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Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America

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Behind today’s headlines of billionaires taking over our government is a secretive political establishment with long, deep, and troubling roots. The capitalist radical right has been working not simply to change who rules, but to fundamentally alter the rules of democratic governance. But billionaires did not launch this movement; a white intellectual in the embattled Jim Crow South did. Democracy in Chains names its true architect—the Nobel Prize-winning political economist James McGill Buchanan—and dissects the operation he and his colleagues designed over six decades to alter every branch of government to disempower the majority.

In a brilliant and engrossing narrative, Nancy MacLean shows how Buchanan forged his ideas about government in a last gasp attempt to preserve the white elite’s power in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. In response to the widening of American democracy, he developed a brilliant, if diabolical, plan to undermine the ability of the majority to use its numbers to level the playing field between the rich and powerful and the rest of us.

Corporate donors and their right-wing foundations were only too eager to support Buchanan’s work in teaching others how to divide America into “makers” and “takers.” And when a multibillionaire on a messianic mission to rewrite the social contract of the modern world, Charles Koch, discovered Buchanan, he created a vast, relentless, and multi-armed machine to carry out Buchanan’s strategy.

Without Buchanan's ideas and Koch's money, the libertarian right would not have succeeded in its stealth takeover of the Republican Party as a delivery mechanism. Now, with Mike Pence as Vice President, the cause has a longtime loyalist in the White House, not to mention a phalanx of Republicans in the House, the Senate, a majority of state governments, and the courts, all carrying out the plan. That plan includes harsher laws to undermine unions, privatizing everything from schools to health care and Social Security, and keeping as many of us as possible from voting. Based on ten years of unique research, Democracy in Chains tells a chilling story of right-wing academics and big money run amok. This revelatory work of scholarship is also a call to arms to protect the achievements of twentieth-century American self-government.

334 pages, Hardcover

First published June 13, 2017

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About the author

Nancy MacLean

30 books141 followers
Nancy MacLean is the award-winning author of Behind the Mask of Chivalry (a New York Times “noteworthy” book of the year) and Freedom is Not Enough, which was called by the Chicago Tribune “contemporary history at its best.” The William Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University, she lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 839 reviews
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,438 followers
June 3, 2017
Many publishers claim “explosive new content” for their nonfiction but in this case it is not hyperbole. This political history of the Radical Right is a worthy companion to Jane Mayer’s Dark Money. It reveals what Mayer did not: what on earth were the Radical Rich thinking?

This is the book we’ve been waiting for—a book which explains the philosophical underpinnings of the Radical Right and the scope and direction of their plan for political and economic control. For years I have struggled to understand how they could imagine a small group of people should be more privileged than the majority, but now I get it. The Radical Right has divided human beings into makers and takers, “makers” being those who own the means of production (and pay taxes) and “takers” being those who do not. For some reason I still don’t understand, they have concluded that the superrich fit the first category and the bulk of the economy’s workers fit the second. Which, as we all know, is a logical fallacy in today’s America.

Though sometimes it may appear the Radical Right are inarticulate because they never seem to explain what they are aiming at, they apparently wanted to keep their philosophy and intent quiet, to work in secrecy. This is because most people in our democracy would oppose their thinking. The Radical Rich freely acknowledge this. The Right believes that the majority in a democracy can coerce individuals to pay for things the minority do not want to pay for, like public schools, health care, welfare programs, jails, infrastructure. The Right believe they should be free to do as they choose, and services should be privatized. The market will take care of any climate change-related environmental controls that the majority might wish businesses to adopt. The Right’s view of an efficient business and political environment might look like the early 20th Century when oligarchs roamed the earth.

It sounds bizarre, I know. The Right knew we would react this way, which is why they have been unable to say what they were thinking straight out, but instead made common cause with the Republican Party, and the Religious Right, cannibalizing both and only leading those two groups to their own demise. An important piece of their thinking is that only the national government has enough clout to stop them from dominance, which is why they are so insistent on weakening the central government and passing “power” to individual states, which of course would diffuse power.

