Book Review: Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean

Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean

How is it that a party that only 26% of American voters belong to has come to control most of our state governments and all branches of the Federal Government?

Nancy MacLean, in her book Democracy in Chain describes a long term and effective movement to undermine democracy in the U.S. The genius behind this movement was a man named James Buchanan, a libertarian economist at George Mason University in Virginia. Buchanan’s brand of libertarianism proposes that there should be no government restrictions upon business, basically an unregulated laissez faire economic system. Taxes should be low and only used to maintain the military and national security. Social programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps should be abolished.

Buchanan was well aware that measures to secure this business utopia would not go over well with much of the voting public. His proposals would have to be accomplished by stealth, by gradually undermining and limiting the democratic process.

If Buchanan was the brains behind the movement, the Koch brothers provided the funding. The Koch brothers funded Buchanan’s economics department at George Mason University as well as a plethora of right wing organizations and “think tanks,” The Cato Institute, The Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks  and the American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC) were just a few. Over the years the Koch brothers financed the indoctrination of hundreds, perhaps thousands of students.

In order for business to be unfettered, Buchanan, and his colleague Tylor Cowen saw that democracy must be chained. The oligarch’s utopia cannot be achieved in a truly democratic society.

“ ‘The freest countries have not generally been democratic,’ Cowen noted, with Chile being ‘the most successful’ in securing freedom (defined not as most of us would, as personal freedom, but as supplying the greatest economic liberty). Cowen pointed to Hong Kong and Singapore as other lasting examples, as well as to two other cases: Peru under Alberto Fujimori and New Zealand from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, which deregulated financial markets, privatized extensively, slashed taxes on the wealthy to create ‘a (nearly) flat tax,’ and undermined labor unions’ bargaining power. The professor identified another commonality in the success stories: ‘In no case were reforms brought on by popular demand for market-oriented ideas.’ The pro-liberty cause faced the same problem it always had: it wanted a radical transformation that ‘find[s] little or no support’ among the people. Cowen delivered the action implication of its minority following without mincing words: ‘If American political institutions render market-oriented reforms too difficult to achieve, then perhaps those institutions should be changed.’ The economist was creating, it seems fair to say, a handbook for how to conduct a fifth-column assault on democracy. ‘The weakening of the checks and balances’ in the American system, Cowen suggested, ‘would increase the chance of a very good outcome.’”

So how could the democratic process be undermined? Gerrymandering goes way back in American political tradition, and in Koch influenced state houses, such as Wisconsin and North Carolina, it was pursued with a vengeance. It became an applied mathematical science. The Koch organization also realized that minority voters would put a damper on their plans, so Republican state houses implemented a multitude of laws restricting access to the polls.

”After America elected its first black president, operatives throughout the apparatus and their allied officeholders systematically kindled the irrational conviction that Barack Obama had won through massive voter ‘fraud,’ and that, unless a battery of new laws prevented it, such fraud would be used to ‘steal’ more elections. This was the cadre at its most cynical. But so avidly has this big lie been spread that nearly half of registered voters, and even federal judges and Supreme Court justices, came to believe that fraud was a big problem—and cases have been decided on those fallacious assumptions. With fewer people voting, everything will be so much easier to achieve. In the two years after Republican candidates swept the 2010 midterm elections, ALEC-backed legislators in forty-one states introduced more than 180 bills to restrict who could vote and how. The measures would most reduce the political influence of low-income voters and young people, who had been inclining leftward. America had not witnessed such a burst of limits on voting rights since the calculated mass disenfranchisement instituted by southern states a century ago. But now the effort was national, not only regional, and before long it was affecting outcomes.”

Everyone who is concerned about the direction that politics in this country has been going should read this book. We have essentially become a plutocratic oligarchy controlled by a small clique of right wing billionaires. They have seriously undermined our democracy and, with the aid of the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, have legalized bribery. With corporate money deciding who gets elected, and the popular vote stifled by gerrymandering, voter suppression and vote tampering no legislation gets passed without the approval of the billionaire donors, and the political agenda of ALEC will continue to erode our democracy.

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