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Gerrymandering to restrict African American votes. Laws requiring voters to show picture Identification. Closing state picture identification offices in largely African American counties. Videoing at polling booths. Closing polling places in poor counties. Distributing false information about the locations of polling places. Stripping voter registrations based upon minor differences in signatures separated by many years. Posing as polling workers then falsely offering to deliver absentee ballots.
Prior to reading Nancy MacLean's book I had little context in which to understand these well-planned attempts to undermine American democracy. She describes her book as "… the utterly chilling story … of the single most powerful and least-understood threat to democracy today: the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance…" The first point is that these abuses are nothing new. The second point is that derive from a well-developed and articulated social theory promulgated by intellectuals (at least two of whom hold the Nobel prize) supported in their effort by billionaires.
This book is by no means in the genre of sloppily concocted conspiracy theories. The author is an accomplished historian at Duke University and the claims in the book are meticulously documented. Nancy MacLean takes the reader through three periods in the effort to limit democracy. She skips the time of the Constitution's framing, which was hardly free of anti-democratic efforts. (1) Her story begins in the Jim Crow south, the period from emancipation the civil rights movement. (2) It moves on to challenges to Jim Crow launched during the civil rights period with a focus upon the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and (3) ends with its resurgence today embodied by Ronald Reagan and others, but particularly under the influence of a little-know (albeit Nobel Prize winning) economist, James Buchanan. Buchanan is the angel or the devil in this account, depending upon your politics.
First period: The institution of slavery, over and above its obvious horrors, was at the center of a form of life, with common understandings and lists of "obvious" rights and wrongs. It is now rightly and widely condemned. Both the emancipation of an enslaved people and the Fourteenth Amendment were a direct threat, and a slap in the face, to this form of life. Worse still the threat was imposed by outsiders, northerners, who controlled the federal government. The period immediately following emancipation (the Reconstruction), constituted a shocking loss of liberty, in the view of white southerners. The most immediate response had to be to exclude the newly minted voters from using their power and to regain the control, the liberty, that white southerners possessed previously. The author notes in passing the irony involved in understanding the freeing of an enslaved people as a diminishment of liberty.
An early thinker in this effort was former US president, the South Carolinian, John C. Calhoun. One issue was simple and crucial, keeping the majority from taxing the rich, victimizing the wealthy white minority for whom freedom meant using one's "hard earned wealth" as one pleased. One thinks of many things associated with freedom, but in this case control of wealth and property was paramount. Calhoun's strategy was to implement state constitutional provisions that reduced the power and effect of the popular vote. Calhoun focused upon the power of taxation that could be devised to create benefits for the the poor, who could not pay for the benefits, by overpowering the wealthy at the ballot box. "Soak the rich," in the phraseology of today. Of course, there was the poll tax, a monetary charge for the right to vote that many poor were unable to pay. And there was a constitutional shifting of power from local districts, where the poor could wield power in their own communities, to state capitals. There was segregation and innumerable implied regulations concerning race, sometimes policed by the Klan. Few could even conceive that limiting the power of democracy was anything but just (as a defense of property rights) and necessary.
The second phase commenced with Brown v. The Board of Education, followed by striking down the poll tax, new voting rights laws and all the features of the Civil Rights movement. In the State of Virginia, the response to Brown was simply to close down public education, replacing it with "private academies" funded by the State. And it was into this historic tumult that James Buchanan, a country boy from Tennessee brought his degrees from Middle Tennessee State Teachers College and the University of Chicago to the University of Virginia. The University of Chicago was then, and still is, a center of libertarian/conservative social and legal thought. It was the Austrian School, associated with F. A. Hayek and his blockbuster anti-socialism tract, The Road to Serfdom. To Hayek, FDR's New Deal was, "…nothing more than the Socialistic doctrine called by another name." Milton Friedman, libertarian and a Nobel winner, was at Chicago and led the charge against the Keynesian idea the country's free-market economy needed government to keep it on the proper path.
James Buchanan came to the university of Virginia in 1956, in the middle of the post-Brown resistance to integration. And he arrived with a proposal. He would develop and lead an institute based up the study and promotion of "old-fashioned libertarianism", the "sanctity of private property rights" and the "Western conservatives fear of a revolt of the masses" (one person, one vote). The New Deal, with its Social Security, Unemployment Compensation and WPA violated that sanctity (i.e., holiness). It was thievery from the makers to benefit the takers. In 1959 he and his colleague Warren Nutter proposed to a Virginia State Commission that it close down the public schools permanently and fund substitute "private" schools. The proposal would avoid state monopoly over education and defend freedom. (One might think here of Charter schools without the public option as well as proposals to privatize the USPS, city water systems, mass transit, even the war in Afghanistan.) Buchanan's academic research focused on the motives involved in law-making. His hypothesis was that political decisions followed the same principles as market decisions. Lawmakers were motivated (had a right to be motivated) by the pursuit of their own interests. In a democracy, where legislators needed to have a plurality of the votes, this would eventually lead to soaking the entrepreneurial "makers" to benefit the majority, the "takers", a form of public theft that victimized hard-working entrepreneurs. These ideas are familiar to those reading the novels and essays of Ayn Rand and as practiced by "Rand" Paul, Paul Ryan and the Libertarian party. They were the ideas expressed by Mitt Romney and surreptitiously recorded in his race against Obama.
