Book review of Democracy in Chains, the history of how extremist Republicans stealthily stole our Democracy


I can’t do justice to this book in a book review (so buy it), especially the history of how the right-wing libertarians came to be so powerful, their huge influence on congress, the judiciary, and laws enacted, and how this was done with great stealth.

At the heart of what they want to do is change the U.S. Constitution, in ways that would benefit the superrich and harm everyone else.  They’d do this by putting even more locks and bolts on it to any change.

As it is, the Constitution already has a lot of locks. It restrains what the people can do to a degree not seen in any other democratic nation.  It has too many checks and balances, veto power, and vast power is given to rural states, which tend to be conservative, by giving them more votes to them than populous states.  For instance, consider that Wyoming and California both have 2 senators, but California is 70 times more populated, so a vote in California has 70 times less weight than a Wyoming resident’s vote.

Although it has made our system more stable, it has also made our Constitution the least responsive of all.  It takes huge crises to make change, such as the civil war, Great Depression, and civil rights which create the rare moments when a super-majority can vote changes into place.

A study by Alfred Stephan and Juan J. Linzes compared the number of obstacles democracies put in the way of citizens having a say in the legislative process.  Our system has the most veto power of any system, four:  absolute veto power for the Senate, House, and president (unless outvoted by a two-thirds majority) and two-thirds of the are states required to amend the Constitution.  Further obstructing majority rule is the winner-take-all Electoral college, and the 10th amendment that steers power toward the states.

The libertarian revolution also wants to control federal courts to veto measures voted for by the public and passed by their representatives at all levels of government.  This is why they are funding state judicial races to record-breaking amounts of money.

Libertarians know that it is easier to control a state than municipal levels of government, so they are also busy trying to pass legislation that allows the state to quash local rules voted for by the public, such as raising minimum wages, protecting the environment, banning plastic bags, and so on.  And they’re getting away with this because the Press doesn’t cover state level affairs enough.

In the end, this repressing of the public’s rights also serves their purpose of less voting as people get cynical about changing anything.  America is 138th of 172 democracies in voter turnout.  Gerrymandering has already significantly reduced representation of suburbs and cities in favor of rural voters as well.

Libertarians would like to make the Constitution even more strict and hard to change to prevent government from responding to the will of the majority unless the wealthiest Americans agree.  They’ve already stopped class action lawsuits and forced the public into mandatory arbitration where the rules were written by corporations who can choose the judges. We have reached the point where businesses are able to opt out of the legal system in many ways.

Basically libertarians see the only legitimate role of government is to ensure the rule of law, guarantee social order, and provide for the national defense.  So it won’t surprise you that their vision is:

  1. The end of taxes
  2. The end of regulations of any kind
  3. Cutting the budget for education
  4. The end of public education, only private and religious schools that will cost enough to keep minorities out, and to prevent community values from being taught in schools
  5. Ending Social Security and Medicare by privatizing them
  6. Privatizing employer-provided pensions and insurance
  7. Privatizing the U.S. Postal Service
  8. Getting rid of minimum wage laws
  9. Allowing child labor
  10. More private, corporate, for-profit prisons
  11. Stopping foreign aid
  12. Getting rid of unions of any kind
  13. Getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency and all air, water, and earth protections
  14. Selling off public property to private investors
  15. Outsourcing public services to corporations
  16. Lying about their goals to achieve their fifth column desire to end democracy
  17. Getting extremist candidates elected to do all of the above
  18. Convincing the public to vote against their interests, not vote at all
  19. To convince the poor to vote for leaders who will keep them poor
  20. No government promotion of public health, sanitation, or Obamacare
  21. Control the judiciary, legislature, and executive branches
  22. To influence federal judges by “luring them with luminaries and luxury accommodations”. By 1990, more than 2 of 5 sitting federal judges had participated in this Koch-backed curriculum
  23. To rewrite the constitution to get rid of check and balances and make the interests of the propertied class paramount
  24. Require 2/3 or 5/6 of the legislative body to approve new expenses
  25. Pass a balanced budget amendment
  26. Educate and place extreme right-wing students in government, universities, and think tanks
  27. Make tax and spending cuts so large that government can no longer provide a safety net or education
  28. A School prayer amendment
  29. A Flat tax amendment to get rid of the graduated income tax 16th amendment

To enforce their goals, any congress(wo)men who don’t toe the right-wing line are ousted at the next election by their funding of other candidates.  Since the libertarians are a minority party and could easily be out-voted by Democrats if they voted, they will go after any group that will support them, such as evangelists, white supremacists, and the NRA.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

Nancy MacLean. 2017. Democracy in Chains. The Deep History of the Radical Rights Stealth Plan for America. Viking.

