The Politics of Deception – Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, and how we got to this political moment

I just finished reading Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean. I found it a very useful and fairly alarming guide to the ideas that motivate the Republicans’ legislative agenda. What lurks behind the tax cut, the denial of climate change, the efforts to restrict voting rights, and other seemingly disparate initiatives is a very clear, well-defined vision of society that the Republicans don’t want to share publically. If they did, most of us would find it quite brutal and undemocratic. Interestingly, if they succeed in achieving their vision, Trump voters (i.e. non-college-educated whites living in economically struggling areas) will be among those who suffer the most.

Here are my takeaways from the book.

    • We Democrats tend to see politics through the lens of interest groups; so, we assume that their tax plan is designed to please donors or specific constituencies; that the racism is a way of pandering to a part of their base; etc.
    • All that is true to a point; but Republican agenda that we are seeing enacted is also based on a coherent philosophy and a desire to create a particular sort of society.
    • The philosophy, which goes under the rubric of Public Choice Economics, originates with an economist named James M. Buchanan.
    • Public Choice theory is not explicitly racial, yet it had its foundation in the Southern effort to resist desegregation. Its roots go back to the arguments made by Southern politicians to preserve slavery in the years before the Civil War. The preservation of white privilege is fundamental to the guiding ideas of modern conservatism in ways that are not acknowledged by its main proponents.
    • The gist of it was that government had no right to tax a wealthy minority to pay for policies (i.e. integrated public schools) with which that wealthy minority disagreed. He depicted government as an extension of the marketplace, where politicians acted solely for their own personal advantage by catering to coalitions and interest groups that could get them re-elected. These groups consisted of “takers” who, rather than creating anything of value, instead used governmental power to siphon off the wealth of a productive minority (“makers”).
    • This theory became the nidus of a critique of the New Deal and the Great Society. From the Public Choice standpoint, not only integrated schools, but virtually all governmentally sponsored activities other than national defense are impingements on individual liberty and signs of creeping socialism.
    • The views of Buchanan and others in his movement were once considered radical libertarianism, but have now been adopted as mainstream Republican thought. They really took off when billionaire Charles Koch adopted them as the intellectual foundation for his own effort to change the political landscape. Koch created the Cato Foundation to spread Buchanan’s philosophy. He made grants to universities to help embed it in curricula. He supported the training of an enormous cadre of economists, lawyers, and politicians in Public Choice economics. Koch was, as MacLean documents, highly effective in bringing Buchanan’s views into the mainstream of American politics.
    • The society envisioned by Buchanan is one of unregulated capitalism, with the ability of the majority to exert power through government severely curtailed. This vision, and Buchanan’s strategy for achieving it, has been adopted by movement conservatives like Paul Ryan who are shaping legislative policy.
    • One aim of this movement is the elimination of all government programs, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and public education.
    • A second aim is the elimination of all regulation, including environmental and consumer protection, since it is seen as government infringement on economic liberty.
    • A third aim is the neutralization of groups that could engage in collective action (unions, social movements) and the disenfranchisement of voters who might challenge the power of the ruling class.
    • In the 1980’s with the failure of the Reagan tax plan, the strategists of this movement realized that their ideas could never win over a majority of Americans because, simply, they would be disadvantageous for most Americans. They decided (very explicitly, as MacLean documents) that they would need to accomplish their goals by stealth. For example: don’t talk about eliminating social security; instead, talk about saving it from bankruptcy. And: do everything possible to discredit government, so that people stop thinking about it as representing them, and begin thinking about it as wasting their money.
    • As the movement gained steam, the right became very adept at the politics of deception. In the 1990’s they figured out messages that would resonate with blue collar voters, evangelicals, and white suburban voters, and in the past 15 years, they’ve created an entire propaganda network encompassing cable news, print, web sites and social media to spread those messages. The messages have little to do with their actual agenda.
    • I believe this politics of deception has engendered the present surreal moment in American politics, in which truth seems irrelevant. Politicians on the right, apparently unconstrained by any sense of obligation to act in the best interest of their constituents, will say whatever they think people want to hear, while working to enact an agenda that will actually harm the people who voted for them. Trump has brought this political style to its apotheosis.


  • Anyhow. I recommend Democracy in Chains – to me it’s essential reading to understand how we got where we are now. Maybe it points to a way out. Yes, all those who realize we’ve been harmed and threatened by Trump and the Republicans need to organize and mobilize; but maybe we can also reach the Trump voters (somehow) and start explaining where the Republicans are actually leading them. Not the Nazis, obviously, but the hard-hit workers who want the American Dream back. At some level they still believe that government can empower them. That’s why they voted for Trump.

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