Things are so much clearer to me now. When the Black Lives Matter movement said opposition to President Obama was about race, they were right. Opposition to Obama was ginned up by this group, who spread rumors and undermined his attempts to compromise by refusing cooperation. The genesis of the thinking in this far right group has its roots in slavery.

The roots of Radical Rich thinking goes back to John C. Calhoun, slave holder intent upon “preserving liberty” [of the elite], and keeping the demands of the many off his “property.” Up until the 1960’s, the majority of wealth in this country was in the South, leftover generational wealth from slave-holding days now invested in tobacco, cotton, energy products like oil and coal, etc... MacLean calls it “race-based hyper-exploitative regional political economy…one based first on chattel slavery and later on disenfranchised low-wage labor, racial segregation, and a starved public sector.”

It is fascinating to hear how Nancy MacLean, investigating a tangential issue to those she explores in this book, came upon the personal papers and writings of Nobel Prize winner James M. Buchanan (October 3, 1919 – January 9, 2013) at George Mason University in Virginia, which included private letters between Buchanan and Charles Koch. The letters illuminated the train of thought of both men, including their insistence that their thinking be kept secret lest people object to their belief that democracy would ruin capitalism and their right to rule. Eventually the two men diverged in thought and Koch sidelined Buchanan decisively.

At last I can understand why the Republicans would put forth a health care plan that actually harmed people. It bothered me that I didn’t understand, but I do now. I wonder if in twenty years this book will be named as one of the critical works which broke the hold of the Radical Right by disseminating notice of their goals to a broad base of Americans. I struggled to understand why this group of individuals, which include Mike 
Pence, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, Mitch McConnell, and a host of others, oppose government-subsidized affordable college education, corporate and personal taxes, environmental protections, and state-subsidized drug rehab programs. They actually believe the majority of the American people are stealing their wealth.

Of course there is room in the world for people with fundamentally different ideas about what man is. But there may not be enough room for these thoughts together in one nation. They can go off to live by themselves if they wish, on an island somewhere outside a country founded on the principle of “by the people for the people.” But, you know, without our willing slavery, they are just old men stashing meaningless bits of paper. They can’t even eat without our labor. They can’t live in all the houses they own. They can’t get where they are going without us. They can’t even dress themselves without us. No, in order for them to win we must agree to be ruled by them, and we don’t.

You will want to preorder this book and read it immediately. I understand now why there was no buzz about this. Remember when Jane Mayer was asked in an interview1 if she was afraid to criticize the secretive Koch brothers because they were so powerful? MacLean, I am quite sure, has to be extremely careful until this became public. The audio is excellent, read by Bernadette Dunn, produced by Penguin Audio. The audio file is about 11 hours, and it is completely enthralling. Now I can tell a conservative from someone indoctrinated by Koch. I can see the strategy.

1Pamela Paul’s January 24, 2016 podcast for NYTimes Book Review
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,636 followers
January 5, 2018
Terrifying in that the predictions MacLean makes in her conclusion are literally the policy of Drumpf and the deplorable Republican Party. Reading it gave me a feeling of hopelessness.

I read this after first reading Joshua Green's Devil's Bargain about how Bannon and Breitbart used right-wing propaganda and big data from Cambridge Analytica to swing the election to Drumpf as well as Frances FitzGerald's masterful The Evangelists about the fundamentalist movements on the religious right. I felt that MacLean's book was a necessary compliment to understanding the economic basis and philosophy of Koch (and his mentor James Buchanan) and I was not disappointed.

The author discovered, kind of by accident, a treasure trove of documents at the George Mason University campus about the economist James Buchanan who as it turns out created some powerful (albeit flawed) economic theory that was used (in person by Buchanan) by Pinochet in Chile and is espoused and militarized now by the Koch brothers. The ideas seem innocuous on the surface (economic choice), but the implications are broad and scary. Reading this book (written early 2017) and thinking about the decisions taken by Drumpf and the Republican congress, it seemed obvious to me that the Koch money has made a real, tangible impact on the US and that our democracy is definitely in danger.

