The Intellectual Roots of the Radical Right

By Anita FelicelliSeptember 8, 2017

The Intellectual Roots of the Radical Right

Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean

AS WE FACE unprecedented threats to our democracy, it’s common to hear people try to frame the moment in traditional, partisan terms as one in which they side with Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Every day it seems that someone with liberal inclinations tweets or posts on social media asking when Republicans in Congress are going to do something about Donald Trump, when they’re going to get fed up with his destruction of basic American values, his emphasis on deregulating everything from corporations to schools, his attacks on minorities and women. Meanwhile, those siding with our current president and Republicans in Congress typically try to frame a criticism as “hysterical.” (Eric Trump has even noted that Democrats are “not even people.”)

In Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, historian Nancy MacLean establishes that the Republican Party of today has been entirely transformed. The GOP is no longer her father’s conservative party, but a party of extreme libertarians whose goal is not to conserve what we have, but to destroy democracy. The old partisan framework is one we’re going to have to let go.

Republicans are not going to “do” anything about Donald Trump, because the party is now only a delivery mechanism for the fantasies of radical right-wing libertarians, who are quite pleased by Trump’s dismantling of the American state and democratic values. As revealed in Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, the radical right has been working to take over the party for decades, and escalated its efforts in 2008. The dark money to which Mayer refers is political spending that is meant to influence your decisions as a voter, even though the donor isn’t disclosed and the source of the money isn’t known. Charles Koch is one of the biggest contributors of dark money to our system. Any Republican that expresses dissent from the Koch team is swiftly corrected or punished, as Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, not a unique case, discovered when he lost his seat.

The political condition in which we find ourselves in the present moment is therefore not surprising, but the result of decades of careful, rigorous, and cruel thinking and planning. Jane Mayer’s book investigated dark money as the means by which the Koch Brothers and a small number of plutocrats had stifled the voices of their opponents. MacLean’s reveals the intellectual history behind the Koch Brothers’ ends — how certain ideas began to shape the public discourse over the past few decades using legal, but questionable means.

MacLean persuasively weaves together biography, intellectual history, and political history to show how the public has been fooled by right-wingers who claim to value “liberty,” but who actually intend the corporate takeover of public resources. This group has the antidemocratic goal of drastically increasing the power of an extremely wealthy minority at the expense of the many, a goal that’s been furthered in recent years in every arm of government, including the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC. While the book has all the juiciness of a conspiracy theory — it’s highly readable and absorbing with a cast of characters drawn as carefully as they would be in a novel — it is also painstakingly researched and deeply intelligent.

It is an urgent call to liberals to put down frivolous debates about whether Bernie would have won or whether Hillary invested too heavily in the discourse of identity politics. It’s an urgent call to conservatives to wrest back control of their party. It’s also a wake-up call about how desperately those of us who do not want to live in an autocracy need our institutions to survive, to stand up to the remarkable assault against them. Right now, for the vast majority, it doesn’t matter where you fall on the old political spectrum — you’re either for democracy or you’re against it.


MacLean argues that libertarians have been playing a long game that began with James M. Buchanan’s ideas about the proper role of government in the economy. However, she’s less concerned with the detail of those ideas (known as “public choice economics”) than she is with his strategy to create the kind a society that would embrace them. Jim Buchanan was a Virginian economist who grew up in a house with 14 rooms, but nonetheless perceived himself as a Southern victim of regional discrimination. His appreciation for discrimination, however, was limited. While Jim Crow was still in force in 1963, he would claim that the United States had “no effective barriers to economic and social mobility.”

MacLean explains, “Where his genius lay — even if you call it an evil genius — was in his intuitive grasp of the importance of trust in political life: if one could break down trust, even those who supported liberal objectives would lose heart in government solutions.” Hired by the University of Virginia in 1956, he would construe democracy itself as the majority’s collective power to enslave a wealthy minority by taxing them. Over the course of his career (and Koch’s), Buchanan came to understand that the public didn’t naturally gravitate toward his ideas. To achieve the ends he wanted, he’d have to change public discourse by training intellectual foot soldiers to infiltrate institutions. There, they could make decisions and discuss matters in such a way that the public would lose its faith in government solutions.