[My comment: some of this I have paraphrased, some of this is verbatim, and meant to give potential readers a flavor of the book ]

To most Americans living in the North, Brown vs. the board of education was a ruling to end segregated schools—nothing more, nothing less. And Virginia’s response was about race. But to many in the South, Brown boded a sea change on much more. At a minimum, the federal courts could no longer be counted on to defer reflexively to states’ rights arguments. More concerning was the likelihood that the high court would be more willing to intervene when presented with compelling evidence that a state action was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection” under the law. States’ rights, in effect, were yielding in preeminence to individual rights.

It was easy to imagine how a court might now rule if presented with evidence of the state of Virginia’s archaic labor relations, its measures to suppress voting, or its efforts to buttress the power of reactionary rural whites by under-representing the moderate voters of the cities and suburbs of Northern Virginia. Federal meddling could rise to levels once unimaginable.

To many whites, this decision meant that Northern liberals were going to tell the South how to run their society, and tax property owners more for improvements.


To counter this, the University of Virginia created a school with a political agenda to maintain Southern rights, headed by James McGill Buchanan, who, along with his team, was the main founder of the Koch brothers and other billionaires with a similar philosophy game plan of how to go about getting rid of Social Security, Medicare, and other new Deal Programs.   The Koch’s discovered Buchanan in the early 1970s.

Although this began many decades ago, it wasn’t until the early 2010s that the rest of us began to sense that something extraordinarily troubling had somehow entered American politics.  MacLean gives many examples, one of which is that several GOP-controlled state legislatures inflicted flesh-wounding cuts in public education, while rushing through laws to enable unregulated charter schools and provide tax subsidies for private education. In Wisconsin, North Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Iowa, these same GOP-controlled legislatures also took aim at state universities and colleges, which had long been integral components of state economic development efforts—and bipartisan sources of pride. Chancellors who dared to resist their agenda were summarily removed.

Then came a surge of synchronized proposals to suppress voter turnout. In 2011 and 2012, legislators in 41 states introduced more than 180 bills to restrict who could vote and how. Most of these bills were aimed at low-income, minority, young people and the less mobile elderly.

Then the movement went national with its all-out campaign to defeat the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. When they could not prevent its passage, they shut down the government for sixteen days in 2013 in an attempt to defund it.


Numerous independent observers described such stonewalling, vicious partisanship, and attempts to bring the normal functioning of government to a halt as “unprecedented.” When the Republicans would not agree to conduct hearings to consider the president’s nominee to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant after Justice Antonin Scalia died in early 2016, even the usually reticent Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas spoke out. “At some point,” he told the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, “we are going to have to recognize that we are destroying our institutions.

All of these actions and more not listed above were part of a well-planned and well-coordinated national campaign, some of it promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which kept its elected members a secret. It was producing hundreds of “model laws” each year for Republican legislators to enact in their states—and nearly 20% were enacted. There were laws to devastate labor unions, rewrite tax codes, undo environmental protections, privatize public resources, and require police to take action against undocumented immigrants.

In 2010, the brilliant investigative journalist Jane Mayer alerted Americans to the fact that two billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch, had poured more than a hundred million dollars into a “war against Obama.” She went on to research and document how the Kochs and other rich right-wing donors were providing vast quantities of “dark money” (political spending that, by law, had become untraceable).  [My comment: Read “Dark Money”, a great book].

After the Koch brothers saw what the small Virginia school was doing, they went on to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on institutions to create operatives to infiltrate government and other institutions with their libertarian ideas, such as the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, the State Policy Network, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Tax Foundation, the Reason Foundation, the Leadership Institute, and more, to say nothing of the Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries itself. Others were being hired and trained here to transform legal understanding and practice on matters from health policy to gun rights to public sector employment.

Still others were taking what they learned here to advise leading Republicans and their staffs, from Virginia governors to presidential candidates. The current vice president, Mike Pence, a case in point, has worked with many of these organizations over the years and shares their agenda.

Very early on, Buchanan and the Koch brothers realized that “the American people would not support their plans, so to win they had to work behind the scenes” and lie about what they really wanted: no rules, no regulations, and a government whose only function was the maintenance of order and military defense, and stopping taxation of wealthy individuals to pay for an increasing number of public goods and social programs they had had no personal say in approving. They viewed taxation to advance social justice or the common good as a mob attempt to take by force what the takers had no moral right to: the fruits of another person’s efforts.  It began with individuals, powerless on their own, who had figured out that if they joined together to form social movements, they could use their strength in numbers to move government officials to hear their concerns and act upon them.