Highly recommended for those who wish to decode the Tea Party rhetoric and understand to a degree how the people can be brainwashed into voting against their best interests, again and again.
Profile Image for Carla Bayha.
251 reviews10 followers
April 12, 2022
Radical right, conservative Republican, Freedom Caucus, Libertarian--we need new names. These groups have nothing to do with Lincoln or Eisenhower. Charles Koch and his billionaire friends, and the politicians, judges, "think" tanks masquerading as non profits, and the law schools and university economic departments that they have bought, want to destroy our democracy and our safety nets in favor of free markets that are tilted in their favor. The end game is eliminating social security, medicare and medicaid, unions, public transportation, public education, feminism (women have more "socialistic" tendencies) and the right to vote for the unpropertied. Their strategies include: surrogates who repeat known falsehoods until TV and Internet audiences forget if they are false or not (e.g. climate change is not caused by fossil fuels): creating false uncertainty about the viability of solvent social programs (e.g. Medicare, Affordable Health Care Act, public education) and pretending cutbacks are needed to "save" these programs; privatization of all state owned property and any safety net programs that they cannot just eliminate; control of state governments and gerrymandering to roll back voters rights protections and keep poorer people who don't "pay their way" out of the decision-making process; control of the judiciary at all levels. Or as their leading guru, James McGill Buchanan put it, not changing who rules but changing the rules. If you want to take a look at how well this will work for you, check out the economies of Chile and Russia--Buchanan and his followers advised both Pinochet and Yeltsin. This is a very disturbing book which deserves tremendous press coverage when it comes out. As a bookseller, I read an advance review copy. It kept me up at night.
Profile Image for Michael.
655 reviews964 followers
December 25, 2018
Written in response to the radical right’s recent rise to power, Democracy in Chains convincingly argues that Koch-funded libertarian extremists have hijacked the Republican Party and now seek nothing less than the establishment of oligarchy in America. Across twelve chapters Nancy MacLean traces the history of the once-fringe libertarian movement, which aims to privatize most public services and frames the nation’s white elite as a minority class oppressed by hordes of lazy “takers.” MacLean’s prose is fast moving, terse, and conspiratorial, making the book a quick and easy read, and her key ideas are clear. As persuasive as the author’s thesis is, however, her book’s a bit messy. In the first half, MacLean spends an inordinate amount of time detailing the beliefs of an Antebellum racist who had little direct influence on the book’s major subject, economist James Buchanan, and the author often repeats herself across chapters. The book’s worth reading, but it definitely could have benefited from a closer edit.
Profile Image for Pedro Jorge.
Author 3 books43 followers
March 14, 2020
Given its current rating, I think it's important that people take these critical reviews into consideration:

Here's Michael Munger's essay on this book:


Here's Daniel Mitchell's very lucid review of the book:


And here's another one, by David Henderson:


Also, David Gordon at the Mises Institute:


Also, just out from Horwitz at the Cato Institute:


In fairness, however, here are some attempts at rebuttal:




But consider, nonetheless, this retrospective by Philip Magness:


And a new article on Buchanan's alleged links to Pinochet, with links to peer-reviewed academic articles on the topic:

Profile Image for Scot.
118 reviews3 followers
June 29, 2017
This is the most enlightening political book I've read since The New Jim Crow. It's a great historical analysis of how we've reached the brink of embracing oligarchy.
Profile Image for Michael Perkins.
Author 6 books375 followers
June 27, 2021
The disaster we face didn't happen overnight, of course. The Koch Brothers created and sought to perpetrate the male, white oligarchy though various means. For example, they were the behind-the- scenes creators of the Tea Party movement, but had to admit that it got away from them, like the Sorcerer's Apprentice; as has everything else that has gone awry resulting in Trump.