One of his early fights, which proved especially instructive, was against racial desegregation of schools in Virginia, which the Supreme Court had mandated in Brown v. Board of Education. To help prevent integrated schools, Buchanan co-wrote a report arguing for unlimited privatization of education. He argued that because public education had a monopoly, it had no incentive to improve. Although he was, in effect, asking the state “to stonewall the African Americans seeking equal schooling,” he implicitly understood that he had to craft the request in the race-neutral language of economics to pass muster in the courts.

Buchanan dismissed the racism of those he was trying to help, assuring his mentor Frank Knight that “the transcendent issue” was not race, but “whether the federal government shall dictate the solutions.” But MacLean notes that he was trying to obscure the reality, which was that those who opposed school desegregation needed to be “coached” to say, “state’s rights,” when they meant “white supremacy.”

Although he failed to convince the Virginia Assembly that state’s rights were more important than children’s education, James Buchanan learned that if a constitution allowed for any form of “socialism” or collectivism (e.g., public schools), he wouldn’t be able to get the radical change he sought without changing the constitution.


During the 1960s and 1970s, Buchanan and his colleagues were succeeding on rarefied intellectual fronts, driven by a Leninist approach. Direct arguments — arguing, for example, that you didn’t want your white kids going school with black kids or that you wanted to eliminate Social Security — didn’t work, so instead they went into stealth mode to “engineer” public opinion in their favor.

Buchanan recognized that most citizens didn’t know all that much about government and so, to make his ideas appealing to the public, he had to first convert people of power — the intelligentsia in politics, the media, business, lawyers, and judges “who could alter the public conversation.” Once they were persuaded, the ideas would trickle down to everyone else.

Efforts to convert the intelligentsia required funding that was initially provided through the Scaife Family Charitable Trusts in early 1972 to the Institute for Contemporary Studies, run by Professor Henry Manne, and later provided by Charles Koch. Various strategies were developed at the Institute to push Buchanan’s economic ideas into public debate. For example, Buchanan helped train lawyers at the Law and Economics Center at the University of Miami. Law and Economics is a field of study in legal academia that tries to bring a corporate-oriented cost-benefit analysis to all laws. Manne “planned to alter the way the law was understood and taught by luring existing leaders in the legal academy […] to his two-week summer institutes.” When these leaders returned to their institutions, they would ask for more faculty in the field of Law and Economics. Manne asked big business for financial support, and was sure to get this support because, at the time, corporations were not faring well in litigation with public interest plaintiffs. These types of legal efforts to change the public conversation were not limited to the law, but also extended to journalism, and media coverage about corporations.

Buchanan’s ideas and projects eventually developed into the notion that since our existing ideas about democracy constrained the economic liberty of the wealthiest, the United States’s democracy needed to become less democratic through alterations to the Constitution. When interpreting the Constitution, judges read each phrase in the context of the whole, as well as in the context of prior case law. Certain key principles of our democracy have emerged as a result. For example, checks and balances are a core principle of the US federalist system, but aren’t explicitly stated in the Constitution. If you altered the language of the Constitution even a little bit, you could lose this principle. For another example, not in the book, the Fourteenth Amendment, and to a lesser extent the Commerce Clause, have been used in judicial opinions to justify federal oversight of corporations, and if they were altered wholesale and we started from scratch interpreting new language solely from the economic perspective favored by the wealthiest, we might not retain certain important protections related to discrimination on a nationwide level. Given the political alliance between libertarians and conversion-therapy supporting Evangelicals, this could spell serious trouble for the LGBTQ community, among other communities.

In some of the most chilling and relevant passages in Democracy, MacLean details how Buchanan personally guided General Augusto Pinochet’s team, which had overthrown the elected socialist government, in how to arrange its constitution so that even if the country returned to representative institutions, the capitalist class would be insulated from popular reforms.

