Cover image of "Democracy in Chains," a book exploring the Right-Wing conspiracy

In Dark Money, New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer exposed the dominant role of what Bernie Sanders calls “the billionaire class” behind the rise of the Radical Right in America—what then-First Lady Hillary Clinton famously called “the vast Right-Wing conspiracy.” In Democracy in Chains, Duke University professor Nancy MacLean probes the historical roots of the radical libertarian ideology they profess. Together, the two books deepen our understanding of the misleadingly-named “conservative” movement that has come to dominate American politics in the second decade of the 21st century.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

The historical roots of today’s “conservative” movement

MacLean’s argument is essentially simple. Dig down to the intellectual roots of today’s Radical Right, she asserts, and you’ll find John C. Calhoun‘s spirited defense of slavery in the 19th century and Harry Byrd‘s campaign of massive resistance to desegregation in the 1950s and 60s. Contemporary “conservatives” don’t acknowledge the racist roots of their ideology in the “states’ rights” arguments of the past. They advocate “economic liberty” grounded in a “free market,” citing the work of Right-Wing economists Ludwig von Mises, Friedich A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman.

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean (2017) 368 pages ★★★★★

While acknowledging the influence of these and other intellectuals on what has come to be called the conservative movement, MacLean persuasively argues that instead the principal figure in the evolution of the ideas at the core of today’s Radical is a lesser-known Nobel Prize-winning economist, James M. Buchanan.

“The vast Right-Wing conspiracy”

In a detailed exploration of Buchanan’s work at a succession of Right-Wing campuses, chiefly the University of Virginia and George Mason University, MacLean points to his decades-long partnership with Charles Koch and other ultra-wealthy donors as the central thread in the ascendancy of the Right. “In the eventual merger of Koch’s money and managerial talent and the Buchanan team’s decades of work monomaniacally identifying how the populace became more powerful than the propertied,” she writes, “a fifth column movement would come into being, the likes of which no nation had ever seen.”

She characterizes her account as “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 stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and national levels, back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation.”

This movement’s hidden agenda—and it has been consciously hidden for many years—is to end public education, abolish Social Security and Medicare, close down the U.S. Postal Service, repeal minimum wage laws and prohibitions against child labor, eliminate foreign aid, close the Environmental Protection Agency, and eventually end taxes and government regulation of any kind. In other words, given the stealth nature of this radical libertarian movement, Hillary Clinton was right on-target when she called it a “vast Right-Wing conspiracy.”

But why has so much time and money gone into this effort? Buchanan had a simple answer to that question: “‘Why must the rich be made to suffer?'”

Criticism of Democracy in Chains

Given MacLean’s obviously negative perspective on these developments, it’s no surprise that her book has been bitterly criticized by commentators on the Right. For  example, one critic, writing in the Washington Post, referred to “dubious claims” in MacLean’s account, challenging the importance she ascribes to Buchanan’s work and the relevance of the resistance to desegregation in 1950s Virginia. Others have questioned her scholarship. Judging from what I’ve seen, I’m not convinced that these critics have actually read MacLean’s book.

What “economic liberty” really means

Buchanan espoused “public choice theory.” In his view, which won him the Nobel, democracy inevitably leads to overspending because the majority continually forces politicians to fund new government services. The taxes required to fund these services constrain the “economic liberty” of wealthy people and corporations. Buchanan’s intellectual descendants call these privileged people and their business enterprises “makers,” as opposed to the rest of us, who are “takers.”

MacLean observes in her conclusion that “There is another, biting irony to note: the goal of this cause is not, in the end, to shrink big government, as its rhetoric implies. Quite the contrary: the interpretation of the Constitution [they seek] to impose would give federal courts vast new powers to strike down measures desired by voters and passed by their duly elected representatives at all levels—and would require greatly expanded police powers to control the resultant popular anger.”

This is one of the Good books about billionaires.

My review of Jane Mayer’s Dark Money is here: How the Koch brothers are revolutionizing American politics. You might also be interested in Robert Reich explains how to make capitalism work for the middle class. And, for another take on the origins of today’s Right-Wing movement, see my review of Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism, by Kathryn S. Olmsted. It’s at How today’s conservatism grew in the cotton fields of California.

You may enjoy browsing through 20 top nonfiction books about history.

For more good books on the history of the US, see Top 20 popular books for understanding American history.

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, on the Home Page.