Charles Koch did not just become a convert to the ultra-capitalist radical right. He is the sole reason why this movement may yet alter the trajectory of the United States in ways that would be profoundly disturbing even to the somewhat undemocratic James Madison.

To right-wing libertarians, it did not matter whether the movement in question consisted of union members, civil rights activists, or aging women and men fearful of ending their lives in poverty. Nor did the justness of the cause they advocated, the pain of their present condition, or the duration of the injustice they were attempting to reverse matter.

Charles Koch multiplied the earnings of the corporation he inherited by a factor of at least 1,000. He though capitalism should be free of governmental interference to achieve the prosperity and peace he felt that only his vision of capitalism could produce. The puzzle was how to achieve this in a democracy where most people did not want what he did. He decided ordinary electoral politics would not work. So for the next three decades he spent a great deal of money to identify and groom the most promising libertarian thinkers in hopes of somehow finding a way to get what he wanted.

He especially liked Buchanan’s idea of shifting the focus from who rules to changing the rules, and figuring out how to put legal and constitutional shackles on public officials, shackles so powerful that no matter how sympathetic these officials might be to the will of majorities, no matter how concerned they were with their own reelections, they could do nothing to follow the will of the majority.  The only way to make the restrictions permanent was a “constitutional revolution”.

After 2008, libertarians began to call themselves conservatives, knowing full well that the last thing they wanted was to conserve, but seeing advantages in doing so. A similar cynicism ruled Koch’s decision to make peace with the religious right, and men like Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed mobilized white evangelicals for political action. These religious entrepreneurs were happy to sell libertarian economics to their flocks—above all, opposition to public schooling and calls for reliance on family provision or charity in place of government assistance. The Koch team also learned how to leverage wider corporate backing.

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 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.

The new men in the wings respect only compliance; if they fail to get it, they respond with swift vengeance. The cadre targets for removal any old-time Republicans deemed a problem, throwing big money into their next primary race to unseat them.

U.S. senator Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, one of the first longtime Republicans to lose his seat for his failure to obey, referred to those who undermined him as “cannibals” who seek “the end of governing as we know it.” Others learned from experience how to survive. The Reagan Republican and six-term U.S. senator Orrin Hatch of Utah exploded after being targeted by a challenger from his own party in 2012: “These people are not conservatives. They’re not Republicans. They’re radical libertarians. . . . I despise these people.” He was right that they were not what they said they were, but the scare taught him to stop bucking and comply to keep his job. And, of course, there is John Boehner, the former House Speaker, who in 2015 finally gave up and walked out, calling one of the leaders of this cause inside the Capitol, Ted Cruz, “Lucifer in the flesh”.

Our trouble in grasping what has happened comes, in part, from our inherited way of seeing the political divide. Americans have been told for so long, from so many quarters, that political debate can be broken down into conservative versus liberal, pro-market versus pro-government, Republican versus Democrat, that it is hard to recognize that something more insidious is afoot, a shrewd long game blocked from our sight by these stale classifications. So not having words to fit what Republicans have become, we assume that what we are seeing is just very ugly partisanship, perhaps made worse by social media. But it is more than that. The Republican Party is now in the control of a group of true believers for whom compromise is a dirty word.

Their cause, they say, is liberty. But by that they mean the insulation of private property rights from the reach of government—and the takeover of what was long public (schools, prisons, western lands, and much more) by corporations, a system that would radically reduce the freedom of the many.

The libertarian network had so much money and power at its disposal as the primary season began that every single Republican presidential front-runner was bowing to its agenda. Not a one would admit that climate change was a real problem or that guns weren’t good. Every one of them attacked public education and teachers’ unions and advocated more charter schools and even tax subsidies for religious schools. All called for radical changes in taxation and government spending. Each one claimed that Social Security and Medicare were in mortal crisis and that individual retirement and health savings accounts, presumably to be invested with Wall Street firms, were the best solution.


But then something unexpected happened. Donald Trump, a real estate mogul and television celebrity who did not need the Koch donor network’s money to run, who seemed to have little grasp of the goals of this movement, entered the race. More than that, to get ahead, Trump was able to successfully mock the candidates they had already cowed as “puppets.

He promised to stanch it with curbs on the very agenda the party’s front-runners were promoting: no more free-trade deals that shuttered American factories, no cuts to Social Security or Medicare, and no more penny-pinching while the nation’s infrastructure crumbled. He went so far as to pledge to build a costly wall to stop immigrants from coming to take the jobs U.S. companies offered them because they could hire desperate, rightless workers for less. He said and did a lot more, too, much that was ugly and incendiary. And in November, he shocked the world by winning the Electoral College vote.