The first stage of this plan was to radically change the structure of Chilean government by stripping away protections for health and social insurance. The second, more terrifying stage was to lock and bolt this transformation in place through constitutional transformations that would render public dissatisfaction irrelevant. The goal was to create a “protected democracy” in Chile, such that a majority could never limit the powers of corporations and the wealthy. The gist of these detailed rules was that the electoral system would permanently provide greater representation for the right-wing minority party.

The effects of this new Buchanan-advised constitution were harrowing. By 1987, 45 percent of the population was classified as poor or indigent, up from 23 percent 17 years earlier. In spite of this, libertarians hold Chile forward as an “economic miracle.” Buchanan’s advice successfully locked into place a system that favors the wealthy to this day. The document provides that a one-third minority of right-wing voters have the same representation as the typical two-third majority drawn to center-left candidates. College tuition costs are equal to 40 percent of an average household’s income, which makes higher education in the country the most expensive in the world relative to per capita income. The Penta Group, which is a major beneficiary of pension privatization has been charged with massive tax evasion, bribery, and illegal financing of right-wing politicians. There are deep opportunities for corruption. Today, the majority of Chileans want to address the lack of equality of social opportunity and social mobility, but the structure of the constitution as advised by Buchanan has locked into place a system that favors the wealthy. Getting ordinary people to truly understand the connection between the Constitution and lack of equal opportunity has proven a struggle, though it seems civics education is key. In 2015, The Economist reported that “[p]olls show that a majority of Chileans favour a new constitution. But it is not an issue they care about deeply — [Michelle] Bachelet tacitly admitted as much by ordering a six-month ‘civic education’ campaign.” This year, she’s put forward a bill to rewrite the constitution.

Buchanan and other key libertarians figured out that they needed to “crab walk” to achieve this kind of substantial change in the United States. The majority of Americans do not want a system like the one Chile has. For example, they don’t want Social Security — what Buchanan considered the centerpiece of American welfare — taken away. Yet Buchanan devised a scheme to alter beneficiaries’ view of the viability of Social Security so that abandoning the system would seem appealing.

MacLean argues that when Buchanan went on to win a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1986, his ideas took on added significance for billionaire Charles Koch. Already on board with the strategy, Koch increased funding to many different entities propelled by Buchanan’s ideas. MacLean reports a little bit about a number of these projects, and it’s not clear whether she’s fully fleshed out all of her examples. For example, she notes that a report by Tyler Cowen put out by the Mercatus Center, another of Koch’s libertarian projects includes the language “[i]f American political institutions render market-oriented reforms too difficult to achieve, then perhaps those institutions should be changed.” According to her, the paper suggests weakening checks and balances through altered interpretation by judges plus a constitutional amendment and a game plan to perform “a fifth column assault on democracy.” She suggests that Cowen’s tactic was informed by the Chilean experience, and was modeled on the military doctrine of shock and awe. The idea is to use interlinked maneuvers and displays of force to shock an enemy — in this case, most of us — into submission.


MacLean’s book is necessary reading for this moment. However, the book’s biggest oversight is its failure to detail how crucial the Evangelical element has been to the Koch strategy. As far back as the 1940s, libertarians used a deceptive campaign to convert clergymen to their cause in order to undermine the New Deal. As Kevin Kruse points out in One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, while Earl Warren was delivering the decision in Brown, a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee was meeting to consider a proposed amendment to the Constitution that read, “This Nation devoutly recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Saviour and Ruler of nations through whom are bestowed the blessings of Almighty God.” The Amendment obviously failed, but the movement of pro-corporate Christians joined up with Charles Koch’s cause, and has been emerging more recently in right-wing political actors like Mike Pence and Ted Cruz. Their merger complete, unquestioned faith in God and the market now form the twin dogmas of the modern Republican Party.