To be honest, this is a long and detailed book. So here's what I recommend, listen to this podcast interview with the author and you'll get the crux of what you need to know....



We idealize the "Founders," but it was they who created the divide and conquer strategy, dividing white and black. They needed to instill contempt, and ultimately, hate in the white working class, lest black and white join together and overthrow the oligarchs.

This came back when I saw clip earlier this year of a BLM protest walking down a street and white hecklers on the sidewalk. A white-haired woman, sitting in a folding chair, yelled at the protesters: "I will teach my grandkids to hate you!" What a way to live and the people who are using her this way could care less about her.

Howard Zinn has the story, should you have interest....



More on the slave states...



About a year ago, I read the excellent "Dark Money," by Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, that does a deep dive into the machinations of the Koch Brothers. "Democracy in Chains" is an academic-style companion volume to Mayer's book.

The author begins by detailing how the slave-holding Founders "built numerous protections of minority rights and property rights into the document, among them the Electoral College and the Senate, with their systems of representation that favored less populous states." Then on to the Confederate bastard, John C. Calhoun, to the Chicago economist James Buchanan, the brain trust of the Koch Brothers, all of whom were essentially involved in a concerted effort to shape and maintain the U.S. as a racist oligarchy. It's worked! Trump is the latest manifestation.

It's a very detailed book, but I don't think I can improve on this very good review that provides enough to fill out the story.

Profile Image for Ryan Hazen.
19 reviews8 followers
July 4, 2017
A general rule of thumb when dealing with political literature is that if the title contains words like evil, radical, destruction, stealth, or other emotionally charged language... than chances are you're reading clickbait that looks to make money by pandering to a certain group.

Normally, these works are written (or ghost written) by pundits/commentators who are known for being partisan hacks that make a living by telling like minded individuals what to think and what to be outraged over. Basically, the Al Frankens and Sean Hannities of the world. Yet, the fact that this book is written by someone whom many would consider to be an actual historian gives off the impression that this book is meant to be taken seriously.

A good chunk of the book is spent trying to convince the reader that John C. Calhoun is somehow the inspiration for the modern day libertarian movement. For those familiar with the libertarian philosophy, this comes as a quite a surprise given how Calhoun didn't believe in individual rights for all and was not particularly fond of capitalism. Furthermore, quite literally no libertarians cite nor accept Calhoun as contributor to the movement. If you're going to look at early American, political thinkers that are cited as influencing the movement than Jefferson, Madison, and Coolidge would be some of the more logical choices.

However, those individuals don't have the modern political baggage when associated with a movement, so Calhoun has been resurrected from dead as a libertarian. The "logic" then goes:

1. Slavery is evil and racist.
2. Calhoun believed in slavery.
3. Ergo, Calhoun is an evil racist.
4. Calhoun is a libertarian.
5. Ergo, libertarians are evil racists.

The real kicker here is that even if Calhoun was the original libertarian... than so what? The progressives of the 1900s were lead Wilson (an unapologetic racist), FDR (the guy who put Japanese people in internment camps), and a bunch of intellectuals who thought that eugenics was a good idea before Hitler took it too far. These are historical facts, but that doesn't mean that they are reflected in the modern day progressives.

The rest of the book contains the usual diatribes and talking points about the Koch Brothers, free markets, and think tanks. They aren't really worth writing about given how there isn't a single original thought when covering them.

As for recommendations, if you're the kind of person who posts on social media five times a day about how you're a member of the "resistance," than this book is for you. If you the kind of person who is curious about various philosophical views and prefers nuanced discussions over ideological hackery, than you will want to pass on this book.
Profile Image for Thomas Ray.
1,093 reviews348 followers
July 18, 2023
George Monbiot reviews Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean: The Guardian, July 19, 2017: https://www.theguardian.com/commentis...

James M. Buchanan in The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan advocates totalitarianism in defense of the freedom of the rich to do what they will, at the expense of everyone else. "Sponsored throughout his working life by wealthy foundations, billionaires and corporations, he developed a theoretical account of what this constitutional revolution would look like, and a strategy for implementing it."

