Review: Democracy in Chains

Over the past 30 years, I have been mystified by a number of trends:

  • The attack on public education. I started my career as a high school math teacher. I chose to be a teacher because I thought that children were our future and worthy of significant investment.
  • Union busting.
  • Decline of pensions.
  • Relentless attack on consumer and public protections, also know as ‘regulations.’ In what universe do you have to fight to protect safe drinking water and clean air?
  • Obsession with restricting voting rights.
  • Absurd gerrymandering.
  • The hard right shift of the elected leaders in North Carolina, and dozens of other states.
  • Rise of propaganda media that is so far from ‘Fair and Balanced’ that it would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous. Right-wing media has become an alternate reality show. They certainly have nothing to do with news.

I’m not mystified any more. It turns out that our current cultural and political climate have been carefully sculpted over the last 40 years by people working diligently behind the scenes and on multiple fronts. It turns out there really is a vast right-wing conspiracy.

In her amazing new book, Nancy MacLean — a professor of history and public policy at Duke University — lays out the intellectual history for the predatory ideology that has gained a foothold in our democracy. Her research, and erudite writing, lays out “the utterly chilling story of the ideological origins of the single most powerful and least understood threat to democracy today: the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance. … [they are on] a 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.”

Two ideologies are at war. One one side is the majority of Americans, whose views and values were aptly described by David Stockman — President Reagan’s Budget Director and an avid Libertarian — in the wake of the Republican’s failed attempt to implement a massive tax cut in the 1980’s. He said that Americans want a moderate social democracy, for which they were willing to pay moderate taxes. Specifically:

What Stockman concluded, was that voters must be told the truth. To have all the things they wanted, from clean air and water to retirement security (to say nothing of military power), Americans needed “a moderate social democracy,” and to get this, they needed to pay higher taxes. It was that simple: higher taxes could solve the problem, without permanent deficits or economic disaster.

 

On the other side of this ideological battle are a group of people who call themselves Libertarians, and who use words like ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ like they are sacrosanct. The warning here is that when Libertarians — and the majority of their Republican toadies — use these words they mean something very different than the generally accepted understanding of these concepts. They are intentionally misleading in their language.

What the Libertarians — led by the seeming endless wealth of the Koch fortunes — want is “a world in which liberty was preserved by the total absence of government coercion in any form. That entails the end of public education, Social Security, Medicare, the U.S. Postal Service, minimum wage laws, prohibitions against child labor, foreign aid, the Environmental Protection Agency, prosecution for drug use or voluntary prostitution—and, in time, the end of taxes and government regulations of any kind. And these are just the marquee targets.”

This is probably the most important book that I have read in the last decade. Never has it been more important to understand a person’s ideological proclivities before you absorb what they are saying. If for nothing else, MacLean’s research and writing will illuminate the institutes and players who are diligently working to dispense with democracy. These included 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. Do you recognize some of these names? They are not noble institutions. They are propaganda machines. When people from these organizations speak, they are not speaking the same language as people who believe in democracy. They are speaking in Orwellian contortions, using words you recognize, to influence you in ways that are against your best interest.

I could go on, but you should probably just pick up a copy of Democracy in Chains for yourself. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

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