Furthermore, Democracy in Chains needs be read in conjunction with Jane Mayer’s Dark Money to be fully understood by a lay reader for its political implications and the extent to which the strategy developed by Buchanan and funded by Koch has already come to fruition. In Dark Money, Mayer successfully argues that Charles Koch and his cronies gained massive and undue amounts of power from Citizens United v. FEC, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy. In his opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote,

With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.

This seemed to be a naïve position when it was taken, and it hasn’t proven to be an accurate prediction as our system is awash in dark money now.

Read by itself, Democracy in Chains may feel, at least initially, unduly focused on a single man — Jim Buchanan. While his portrait is a rich study of how people come to care more about personal wealth than the overall well-being of others, the more important aspect of MacLean’s research for most readers is the strategy and the end game she’s uncovered. Critics of this book — most of them with close affiliations to either Buchanan or the specific right-wing groups that MacLean criticizes — have focused most pointedly on what they believe are MacLean’s improper framing and interpretation of public choice economics. But these critics seem to willfully misunderstand the book’s core arguments, focusing on the details of a tree or two in the book, rather than the forest. MacLean isn’t attacking public choice economics as an isolated Ivory Tower field of study — she plainly believes that all ideas about economics should be openly debated and discussed. She isn’t even arguing that what Buchanan and Koch have advocated was illegal in some way. Rather, she’s troubled by the covert nature of a massive decades-long effort to influence intelligentsia, including judges in our federal courts, toward market fundamentalism, by convincing them to think primarily from the perspective of corporations and the wealthy.

Some of the elites in this country might not have embraced Law and Economics and other offshoots of Buchanan’s thinking so handily, had they understood that the eventual purpose of these ideas was to completely erode public trust in institutions. Based on his judicial opinions, at least, I’m skeptical that even a right-winger, a “fainthearted” Originalist like Justice Scalia, would have supported such a Constitutional endgame had it been presented in a forthright way before he spoke at the luxurious Koch political conferences. At present, our Constitution values liberty, property rights, and equality. Focusing on public choice economics to the exclusion of other fields may eventually result in careful tweaks to the Constitution removing the value of equality altogether and permitting true liberty only to a minority of property owners.

Even if the details of the anticipated Constitutional changes are different from what happened in Chile, the quality of life for most Americans would likely be adversely impacted. For example, there would be more situations like the one in Flint, Michigan, in which a Koch-funded think and do tank pushed for legislation that would allow unelected managers to have the power to impose money-saving measures. The legislation enacted protected the unelected manager from lawsuits. One of the austerity measures taken by an unelected manager was switching the source of Flint’s water supply to a polluted river.


At the Bay Area Book Festival in 2016, Masha Gessen, a journalist who focuses on authoritarian Russia, spoke about the importance of institutions to democracy, particularly to democracy under threat. MacLean clearly believes this, too, but in some ways it feels counterintuitive to advise faith in institutions after reading a book like Democracy in Chains alongside Dark Money. How can we have faith in a Constitution that many fellow citizens read in a ludicrous light? How, for instance, are we to believe in a Constitution that’s been interpreted to allow for speech by corporations, or in a Supreme Court that’s chosen to interpret it this way? Corporations are a legal fiction purposefully designed to shield individuals and groups from personal liability for the harm they cause, which is why the Framers distrusted them. To claim that “personal responsibility” is a core American value while also allowing corporations to have outsized power is the height of hypocrisy.

Keeping our trust in institutions, however, is the only antidote to the breakdown of public trust that Buchanan and Koch have engineered. This isn’t to say we should fetishize institutions — vigorous and precise criticism is vital to democracy. However, we do have to try to conserve those institutions to the degree possible to avoid an alteration to society that could take at least a couple of generations to walk back. As MacLean explains,

[T]he interpretation of the Constitution the [Koch] cadre seeks to impose would give federal courts vast new powers to strike down measures desired by voters and passed by their duly elected representatives at all levels — and would require greatly expanded police power to control the resultant popular anger.