The most common judgment on Brown v. Board of Education is that it rectified a terrible wrong, unequal and racially segregated schools. In the world in which Buchanan travelled it followed the New Deal as a usurpation of the state's rights to govern themselves. Even the great Austrian, F. A. Hayek endorsed Virginia's segregated, private schools funded by the public. In 1963, Buchanan became the president of the Southern Economic Association. In the year following, Barry Goldwater ran for president on a platform that could have been written by Buchanan. In fact, it was the work of Buchanan's colleague and friend Warren Nutter. It was a high water mark for Conservatives. Goldwater advocated foremost for economic liberty, meaning that taxes should not be spent without the consent of the taxpayers who funded them. These were popular themes until it got down to specifics; sell the TVA, privatize Social Security, eliminate Medicare (a form of socialized medicine) and farm supports. He famously pronounced that, "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice." Unfortunately, there was little popular support for any of these changes.
During the College strikes and protests of the 1960s and early 1970s, Buchanan produced a report recommending that public colleges and universities be transformed into corporate-style entities. The causes of the chaos were (1) That the consumers (students) do not pay the full cost of what they purchase and so felt no stake in an orderly university, (2) those who produce (faculty) what the students consume (knowledge) do not sell it, and (3) those who pay for it (taxpayers) do not control it. The consequence of these recommendations would mean far fewer students in general and fewer lower income students in particular. At an international meeting of like-minded thinkers in the early 1970s, James Buchanan stated that modern society was, "willing to allow for the existence of parasites … this is essentially what the student class has already become." There were proposals to eliminate the liberal arts in favor of major programs that contributed to the wealth of the nation.
Buchanan had become a sought-after idea-leader of the political right and as such attracted very wealthy benefactors to his cause, the, Charles Koch, John M. Olin and Richard Scaife (who funded the "Arkansas Project" that devoted itself to the ruin of Bill Clinton's presidency). Koch in particular made certain that Buchanan never lacked the funds to carry out his programs, and funded the Institute for Contemporary Studies in California, which networked right wing scholars with business leaders. Koch and Buchanan shared many ideas, but privatization was foremost. The plan, in Koch's mind, was to privatize one government function after another, each time sapping more strength from government. This enmity toward government was mouthed most effectively by the "great communicator" Ronald Reagan, "The most dangerous words you'll ever hear are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" Karl Marx had noted about liberal societies that blend political democracy with free enterprise capitalism that while people extol the power they think they have by way of the ballot box, they go to work each day to an institution in which they have no power. Of course, the privatization movement, as it weaken democratically elected Governments at all levels, will reduce even this source of people's control over their own lives. I recommend this book.
One way to understand the project that James Buchanan was central to, is its implementation in Chile. In 1973 the elected President of Chile, Dr. Salvator Allende was overthrown and assassinated by Chile's military, led by General Augusto Pinotchet. The first order of business for the coup leaders was to limit democracy in order to assure that populist leaders like Allende could never again be elected. Milton Freidman, F. A. Hayek and James Buchanan all visited Chile to consult with Pinochet's advisors. Buchanan's book, The Limits of Liberty, was translated into Spanish. Following the coup, industry-wide labor unions were banned, the social insurance system privatized, health care was privatized, universities were required to be self-funding, the humanities and liberal arts were pushed aside in favor of technical fields. Buchanan visited Chile in 1980 and his advice was sought on how to prevent a repeat of an Allende type leader. Buchanan provided a blueprint, "We are formulating constitutional ways in which we can limit government intervention in the economy and makes sure it keeps its hand out of the pockets of the productive contributors (the wealthy)." Even after Pinochet's removal, the Chilean constitution, built along the lines of Buchanan's prescriptions, is extraordinarily difficult to alter in favor of programs to benefit the non-wealthy. The people's voice had been largely silenced.
© 2019 John Mullen
John Mullen is a philosopher and writer. He is author of Kierkegaard's Philosophy: Self-Deception and Cowardice in the Present Age and Decision Making: It's Logic and Practice (with Byron M. Roth) as well as the novel The Woman Who Hated Philosophers, Swallow Tail Press, 2017. He lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts.