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writing for godot

Remarks Inspired by Nancy MacLean's Democracy in Chains

Written by Carl Peterson   
Monday, 15 October 2018 02:03


We don’t understand that the old Republican Party, the one my own father voted for during most of his life, exists no more. (p. xxx Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean)

If you are of a certain age, and can remember when Republican politicians in Washington DC did not all seem to have had their bodies snatched, and to have become pod people with an obvious, but possibly unconscious, loathing contempt for ordinary Americans--Republican and Democratic alike, and you wonder how this came about, since very little reporting or analysis put forward by our corporate media even begins to explain it, a book was published in 2017 that provides many pieces to a certain puzzle, enough pieces I should say that by the end of the book the final image to be portrayed by the one-day-to-be-completed jig-saw puzzle portrait of the Koch assault on American democracy is already discernible. When you see this image you will understand what happened to the Republican Party.


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

By Nancy MacLean


368 pp.


The Koch team’s most important stealth move, and the one that proved most critical to success, was to wrest control over the machinery of the Republican Party, beginning in the late 1990s and with sharply escalating determination after 2008. From there it was just a short step to lay claim to being the true representatives of the party, declaring all others RINOS—Republicans in name only. But while these radicals of the right operate within the Republican Party and use that party as a delivery vehicle, make no mistake about it: the cadre’s loyalty is not to the Grand Old Party or its traditions or standard-bearers. Their loyalty is to their revolutionary cause.  (p. xxix, MacLean)

If you identify as liberal, or progressive you probably have at least heard of the "Koch brothers," and maybe you have heard of "the Koch Machine," but you might not have heard enough yet to understand--as MacLean puts it--Charles Koch's "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."  Actually, the threat from the Koch plan may be even worse than MacLean thinks: the logic of power in Koch's stealth plan would inevitably carry America away from its quasi-democratic past to a repressive fascist future.

In 2013, author Nancy Maclean, Duke University history professor, and self-described "archive rat," discovered the papers of Nobel prize-winning economist James McGill Buchanan in an old house on the George Mason University campus in Fairfax, Virginia.

The door to the house was unlocked, and the house unsupervised, but the piles of unsorted papers in the house contained secrets that Charles Koch would never want to be publicly divulged, at least not until his goal of removing democracy from America is achieved.  MacLean found one of Koch's secrets in the transcript of a speech titled Creating a Science of Liberty that Charles Koch had given in January 1997 at the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.  In the speech, which Koch delivered to the Fellows Research Colloquium, Koch admitted that "Since we are greatly outnumbered," the "liberty" conspiracy he was heading could not win through persuasion.  In other words, it could not prevail via democratic means.

The subtext of Koch's 1997 speech was that those who would change the American form of government to oligarchic rule by economic elites under the guise of "liberty" must use their knowledge of the way the American government works, and their "superior technology" to game the system long enough till they had seized power and could not be held to account.  MacLean translates: "The American people would not support their plans, so to win they had to work behind the scenes, using a covert strategy instead of open declaration of what they really wanted." (p. xxii Maclean)  Further translation: They would have to sneak around like thieves and lie like hell. Which is in fact what they are still doing.

The failure to guard or destroy the revealing evidence in the trove of historical Buchanan documents was a very rare case of Charles Koch not taking sufficient care to ensure the secrecy of his conspiracy, and it may eventually prove to be a damaging failure.  It is easy to imagine Koch cursing when MacLean's book came to his attention, which it surely has.  For us, it reaffirms that Koch does make mistakes, which allows some reason to hope that he will eventually fail to establish the tyranny of "liberty" in the United States that he is aiming for.

Buchanan's Public Choice Ideology to Cover the Koch Machine's Power Grab

The economist James M. Buchanan, whose untended papers MacLean had discovered, had come to Koch's attention in the 70s near the beginning of Koch's decades-long wide-flung search for academic-talent-for-hire to produce the ideology Koch needed to cover, rationalize and focus his inchoate drive to change the American form of government to his liking.  By that time, Buchanan had already gained some fame for his work in public choice theory, and his book Calculus of Consent (1962).

Buchanan would win the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1986 for his work in public choice theory.  In general, public choice theory provides a three-part basis for the anti-democratic thrust required by Koch: 1) Criticism of democratic policy results.  Public choice theory analysis of democratic government policy results leads it to posit that government policy in democracies is often suboptimal for various reasons, and is therefore not necessarily an improvement on the results of capitalist "market failures," in providing for social needs-- failures that democratic government policy is intended to remedy.  2)  Government has coercive power, while (according to public choice doctrine) capitalist markets do not.  Government coercive power can enable majorities to victimize wealthy minorities for their own benefit, for example through progressive taxation, or, vice versa, organized "special interest" minorities can victimize the majority (but Buchanan puts much less emphasis on this problem.)  3) Buchanan's normative assumption that individual liberty has moral primacy over communitarian goals, logically requires him to favor liberty as he defines it, over democracy.  For example, Buchanan focuses on the loss of liberty suffered by individual citizens in the minority when government requires them to pay higher taxes for programs that benefit the majority of individual citizens but that individuals constituting the minority do not want.

Associated with this assumption of the primacy of individual liberty over democracy, but not explicit in Buchanan's public choice theory is Buchanan's perception of society as being naturally divided between the worthy minority capitalist elite, (the "makers") and that unworthy majority in society (the "takers") seeking to pick the pocket of the capitalist elite to pay for government programs useful only to individuals in the majority. (In the terminology of Ayn Rand, the capitalist elite was identified as "the prime movers," and the majority as "looters."  In his May 17, 2012 campaign speech to a group of wealthy donors, Mitt Romney, behind in the polls, implicitly acknowledged that he recognized the same division in society, decrying "that 47 percent...who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it."


What Charles Koch Means by "Liberty"

Liberty has such a good name in America that it is no wonder that the term is so often used by Charles Koch and his associates to disguise what they are really up to.  When most Americans hear the word liberty it has no connotation that could mean bad news for themselves, but only means good things: being free from unnecessary government constraints that prevent one from fully pursuing one's happiness.  But Charles Koch's use of the word is more Orwellian: It means removing government constraints on the wealthy so-called "capitalist" class so that it can rule not just economically, but in a formal political sense too.  This necessarily entails a shift of political power from government to the super-wealthy who already have potent economic power readily translatable into political power, potent enough to have allowed them to take control of the Republican party, and to have largely dictated the major policy outcomes of the Trump administration, including wide-spread deregulation seen by many ordinary Americans as harmful; policy attacks on public education; policy attacks on public employee unions; policy attacks on Obamacare; policy attacks on federal employees and a "tax reform" that mostly benefits the super-wealthy at the expense of ordinary Americans.

For those Americans--a majority-- who would prefer to keep their democracy, it would helpfully clarify one's political vision to simply interpret the word "liberty" to mean "fascism" when it is used by any person or entity associated with the Koch conspiracy.  Kochian "liberty," despite its friendly sound, does not mean good things for American democracy or ordinary Americans.


"Locks and Bolts" on the Constitution

The first stage was the imposition of radical structural transformation influenced by Buchanan’s ideas; the second stage, to lock the transformation in place, was the kind of constitutional revolution Buchanan had come to advocate.  Whereas the U.S. Constitution famously enshrined “checks and balances” to prevent majorities from abusing their power over minorities, this one, a Chilean critic later complained, bound democracy with “locks and bolts.” (p.155) MacLean

To protect the "liberty" of wealthy individuals in democracies where they are currently being victimized by majorities, Buchanan prescribed constitutional changes to prevent such victimization.  These changes to the constitution would for example limit taxation, require a balanced budget, and severely limit the majority's ability to repeal the Buchanan-inspired constitutional changes even if it later became apparent to the majority that the changes were to the majority's detriment.  Although Buchanan decried governmental coercive power to harm the liberty of certain groups in society to benefit other groups, his plan for constitutional change does not eliminate this possibility for governmental coercive harm but only reorders it so that wealthy minorities are freed from such coercion while majorities are coerced by a restrictive constitution that prevents them from inducing the government to provide programs that benefit the majority.  This may seem to be an inconsistency in Buchanan's views of government infringement on the liberty of individuals, but it is consistent with Buchanan's and libertarian precepts that one of government's few proper roles is to prevent individuals from taking the property of other individuals without permission, which, according to libertarians is what happens when majorities compel minorities to help pay for government programs that the minorities do not want.  According to Buchanan, then, a restrictive constitution such as he envisioned and as he later helped to design for Chile, does not restrict the liberty of majorities, but merely prevents them from doing what individuals never have the right to do: take the property of another without permission.