MacLean leaves off her book at the 2016 election. The Koch Brothers specifically disengaged from Donald Trump, but as we’ve seen since he got into office, Trump’s current agenda is Phase I of the Koch Brothers’ agenda, stripping protections away from the public. Some of this agenda has been successful because it relies on the circulation of falsehoods that immigrants and other minorities are the main beneficiaries of various social programs. These falsehoods have played a role in stirring up white nationalism. While Charles Koch has tried to distance himself from the racial animus, claiming to have nothing to do with Trump’s Muslim ban, it seems likely that Koch simply understands Trump’s vulgarity might sully the glamour he’s purposefully created around himself with elites and the intelligentsia. This doesn’t mean he’s against the idea of manipulating elite and middle-class people who are inclined toward nationalism by creating false fears. In fact, Trump’s known question about how to use race-neutral language in the Muslim ban is a Buchanan-like tactic dating back to his efforts against school desegregation.

Moreover, the removal of public protections in the form of secret Republican meetings is very similar to what happened in Chile before Pinochet’s team redrafted a constitution to create the “protected democracy” that has proven extremely difficult to maneuver around.

We’ve seen these efforts in connection with the efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act in May and June 2017 and Trump removing the United States from the environmental protections created by the Paris Accord.

Given all the violence fomented against minorities since Trump took office, it may be difficult to remember the end game isn’t white nationalism, but to ensure a lack of representation for the majority — meaning everyone who is not wealthy, regardless of race or gender or creed. Bigotry has simply proven to be the easiest route for Trump and far-right extremists to take to eventually push their plutocratic agenda through. The climate of tremendous white fragility and fears stirred up by Trump is quite useful for the Kochtopus.

As the GOP works to enact Phase I by stripping health insurance from over 20 million people and proposing a punitive federal budget, they are already laying the groundwork for Phase II: Constitutional change. In March 2017, state representatives indicated that they want to hold a constitutional convention to limit the federal government. It takes the will of only 34 states to call a convention, and Republicans currently control 33 states. Moreover, if the GOP is able to ram through a candidate to replace any of the liberal justices, the Supreme Court is likely to favor corporations over average citizens for a generation.

In 2004, Thomas Frank asked What’s the Matter with Kansas? This question remains on a lot of progressives’ minds to this day as they speculate about why some white working-class Americans have voted against their interests and sided with the Republican Party. A number of books have explored this issue in the years since, including Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, which notes an alarming disconnect, for example, between its working-class subjects’ genuine love of the environment and their lack of faith in governmental solutions to address climate change. The left is quick to attack others on the left, suggesting that they don’t have enough empathy. But this book suggests what the real matter is. Over many decades, harmful ideas have trickled down from libertarian elites who’d been influenced to disparage “governmental solutions.”

Those of us in the law and journalism and other fields related to how this country is governed have slowly witnessed a change that looked like it was inevitable. We didn’t have a name for this change, which appeared to be happening organically, but also seemed to be against human nature — people siding with corporations over other people. MacLean’s book intimates what the matter is, and it also suggests a solution that must come from the culture that informs the institutions — change people’s minds and hearts around issues of equality. This is the value in our existing Constitution that is under attack (whether this value is properly implemented in society is a different question). All people need to recognize that while they may be shielded from the violent consequences of white nationalism, they, too, could be victims of unconstrained corporate greed.

Russians may have interfered with our election, but perhaps the hugest threat to American democracy is not overseas. It is in the destructive ideas of the billionaires sitting within our borders. With gobs of money and unlimited political spending, they are quietly playing a long game to destroy us all.


Anita Felicelli has contributed essays and reviews to The New York Times (Modern Love), San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, and The Rumpus. Her short stories have been published in The Normal School, Joyland, Kweli Journal, Eckleburg, Strangelet Journal, and The Stockholm Review.

LARB Contributor

Anita Felicelli is the author of Chimerica: A Novel and the short story collection Love Songs for a Lost Continent, which won the 2016 Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Her short stories have most recently appeared in Air/Light, Alta, Midnight Breakfast, and The Massachusetts Review. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times’s Modern Love, Slate, Salon, and Catapult. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.


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