Are the right-wing billionaire libertarians a “fifth column”?

Is what we are dealing with merely a social movement of the right whose radical ideas must eventually face public scrutiny and rise or fall on their merits? Or is this the story of something quite different, something never before seen in American history? Could it be—and I use these words quite hesitantly and carefully—a fifth-column assault on American democratic governance? The term “fifth column” has been applied to stealth supporters of an enemy who assist by engaging in propaganda and even sabotage to prepare the way for its conquest.  A movement that knows it can never win majority support is not a classic social movement.

Their hostile takeover maneuvers very much like a fifth column, operating in a highly calculated fashion, more akin to an occupying force than to an open group engaged in the usual give-and-take of politics. The size of this force is enormous. The social scientists who have led scholars in researching the Koch network write that it “operates on the scale of a national U.S. political party” and employs more than three times as many people as the Republican committees had on their payrolls in 2015. This points to another characteristic associated with a fifth column: the tactic of overwhelming the normal political process with schemes to disrupt its functioning. Indeed, this massive and well-funded force is turning the party it has occupied toward ends that most Republican voters do not want, such as the privatization of Social Security, Medicare, and education.

Rather than subverting democratic processes, they should fully inform the American public of their real goals and leave the decision to the people, once the people have been told the whole truth. What we are seeing today is a new iteration of that very old impulse in America: the quest of some of the propertied (always, it bears noting, a particularly ideologically extreme—and some would say greedy—subsection of the propertied) to restrict the promise of democracy for the many, acting in the knowledge that the majority would choose other policies if it could.

What this cause really seeks is a return to oligarchy, to a world in which both economic and effective political power are to be concentrated in the hands of a few. It would like to reinstate the kind of political economy that prevailed in America at the opening of the 20th century, when the mass disfranchisement of voters and the legal treatment of labor unions as illegitimate enabled large corporations and wealthy individuals to dominate Congress and most state governments alike, and to feel secure that the nation’s courts would not interfere with their reign.

The American people have used their power to do many significant things that required tax revenues: provide public education, develop manufacturing, build roads and bridges, create land-grant universities, protect the safety of food and drugs, enable workers to speak as one through unions, prevent old-age poverty, fight discrimination, assure the right to vote, and clean up our air and water, to name a few. These are achievements in which most citizens have taken pride.

[My comment: Most of the book is about the history and main players in the libertarian revolution.  I’ve left most of this out, even though it is interesting, to spend more time on what they’re up to and what they want.  One of the early originators of what they think was John C. Calhoun, a strong proponent of slavery. Although libertarians would like everyone to think they are followers of James Madison, the leading architect of the Constitution, it was Calhoun a generation after the nation was founded who is the real origin of their view. And just like Calhoun, their appeals to the public are aimed at white racists, and their policies have always been disenfranchisement of black and other minority voters and keeping them ignorant with poor schools].

To claim Madison as the origin of their thinking is absurd. Sure Madison was eager to protect property rights, but he also wanted a lasting majority self-government, with protection for minority interests [my comment” such as wealthy right-wing extremists]—but not domination by them. When John C. Calhoun made his case for minority veto power, Madison made clear in unequivocal language that he rejected it, saying that to give “such a power, to such a minority, over such a majority, would overturn the first principle of free government, and in practice necessarily overturn the government itself.”

The South

The right-wing set out to burnish the South’s reputation by cultivating an image of the South as having been victimized by northeastern elites, and portrayed the militant white former Confederates who had used violence to drive black voters from the polls as merely engaging in self-defense.  They evoked an evil national government, enlarged by northeasterners who acted selfishly and in bad faith, first by setting the abolition wind blowing and later by pushing workers’ rights and federal regulation. Such ideas could never arise from American soil. They were “alien” European imports brought by malevolent characters.

White southerners who opposed racial equality and economic justice knew from their own region’s history that the only way they could protect their desired way of life was to keep federal power at bay, so that majoritarian democracy could not reach into the region.

A main goal of right-wing libertarians became breaking down trust between the governed and the governing, even those who supported liberal objectives would lose confidence in government solutions [my comment: and not vote].

Left unspoken was how right-wing members of the propertied class could both keep their taxes low and deny basic services—schools, roads, and sanitation—to those who could not pay for them.


Virginia and other states ignored Brown Vs. the Board of Education, and began setting up a new infrastructure of private academies that, being private, had no obligation to integrate under Brown.

