Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean – a Review

Democracy in Chains explores dark corridors of U.S. political

and social history from the framing fights over the Constitution up to the present time.

The book traces the origins and expansion of America’s most extreme and powerful political right, the Koch network, also known as the 0.1%. And it examines how the many in the billionaire class, within the Koch network or influenced by it, threaten democracy in the U.S., as well as the environment and our children’s future. Democracy in Chains, published in 2017, is as readable as it is well-researched. 

The author, Nancy MacLean, is an award-winning writer and professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. Her book reveals how various political operators, without the public’s knowledge, subvert our institutions. She focuses on economists Milton Friedman and James McGill Buchanan among others. She also examines political operators like Edwin Meese, Newt Gingrich, and Dick Armey. These individuals operate outside the public’s awareness. Their goal is to subvert and control such basic institutions as the Supreme Court, state and federal governments, public schools, public lands, and public media. They are succeeding thanks to the money and influence of the Koch brothers and their fellow billionaires. These actors strive for “economic freedom” for themselves, at the cost of undermining democracy and economic freedom for everyone else. 

MacLean documents the expansion of the extreme political right, embodied by dozens of organizations, think tanks, institutes, and organizations. These groups are national, state, or local. Many are based in Washington, D.C. 

This is a partial list:

American Enterprise Institute

American Legislative Exchange Council

Americans for Prosperity

Cato Institute

The Charles Koch Foundation

Competitive Enterprise Network

The Federalist Society

Fox News

The Heritage Foundation

Independent Institute

Scalia School of Law (Geo. Mason U.)

State Policy Network

Young Americans for Liberty

These groups have titles that sound high-minded, civic, and patriotic. But in reality, they push agendas that advance right-wing extremist goals. They want to undo the gains of the New Deal, Medicare and Medicaid, and other progressive legislation. They support weakening voting laws and undermining environmental and other governmental regulatory powers. They attempt to skew our justice system to promote and protect the rights of corporations against the rights of citizens. The groups of the Koch network, including the many politicians they fund, constitute a vast patronage system. All of them are “on the take,” paid to say and do the Koch network line. Have you ever wondered why right wing media, like Fox and One America News, sound like they are reading from a script?

Through privatization, the 0.1%, whose fortunes come from our natural resources, infrastructure, labor, and tax subsidies, want to take the public out of public schools, prisons, infrastructure projects, veterans’ care, and health care, and give control of those functions to their corporate cronies to make a profit and to gut the services, which the public needs. Furthermore they seek to reshape the public’s understanding of government itself. They want people to believe that government provides no social benefit and is run by people who are either selfish, inept, or both. These groups want people to believe that government is an enemy of the people. They also wish to dismiss and discredit the voices of unions and civic groups of young people, minorities, women, the disabled, and the elderly. They promote the idea that government should be smaller or eliminated, except for the military and law enforcement. Notice that this is what Trump’s agency heads, all on the Koch network payroll, are doing now. Increasingly the Koch network is trying to change our form of government by the people, for the people, with three branches of government, to just the one branch, the Office of the President staffed by members of their network.

Democracy in Chains shows that seemingly independent Conservative organizations are actually deeply interconnected. These groups share funders and staff, who move from group to group. All of them are funded by extreme groups of the Koch network, like the Club for Growth, Donors Trust, and Freedom Partners, who represent less than 0.1% of the American people. The Koch brothers and the Scaife Family Charitable Trusts are two members and leaders of the Koch network. There are many others. They make up a tight-knit circle with a political philosophy that is on the far right along the libertarian, “freedom for the rich,” free-market spectrum. They meet in secret (by invitation only, no press allowed), and the effect of their efforts is to undermine democracy.

They believe that capitalism and democracy are opposed to each other, and the Koch network chooses rampant capitalism.

The Koch network knows that, if most Americans were really aware of their true agenda, the public would oppose them. So the Koch network operates hidden from public scrutiny and makes alliances with other extreme groups to get more voters. They are allied with the extreme religious right and support the religious right’s anti-women’s choice, anti-birth control, anti-abortion agenda, and anti LBGTQ rights. They are also allied with the NRA (“a machine gun for every child?”). They are in league with the pro-coal, pro-dirty oil, anti-labor, and anti-climate science oligarchs of Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia. They would like to get their hands on the vast oil reserves of Venezuela, Iran, and Syria.

The Federalist Society, a Koch network member, functions as a farm system for producing judges to vote for Citizens United and against Roe v Wade. It is part of the Koch program for America. They promote voter suppression and gerrymandering because they fear that the 99.9%, including all who are not in their small group of billionaires, will defeat Koch network candidates in elections. 

Want to follow the money? Read this book.

The book’s power goes beyond its subtitle, “the deep history of the Radical Right’s stealth plan for America.” MacLean explores the current Koch world view. No surprise, the Koch network members are almost all super rich, white, and male. As to probing the world-view that animates them, she gets to the why question. Why do they consider their extreme views justified? Most readers will regard their views as a threat to the daily lives of the American people. 

