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In Review: Democracy in Chains

By Siddharth Bhavnani


A self-described historian of American social movements and their impact on public policy, Nancy MacLean charts the deceitful, dramatic and debilitating course of the radical movement that seeks to constrain democracy in her 2017 book aptly titled ‘Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan For America’. Starting her journey from the examination of the works of Milton Friedman, a widely recognizable right-wing economist, the author branches out to examine the work of people whom she argues to be the true masterminds, John Caldwell Calhoun and James McGill Buchanan. In the prologue, she explains how this was made possible by a rare misstep of the architects of the movement, as they left a historical trail unguarded at the Buchanan House which allowed the author unfettered access to the blueprint.


The amount of linkages that Nancy MacLean was able to develop from the material is admirable and also truly alarming. Even scarier is the simplicity with which she lays out her research in the book. The result of four years of work, commencing in 2013, is an exhaustive description of the movement to see the ultimate protection of economic liberty above all else. The author starts her book from 1865 and takes us through more than 150 years of US history. Starting with the early idea that Calhoun espoused, a belief among Southern elites that the Civil War was to preserve liberty rather than defending slavery, the author shows its development into more nefarious ideas as the decades progressed.


Although Calhoun’s ideology was limited in its influence within primarily the antebellum Southern states, it formed the basis for, nearly a century later, the Virginia School of political economy developed by Warren Nutter and James Buchanan. It is no coincidence that the idea espoused by Calhoun, a slave owner, later found backing in Virginia as a response to the Brown v. Board of Education, where the issue was again about race. However, a key feature of Brown recognized by both Colgate Darden, then President of the University of Virginia, and Buchanan was that of States’ rights yielding to individual rights.


In order to right what Buchanan saw as an affront and invasion of individual liberty, he along with support from Darden sought to create a rigorous academic center with the objective of creating a new school of political economy and social philosophy. The Thomas Jefferson Center for Political Economy and Social Philosophy was the center and gave birth to the Virginia school of political economy. The long-term orientation and the canniness of Buchanan in naming the studies conducted through the center are the true legacies of the center. The reason for the long-term success of the center was its adherence to two guiding principles viz. unquestioning loyalty to libertarian values combined with maintaining the conservative social order and exclusion of all those who valued collective security over individual (economic) liberty.


The coded phrases used in the academic material produced by the center such as ‘public choice’, ‘constitutional economics’ and ‘collective order’ are still used as innocuous terms with deeply sinister esoteric connotations demonstrated Buchanan’s skill of using jargons to mask his true goal. For example, ‘public choice’ referred to Buchanan’s study of how public officials made decisions. Meanwhile, the study on how government rules might be altered in order to limit an official’s ability to affect the will of the majority came to be known as ‘constitutional economics.’ Whereas, ‘collective order’ meant all organized social and political groups that looked to government for security and were thus considered the enemy of the center.


MacLean then takes us through the slow ebb and flow of the effects of the above ideas on American, British and Chilean policy throughout the 60’s and 70’s. A noteworthy mention is the particularly devastating outcome these ideas had on the Chilean populace when a new constitution based on Buchanan’s work was forced on the country in 1980 by the military junta in power after a coup.


Chileans had to live with this form of constrained democracy for thirty-nine years before a referendum on whether to replace the constitution was passed by lawmakers last year. However, this has now been rescheduled to October 25, 2020 due to the Covid-19 outbreak. The current right-wing President Sebastián Piñera is in power due to a constitutional provision that prevents consecutive terms led to disqualification of a popular socialist and former President Michelle Bachelet from the 2018 elections. Furthermore, President Piñera declared a ‘state of catastrophe’ in the country owing to the Covid-19 outbreak and is using it to remote massive amounts of protest art and sculptures from the epicenter of the protests that led to the passage of the referendum vote.


The ultimate enduring eureka moment for the reader occurs when MacLean connects the Koch bothers, Charles and David, particularly Charles to Buchanan and his efforts. The dogged determination demonstrated during the better part of fifty years by Charles Koch to shape American policy ultimately used and usurped James Buchanan as the world entered the twenty-first century with Charles Koch taking charge of the movement commenced in 1956. This change in leadership has mutated the movement and now instead of an academically rigorous center as the anchor, a cadre of operatives and think tanks (Cato Institute, Mercato Institute, American Legislative Exchange Council et all) with negligible academic credentials are the foot soldiers. Furthermore, the devastating expansion of the ideas into the application of journalism, law and public policy has resulted in the successful attempts of the right-wing in gradually weakening Social Security (the beacon of the New Deal) to a state where it is in a perpetual state of trouble. The text is thus a massively crucial must-read for everyone interested in identifying sinister movements resulting in constrained democracies all over the world.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — About the Author Siddharth Bhavnani, an avid reader from the 19–21 batch of IIFT, was first introduced to the magical world of books through the Bartimaeus sequence by Jonathan Stroud. He gradually developed an interest in the non-fiction genre and is interested in anthropological and political genres. He is also certified by FranklinCovey on the 7 Habits.


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