MacLean describes Buchanan's trip to Chile in 1980 as the guest of the Chilean Minister of Finance.  By that time, the repressive, authoritarian, and murderous regime of Augusto Pinochet had been in power for seven years since its coup overthrowing the democratically elected socialist government headed by president Salvador Allende.

Buchanan had been invited to Chile for the explicit purpose of using his public choice doctrine to help Chile draw up a new constitution that would severely limit the power of government to engage in economic matters, and, in Buchanan's words, "keeps [government's] hands out of the pockets of productive contributors."  The constitution, Buchanan told the authoritarian Chilean authorities in five lectures, and in numerous unrecorded private meetings, must limit taxation, require a balanced budget and require any new government expenses to be approved by two-thirds or five-sixths legislative majorities.  To maintain the preponderant influence of elite interests, the constitution would ensure that a right-wing minority was permanently over-represented in the legislature.  "The net impact of the new constitution’s intricate rules changes was to give the president unprecedented powers, hobble the congress, and enable unelected military officials to serve as a power brake on the elected members of the congress." (p. 159, Maclean)

Once the Chilean constitution was changed according to Buchanan's guidance, Buchanan advised that the constitution should be "locked down" to prevent future democratic meddling.  Chile's Buchanan-influenced constitution of 1980 could not be amended without approval by supermajorities in two successive sessions of the National Congress, a body where wealthy and military interests were heavily over-represented.

However, within two years of the constitutional re-write, the Chilean economy cratered, and adherents of Buchanan's economic and constitutional advice were dismissed from the government.   In 1988, a national plebiscite refused Pinochet an additional term.  However, the "locks" on the Chilean constitution continue to prevent Chile from successfully dealing with the backward legacy of Buchanan's influence.  As recently as 2014, then Chilean President Michele Bachelet complained, "Democratic processes are held back by authoritarian trammels.  We want a constitution without locks and bolts."



Chile as Cautionary Tale for America

But what has Chile of the 1980s to do with us in America in the Fall of 2018?  The unsorted, unguarded trove of papers in the unlocked house on the George Mason University campus in Fairfax, Virginia, revealed the truth to MacLean.

By the late 1990s, Koch had concluded that he’d finally found the set of ideas he had been seeking for at least a quarter century by then—ideas so groundbreaking, so thoroughly thought-out, so rigorously tight, that once put into operation, they could secure the transformation in American governance he wanted. From then on, Koch contributed generously to turning those ideas into his personal operational strategy to, as the team saw it, save capitalism from democracy—permanently. (p. xxii, MacLean)

Charles Koch had found in Buchanan's ideas--the same ideas Buchanan had used to help the authoritarian elite in Chile lock down Chilean democracy in the 1980s--the roadmap he would use to do the same for America one day.  Assiduously, Koch continues to follow the roadmap.  Uncannily,--very few Americans--including nearly all of those Americans employed in the American mainstream media--have taken proper note.

The Koch machine has spent the last decades picking the locks on the American constitution, including the ones that provided for the separation of powers, the ones that for over 200 years have prevented the wealthy elite from gathering enough extralegal power to seriously threaten the American constitution and the American democracy itself.  But now, the Koch machine believes that it is nearing its goal, and there is evidence to support this belief.

For a brief discussion by author Nancy MacLean of Koch operations currently underway to put "locks and bolts" on the US Constitution through state legislative authorizations pursuant to Article 5 of the Constitution, see her interview with Bill Maher,

For a better understanding of the constitutional change portion of the Koch machine plan see

For a list of 10 amendments to the constitution proposed by Koch grantee and operative Mark Levin see your social media marketing partner
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