdotes. Other reviews have pointed to weaknesses but these are forgivable and 1 do not undermine the gist of the story. Moreover McLean has provided a robust defence. ... My reaction on reading the book was to see it as showing a vast conspiracy to limit the scope of democracy, and damage the interests of ordinary people. Despite McLean’s own equivocation and the risks associated with calling out a conspiracy, I stick with my gut instinct and McLean’s final judgement, which I think meets the duck criterion in full. In other words if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks . . . it’s probably a duck.
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Power consolidation sometimes seems like a perpetual motion machine, continually widening the gap between those who have power and money and those who don’t. Still, “Democracy in Chains” leaves me with hope: Perhaps as books like MacLean’s continue to shine a light on important truths,
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Americans will begin to realize they need to pay more attention and not succumb to the cynical view that known liars make the best leaders.
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As I hope is clear, I think that Democracy in Chains is well written and that the research it contains is both interesting and in many cases illuminating. But as an actual history, as a reliable account of the centrality of James Buchanan and his work in a gigantic conspiracy designed to end
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democracy in America, it turns far away from its mark. It is the story of an alternative past that never actually happened.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member Illiniguy71
Perhaps the most important book I have read in decades. Explains the career and thought of an obscure economist named James McGill Buchanan. He was a libertarian who advocated secretly undermining American democracy in order to achieve his program. These ideas have in more recent decades been
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promoted and funded by Charles Koch and have great support within the right and the Republican Party today. The book tells us what to expect if these ideas of pure "economic freedom" become ever more incorporated into our public policy. Some parts of the book can seem tedious and too detailed concerning Buchanan's career, but it is absolutely essential that as many of us as possible understand the book's message.
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LibraryThing member Brumby18
From and article by sam Tanenhaus in the Aus Fin Review 30jun2017
story of american buchanan herbert hoover, taft, well healed radical right
LibraryThing member Othemts
This book documents the history of the political and economic ideology that has come to dominate the Republican party today. A lot of the familiar figures are here from Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman to Charles and David Koch. But the central figure of this narrative is James Buchanan, founder
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of the "Virginia school" of political economy - teaching and training economists at University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and George Mason University - and a major figure in the Mont Pelerin Society and Cato Institute. Buchanan put forward the public choice theory which introduced many familiar ideas of limited government, anti-regulation, anti-taxation, and rewarding the "job creators" into the public debate. He also came up with long-term strategies of eroding the public's trust in the government and using the proximity to Washington, DC to keep close ties with right wing leaders while economists trained in his methods went through a revolving door between academia, lobbying, and government positions. MacLean's writing is obviously biased and I doubt that many of her most conspiratorial implications are 100% accurate. Nevertheless it is clear that this particular form of right-wing/libertarian ideology has taken hold of at least one major party and the wealthy individuals and corporations who support it, and that it is due to a many decade effort to influence hearts and minds by Buchanan and his cohort.
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LibraryThing member muddyboy
This is a book that every thinking citizen in our country should read. This shows the history of how Libertarians are slowing undercutting our democracy and replacing it with an oligarchy chiefly led by the Koch brothers. This is a move to privatize anything the government is part of to reap the
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vast amount of profits that will come from this for wealthy corporations. Even today there is a move to privatize the V. A. Include the post office, public schools, the EPA, Obamacare etc. They would love to end Social Security (for IRA"s) Medicare and Medicaid. It is part of a giant money grab by wealthy interests who wrap themselves in "freedom".
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LibraryThing member kewing
Economists like to portray their profession as a "science," but in truth there is as much or more faith than there is science. The same generally applies to political science as well. When the two mix, as it does in "political economy," then beliefs often seem to take precedence. Maclean, the
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author, is a historian and the presentation of history is shaped by the author's worldview. That being said, the book does not do what I would expect in presenting public choice economics or economic liberty or any rational definition of liberty--either economic, political, individual or social. At the same time, the book makes me extremely uncomfortable--if even 50% of what the author writes is true, then American democracy is at greater risk than I already believe it to be. Libertarianism as portrayed here (and elsewhere) leads to plutocracy, authoritarianism, and anarchy--I tend to agree. For the record, I'm fiercely independent politically, although I lean left of center--I believe there is more to be gained through collaboration and cooperation than through "great men" with money and/or charisma. I also tend to be skeptical of conspiracy theories in general--although I found the discussion in the chapter on Chile under Pinochet compelling.
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LibraryThing member willszal
“Democracy in Chains” has received praise from the left and critique from the right. Some have called its journalistic integrity into question.