Consider that most Americans believe that our free, democratic society has the responsibility and obligation to support and promote the well-being of all Americans and their communities. This is an obligation expressed in a wide range of government programs and functions. Our taxes support public education and libraries, food inspection, the maintenance of national parks, food stamps, agricultural subsidies, unemployment compensation, the National Galleries and museums, law enforcement, and defense. The community—in the form of government—is meant to support that community—in the form of its constituents, of all of them.

The proponents of the Koch network agenda have a different theory of society. To them, the world is divided into two classes: the makers and the takers. The makers possess vast amounts of wealth and power. They think that the Koch network should control society and government. The Koch network wants unfettered access to what they define as a free-market economy. What these billionaires overflook is that much of their wealth has come from government subsidies of all forms ranging from tax benefits to policies that increase their profits and minimize their exposure to risk.

From the perspective of the Koch network, the problem with America is the takers, the other ninety-nine point nine percent. To the makers, what the takers invariably want from government are hand-outs. They say that the takers are always looking for “benefits” and “entitlements” like Social Security and Medicare. In their view, the takers want public education, transportation, social security, Medicare, libraries, food inspection, and national parks. Again, this is a misconstruction of the dynamics of society. “Takers” in fact are the average person who pays taxes, is employed, and yes, uses public resources like roads, and libraries. What is wrong with that?

To the Koch network, the taker “class” includes everyone who works for wages, collects Social Security or uses Medicare or Medicaid. Others such as those whose children get free lunch at school or that for a short time use food stamps, are also takers. The Kochs believe that there is no need for the 0.1% to have responsibility for any of these people through government programs, which they themselves do not plan on using. They realize that because the vast majority of voters are in the so called taker class, they themselves need to elect and control more political leaders through campaign contributions. They already control the Republican Party as well as many Democrats who accept Koch network campaign contributions, much of it in the form of “dark” money. 

One of the Koch-network makers groups is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which provides the actual text for the would-be laws that Republican legislators pass, often without even reading them.

The Koch 0.1% fear leaders who would enact higher taxes on the rich (or roll back the Trump tax cuts) or tax estates at higher levels. Any new leaders not under the thumb of the Koch network might impose or defend regulations and policies that interfere with unfettered money making, food-safety regulations, clean air and water laws, health care, and antitrust policies. 

The trouble in the minds of the Koch-led 0.1% is that our Constitution does not do enough to protect their “minority rights.” As they see it, our functioning democracy can make trouble for them. The Koch network makers think that they must protect the nation from majority or “mob” rule. The Koch network does not want to share power with the taker middle class, small business owners, working poor, retired, or unemployed.

The Koch network members think that they, the makers, are already being subjected to laws that threaten their interests. The Koch network thinks that paying taxes and contributing to the social welfare should be voluntary. The 0.1%, which already controls much of the nation’s wealth, thinks they suffer from government interference with their efforts to amass even greater power and wealth. Yet while opposing benefits for the rest of us, the Kochs seem happy to get government subsidies for their oil industry.

We believe that the democracy of our United State of America is precious and should enable the voting majority to win control of government, an outcome we must work for even in the face of voter manipulation, tampering, and suppression. 

MacLean attempts to explain that the members of the Koch network do not see themselves as evil, corrupt, stingy, villains. Oh No! The Koch network believes they are the victims. How dare the 99.9% tax them to support the working class, the youth, seniors, people with special needs, and veterans. Why can’t the poor and disabled help themselves, they ask? And if the poor, disabled, or underpaid are homeless and starve, isn’t it their own fault?

In Democracy in Chains, MacLean has done meticulous research. She shows how the Koch network has already succeeded in defending and advancing its interests. Here’s a partial list of their influence:

Heavily subsidizing campus conservative programs and speaker series

Cherry-picking university faculty and administrators to build and control campus-based programs that push conservative agendas (e.g. economics at the University of Virginia; law at George Mason University’s law school).

Curtailing voting, especially minority voting

“Buying” elected officials through campaign giving, often through front groups

Injecting corporate dollars and dark-money contributions into politics

Extending gerrymandering to ensure their own election wins after first taking over state governments

Supporting anti-women’s rights clergy and politicians

Reversing gains of civil rights

Controlling media outlets to promote extremist, anti-science “news” (think Fox News)

Undermining trust in government itself through policies of privatization (support of for-profit charter schools, for private prisons–even for veterans’ services).

We are living in hard times, and it’s tempting to conclude that we know the score without hearing it from yet another author. But this book brings many otherwise separate elements into clear relationship and fresh focus. Reading MacLean’s Democracy in Chains is like seeing the historical past and the political present through new lenses.

If you care about your health care and retirement, your children and grandchildren’s education and future, global warming, minority rights, women’s rights, and fairness for others, read this book! Revealing the forces and strategies of the Koch network lifts any confusion about where we must go from here. 

Read it. Pass the word.

Rod Kessler

Frank Kashner