They wanted to do away with the “public school system,” and see its buildings “leased off to individual groups of citizens and operated on a private basis.”

To make this happen, they argued that public schools lacked adequate competition, because on their own, few parents could afford alternatives. As a result, like all monopolies, state-run schools had no incentive to improve. “Privately operated schools,” by contrast, would have to compete for students, so they would have a strong incentive to try out a “diversity” of curricula, not only encouraging experimentation but meeting different tastes.

Nor should students be expected to go to high school, because no other nation ever attempted to keep so many children in school so long. It was an excess of democracy to try to educate so many and would cost taxpayers too much money.

Those who opposed school desegregation were coached to invoke the Constitution rather than white supremacy as the reason for their stand.

Governors and state legislators under the influence of the capitalist radical right have been moving aggressively to transform public higher education. After 2010, as a Koch-funded project moved forward in the states, its representatives sought to slash their states’ public university budgets while simultaneously raising tuition, ending need-based scholarships, limiting or curtailing tenure protections, reducing faculty governance, and undermining support for the liberal arts curriculum (particularly those parts of it most known for dissent).

The blueprint of the radical right at the state university level is to turn them into dissent-free suppliers of trained labor, run with firm managerial hands and with little or no input from faculty, and at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers. The underlying idea is that if you stop making college free and charge a hefty tuition that’s enough to cover the entire cost of each education, you ensure that students will have a strong economic incentive to focus on their studies and nothing else—certainly not on trying to alter the university or the wider society. This would also make their goal of educating far fewer Americans easier, especially lower-income Americans who could not afford full-cost tuition.

They also thought to change the way people think about government with a sound perspective by training teachers at community colleges with their libertarian thinking.  That would reach much larger numbers of students.

Because the money would not come from the politicians’ own pockets, politicians would continue to distribute the money of third-party taxpayers for self-gain as long as it remained in their interests to do so. Worse yet, the system encouraged profligate “logrolling.” In order to get the backing of colleagues, elected officials engaged in exchange: saying, in effect, I’ll support your proposals (and grant the money) if you support mine. Because much of this money had to be overseen by bureaucracies, the bureaucrat, too, had an incentive to keep this money flowing, because the more money there was going out, the more important their jobs and the greater the likelihood of their own fiefdoms expanding.


Attempts to make the public angry about taxes backfired. Although lower- and middle-income taxpayers would like to pay less in taxes, their solution was to  the wealthy and corporations to pay more. The demand for “tax justice,” as this campaign became known, proved popular, scoring successes at the local and state levels and inducing alarm on the right.

To get the public to shift the blame elsewhere, libertarians used racially coded stereotypes to blame freeloading black welfare recipients, laid-off steelworkers granted unemployment compensation, students provided low-cost tuition at state colleges and universities, and retirees who received more from Social Security and Medicare than they had paid in as the cause of higher taxes.

The original Populists

The first populists praised the ordinary men and women who produced needed goods by the sweat of their brows and reviled as “parasites” the mortgage bankers, furnishing merchants, and robber barons who lived in luxury by exploiting them. They called on the federal government to intervene, as the only conceivable counterweight to the vast corporate power altering their society. Because that government was representative of the people (or could be made so, through organizing), they saw it as wholly legitimate to endow Congress with new powers that the people believed it needed to ensure justice in a land changed by concentrated corporate power.

Spreading the word

Another effort was made to proselytize to like-minded capitalists and economists. Starting with a founders group, each of them would teach the basics of libertarian philosophy to 200 people, who in turn would teach others.

[My comment: the book spends a lot of time recording all the ways in which the goals of large numbers of right-wing organizations were unified and communication between them improved].

Their efforts led to many corporate donations. By 1980, their ranks included Exxon, Mobil, Shell, Texaco, Ford, IBM, Chase Manhattan Bank, U.S. Steel, and General Motors, backed by the Olin, Scaife, and Smith Richardson Foundations.

Law professors were also sought out as inductees, especially those who supported the rights of property owners and fought anti-trust law.

[ Most problematic of all — to me ]  was the effort to train journalists in an approach to law that was sympathetic to corporations that found themselves in court.

The “campaign for the courts”

A movement to mold a new jurisprudence that would radically change the way justice is dispensed in our society was begun as well, with a goal of making the protection and enhancement of corporate profits and private wealth the cornerstones of our legal system. The Koch’s invested heavily in this effort.

Koch was so dedicated to his vision of what made people superior or inferior that when he married, he insisted his wife be indoctrinated into these ideas (she was and shares his views now).



This entry was posted in Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.