What is the context that has produced this book and controversy? Trump holds the presidency—an unprecedented failure of the immune system of our
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federal government. The Koch brothers plan to put $400 million into the 2018 election cycle. They’re so over-the-top that they got a millionaire’s tax pulled off the Massachusetts ballot—even though they have nothing to do with Massachusetts. Wealth inequality is at all-time highs in the United States; the United Nations did a study of the US and found 9 million houseless Americans, an embarrassment that will haunt our nation for centuries to come. Egged on by Russia, as well as libertarian funders at home, polarization has brought both the House and the Senate, as well as political discourse at large, to a halt. Belief in climate change peaked in the US somewhere around 2009. So is it any wonder that we’d have people looking to connect the dots?

There are other ways to explain how we’ve ended up here, but it’s not that much of a stretch to posit that James Buchanan, a 1986 winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, had something to do with it. Buchanan died in 2013, and this book documents his career in a field called public choice theory. Buchanan and the Kochs are both looking to maximize “liberty” and minimize democracy. To some liberal Americans, this might sound striking, but the United States is actually one of the least democratic democracies, and is a great proving grounds for libertarian social policies.

The most memorable quote in the book is from Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University and pop blogger, about the libertarian vision for the liquidation of labor, and the US resembling the tent villages of Rio de Janeiro, where environmental legislation is lax enough to destroy access to potable drinking water.

The last section of this book slows down, but overall it’s riveting. My next area of research: public choice theory.
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LibraryThing member annbury
A wonderful book. The missing half star is due to the fact that she does not give an adequate history of the Mt Pelerin Society. She focuses on
James Buchanan, a future Nobel in economics, and Charles Koch, and gives
a good background to each. I knew about KocH, but I ha d no idea about the economist.
LibraryThing member arosoff
I was aware of the criticism of this book from some libertarian scholars prior to reading this, so I read it with a more critical eye than I might otherwise have if I had only read the positive reviews. I'm not qualified to judge whether or not the critics are wholly correct (some complaints
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smacked of special pleading). Full disclosure: I am in no way an economic conservative or libertarian.

McLean has assembled some solid building blocks here in terms of an intellectual backdrop to contemporary anti-government political/economic theory: the work of scholars who had an underlying distrust of government and how they came to become an influential wing of thought. We have followers of Hayek and the Austrian School, the outsized influence of Charles Koch, and so on.

Despite that, the book doesn't quite gel as it should, for multiple reasons. McLean is not an economist. She doesn't really understand public choice theory. I am far from an expert, but I would not have understood its basic foundation if I hadn't done some extra research. She highlights particular examples of Buchanan's thought, such as his report into school segregation or his work in Chile, without giving the big picture in enough detail. She also doesn't give much of the theoretical basis of other influential economists and thinkers beyond a fundamental distrust of governmental institutions and belief in the market, preferring to emphasize practical policy prescriptions.

Her claim that Buchanan was crucial to the modern economic-libertarian movement is not fully supported by the text. While he was far from unimportant, McLean never fully demonstrates his direct influence. This is in part because the book is too short. The text of the book is only 234 pages, which gives you the sense of getting the highlight reel instead of seeing the entire game. McLean is also prone to using very short, out of context quotes, which makes me curious about their context. What's additionally frustrating about this book is that there is more material she could have used and did not. Several followers of this school of thought have outright suggested that the franchise be restricted, because the uninformed masses make poor choices.

There's also an air of "conspiracy!" that, again, isn't quite supported. The right wing plan may have been stealthy at one point, but it's been quite apparent for some time. More care could have been taken to draw together the applications of that movement, rather than brief paragraphs about labor and schools.

Somewhere, a great book is waiting to be written about libertarian economics and their practical application and misapplication. Sadly, this isn't it.
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LibraryThing member Chris.Wolak
Compulsively readable and written with a sense of urgency...for good reason. Libertarian billionaires like Charles Koch seem to be well on their way to transforming our democracy into an oligarchy. Decades of eroding citizen's trust in our government and gutting education while filling the
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judiciary with those trained on James Buchanan's economic theories is ensuring that the few control the many. Turns out our Constitution and democratic system are still serving the needs of the elite white property owners at the expense of everyone else. It is both shocking and depressing.
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LibraryThing member martialalex92
The fact that this book came under such a fierce political attack by the institutions it critiques should speak to its value. MacLean does a good job winding through the life of Buchanan while always drawing things back to modern day impacts. The only drawback is that unlike Dark Money this one is
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written with a much clearer moral voice to it, criticizing blatantly undemocratic actions and casting a clear judgment on historical figures. That said, the book is over 50 pages of bibliography with many direct quotes, so having read it it's hard to argue she misrepresents anything.

Also the final chapter is really good at tying everything together, specifically with the line "The libertarian cause .... was never really about freedom as most people would define it. It was about the promotion of crippling division among the people so as to end any interference with what those who held vast power over others believe should be their prerogatives"
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National Book Award (Finalist — Nonfiction — 2017)
LA Times Book Prize (Finalist — 2017)
Booklist Editor's Choice: Adult Books (Social Sciences — 2017)


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1101980974 / 9781101980972
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