"In one respect, Buchanan was right: there is an inherent conflict between what he called “economic freedom” and political liberty. Complete freedom for billionaires means poverty, insecurity, pollution and collapsing public services for everyone else. Because we will not vote for this, it can be delivered only through deception and authoritarian control. The choice we face is between unfettered capitalism and democracy. You cannot have both.

"Buchanan’s programme is a prescription for totalitarian capitalism. And his disciples have only begun to implement it. But at least, thanks to MacLean’s discoveries, we can now apprehend the agenda. One of the first rules of politics is, know your enemy. We’re getting there."

The radical right has its authoritarian in mind, and a plan to replace democracy with autocracy: Heather Cox Richardson explains, July 17, 2023: https://heathercoxrichardson.substack...
Profile Image for Ginger Griffin.
112 reviews7 followers
July 1, 2017
You can make a good living telling billionaires what they want to hear, judging by the large number of (well-staffed) foundations, think tanks, and institutes the mega-rich have founded in the past few decades.

So where did this foundation-building complex begin? This book's author credibly traces it back to James M. Buchanan, an economist who was teaching at the University of Virginia in the early 1950s. Buchanan, a southerner by birth and choice, was outraged by the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education. So he founded a proto-think tank at UVA to battle what he saw as government intrusion into "personal liberty" (as in, the liberty to discriminate).

Drawing on the pre-Civil War writings of John C. Calhoun, perhaps the South's most radical defender of slave-holding, Buchanan attacked government (especially federal government) with arguments that would now be characterized as libertarian. In particular -- recognizing that government's power depended on its ability to tax -- he condemned taxation as an illegitimate incursion on individual freedom.

Buchanan eventually attracted the attention of rich patrons on the far right, who at the time were stuck supporting organizations like the John Birch Society, for lack of anything better. Buchanan's academic approach gave them a less buffoonish option.

Over time (and with the infusion of corporate money), the right's thought leaders dropped their overt racism and gained more mainstream support for their "free market" agenda. But they have yet to claim the ultimate prize -- ending Social Security and Medicare. That's leading some of them to consider a more radical option: opposing (and seeking to undermine) the democratic process. They reason that the majority of people will never vote to end their own benefits, so major systemic changes are needed. Some appear to be angling for a constitutional convention to re-write the rules in their favor.
Profile Image for Abraham Arslan.
44 reviews
June 26, 2017
A textbook case of intellectual dishonesty. MacLean has distorted arguments of J. Buchanan and Tyler Cowen. The mediocrity, carelessness and outright lies of MacLean has few parallels in Left. The oversimplification, distortion, and misrepresentation that is this book, demonstrates either the rapt stupidity or intentional malfeasance of the author.
I would've rated this book negative if I could.
4 reviews27 followers
July 19, 2017
For those considering buying, take some time to read these critiques (as well as the author's response in the first one) before making that decision:

[Edited to add]:

For those who don't give credibility to any libertarian who objects, read this one first:


It shouldn't matter who is giving a critique if the critique is valid, but for those who can't see it that way, this may help clarify what's going on.

[/End of edit]

Russ Roberts - Nancy MacLean Owes Tyler Cowen an Apology (author responds at bottom)

David Henderson - Nancy MacLean's Distortion of James Buchanan's Statement

Phillip W. Magness - How Nancy MacLean went whistlin’ Dixie

Greg Weiner - Six Degrees of James Buchanan
Profile Image for David Bernstein.
2 reviews6 followers
June 30, 2017
This is a terrible, poorly sourced book full of misstatements, distortions, and things that are simply made up. It's hard to belief it was written by a prominent historian.
Profile Image for Andrew.
632 reviews
July 14, 2017
The only book I've read that offers a convincing and comprehensive answer to the question, what kind of government are people like the Koch Brothers, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, et al., aiming for?

