Even though the attempted coup to overturn our election is run by an incompetent group of grifters, we should be alarmed. Even with those election results having now entered landslide territory, we should remain vigilant. Although the latest lawsuit will soon end up adding another number to the losing side of the president’s 1-55 record in the courts on this matter, we should remain concerned about our future.
Yes, even when Harold Stassen’s record nine defeats while running for president is under threat of being broken by Donald Trump in just one year, as he loses state after state again and again with his meaningless recounts, we need to worry.
The reason is that Donald Trump is not the biggest threat to democracy. He’s just the loudest.
All of this turmoil has been playing out in the news as I have been reading Nancy MacLean’s 2017 book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. This award-winning and well-researched intellectual history of the radical right demonstrates that Trump is just a noisy distraction in a sixty-year effort to undermine America’s democracy. And while he won’t succeed at getting “his” Supreme Court to throw out millions of valid votes, the work to make the people who cast those 81.2 million votes against Donald Trump irrelevant in future elections continues apace.
MacLean’s well written narrative tells the story of James McGill Buchanan, a Tennessee boy from my home county who went to my alma mater — known as Middle Tennessee State Teachers College at the time — and then used his considerable intellect to go to graduate school (paid for with, irony of ironies, the G.I. Bill) and earn his doctorate in economics at the University of Chicago. Buchanan came to the University of Virginia in the midst of the state’s turmoil over the Brown v. Board of Education ruling on school desegregation to set up an economics policy center that would, in MacLean’s words, develop the intellectual underpinning for an ideological “stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and the national levels, back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation.” This is…
“…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.”
It took Buchannan and his backers, especially billionaires Charles and David Koch, some sixty years to gain traction, but in the 2010s we saw the incredible reach of the network they built to disenfranchise all those who do not believe that unfettered capitalism is more sacrosanct than democracy. All of a sudden, it seemed, America was blindsided with efforts across the board to either destroy our institutions or change them so radically that they were ineffective in halting the return to unbound oligarchy. We saw it…
- in Governor Scott Walker’s attacks in Wisconsin on unions;
- in New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s attacks on public education, soon duplicated in state-after-state controlled by Republicans;
- in synchronized voter suppression proposals put forward in 41 states to control who should be able to vote after Chief Justice John Roberts achieved his life-long goal of eviscerating the Voting Rights Act;
- in gerrymandered legislative districts in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, where a minority of voters were able to elect super-majorities in state legislatures that even tried to cut the power of elected statewide officials not from the G.O.P.;
- in the all-out campaign to defeat the Affordable Care Act; and
- in the 2016 move by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to block President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to a vacant Supreme Court seat eight months before an election.
If you have wondered how we got to the point where the Supreme Court defined money as speech and corporations as people, MacLean’s book offers up the frightening story of the attack on America. “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 to privatize everything from schools to health care to Social Security. Buchanan’s ideas and Koch’s money worked to make libertarianism mainstream and to take over the Republican Party, and they generally succeeded. Today, more than half the Republican members of the House of Representatives are supporting a totally bogus lawsuit filed by the indicted Attorney General of Texas (probably seeking a Trump pardon) to throw out millions of legal votes that have been reviewed and certified in order to have the Supreme Court declare Donald Trump president.
This isn’t just insane. This is beyond a scandal. This is a deliberate and blatant attempt to overthrow democracy and our form of government.
And, as it generally does in America, it comes down to power, money and race.
The oligarchs in America, beginning with John C. Calhoun and working forward to Charles Koch, have made the case throughout history that they should be the ones with the power to decide where the government spends what little money they agree to provide in taxes for the maintenance of order and the public defense. And their prescription for how government should work “notably resembled the old dogma of the southern-state ‘Redeemer’ governments that had put an end to Reconstruction.” I grew up in the South of the 1950s and 60s, and I remember how little those oligarchs would give up to support others not like them.
The racism at the heart of Buchanan’s ideology is supported by his own words.
“Rather than sympathize with the plight of black Americans, Buchanan later argued that the failure of the black community to thrive after emancipation was not the result of barriers put in their way, but rather proof that ‘the thirst for freedom, and responsibility, is perhaps not nearly so universal as so many post-Enlightenment philosophers have assumed.’ It was a breathtakingly ignorant claim, a sign of a willful failure to see what his paradigm would not allow him to. Both Koch and Buchanan would make similarly blind and insulting claims about others who did not do well in the labor market these men chose to believe was free and fair.”
Author, Columbia University professor, and former president of the Organization of American Historians Alice Kessler-Harris has said of Democracy in Chains,
“This book is mesmerizing. Rarely have I encountered a work that speaks to such significant issues, with evidence rooted in conclusive new sources. In clear prose, MacLean reveals how a public once committed to social responsibility and egalitarian values became persuaded that only an unregulated free market could protect ‘liberty’ and ‘choice.’ Because of this, our once cherished democracy is now subject to attack. Everyone who wants to understand today’s confrontational politics should read this important book, now.”
I knew MacLean had hit a nerve when I saw some of the ferocious pushback to her book from conservative pundits, right wing think tanks, and academics funded by the Kochs and others at places such as George Mason University, where Buchanan relocated his center and where MacLean found his archives in 2013, the year of his death, sitting alone and unattended in a university building. They tried to attack her research, her credentials, and even the people who reviewed the book favorably.*
But if you have been paying attention to what’s been happening in this country, you will see that MacLean’s thesis hits the mark. Listen to the people who have been through coups before and read their accounts, such as Zeynep Tufekci‘s excellent article, This Must Be Your First, in the December 7th online edition of The Atlantic. Review the lists of what has happened in the past five years as Republicans have threatened our government and understand the nature of this attack on democracy.
If you may have thought we lived in the greatest country on earth, nothing shows how far we have fallen under regimes that want government to fail as the fact that we keep hitting daily and weekly records in COVID cases and death while England, Canada, and other first world countries are either administering or set to administer vaccines.
If you still believe that the election was stolen from Donald Trump, turn off Fox News and read some reality-based accounts for awhile. You could begin with Democracy in Chains.
More to come…
*There were a great number of favorable reviews, as seen by the book’s awards: Winner of the Lillian Smith Book Award; Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Finalist for the National Book Award; and The Nation‘s “Most Valuable Book”
Image by Prettysleepy from Pixabay of a poster from 1917. After two and a half years of neutrality, the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917. James Montgomery Flagg created this poster, which was featured in “Wake Up, America” Day in New York City just 13 days later on April 19, 1917.