MacLean demonstrates that talk of "small government" is misleading. What they envision has less to do with size than it does with responsiveness--will numerical majorities of voters get to have a voice in making and changing the laws and policies that affect them? Or will the very wealthy have a permanent veto on anything they don't like? The point is to render majorities of voters impotent--permanently.

The book is sobering but also inspiring: MacLean's commitment to democratic principles is contagious and invigorating. It is deeply grounded in history; on the one hand, it meticulously reconstructs the interconnections between a set of ideas (public choice economics) and an activist network (funded and led by Charles Koch). But it also pays tribute to the enormous achievements of the civil rights movement and the labor movement in creating a set of institutions, laws, and norms that truly if imperfectly have empowered and protected ordinary people over the last fifty or so years from disfranchisement at the polls and in the workplace.

By making clear how far back these radical conservatives intend to take us--to an America before the Voting Rights Act and before the New Deal, back to a society governed by the philosophy of Lochner and Plessy--MacLean demonstrates amply and compellingly how much we have to fight for.
5 reviews1 follower
June 29, 2017
Worst book I've read in ages. So completely filled with inaccuracies, misquotations and mischaracterizations that it can't possibly be accidental. Nothing but purposeful and untruthful character assassination.
26 reviews8 followers
July 5, 2017
This is an important and well researched book that explains how conservatives/right seek to impose their vision of absolute property rights and minority rule on most institutions in this country. Despite the attempts to discredit the author and her scholarship I would dismiss those but it does demonstrate the concerted effort by the right to push back against all threats. A must read!!
Profile Image for Rinstinkt.
182 reviews
July 5, 2017
This book is the leftist equivalent of Alex Jones writing a book. The central theme in the book is that of a vast right wing conspiracy... Reminds you something?

The most insulting part for me personally is the stupid reasoning the author uses to attack others on majoritarianism and democracy. Evidently, the author prefers mob rule, and by her logic, she probably would have liked the majority to decide on slavery, she probably would have liked the majority to decide on racial segregation... or gay rights, or whatever... Because she's either stupid not to realize that majority rule is evil, or she is so dishonest in attacking these "right-wingers" with something every rational person agrees on: that majority rule is not moral, and having constraints on the majority is not a bad thing.
The only difference between this author, otherwise a respected historian, and Alex Jones, is that the former knows how to spread stupid conspiracies, insult the reader, and defame respected libertarians, economists, and Nobel laureates, and not get punished... We all know that this book won't change anyone's mind. This book is just pabulum for the radical left brainless zombies, to keep them alive, just like Alex Jones is the source of pabulum for the extremists on the other side.

She also attacks the Koch brothers for donating money to the causes they care about. The irony is that she took 50.000 dollars from the US government to write this book. I ultimately think that she is just a propagandist for the status-quo and everything that is bad in America today.
Profile Image for Caren.
493 reviews104 followers
September 30, 2017
Whoa, from the number of one-star ratings here, I think this book struck a nerve somewhere. Well, be that as it may, I found it fascinating. As I read, the mantra in my head was "ideas have consequences". In this case, it is not one idea, but a body of ideas which make up a theory of governance: libertarianism, or more recently, neoliberalism. The author, who teaches history and public policy at Duke University, traces the modern incarnation of these ideas back to one influential, Nobel-prize-winning economist, James McGill Buchanan, who eventually was bankrolled by the Koch operation. As some have noted, the book was not published by an academic press---true; perhaps her motive was to reach more lay readers, more ordinary citizens. (I certainly wouldn't say Viking is a crackpot press anyway.) As for her ideas speaking to the "tin hat crowd", well, yes, they are alarming. It would be a good idea for any reader to check her sources and evaluate the evidence for himself. The book has extensive notes, bibliography, and index. For me, as I read, I recognized many names and organizations because once upon a time, I too was enamored of these ideas. Have these ideas ever come to full fruition in order for us to evaluate the results? Well, yes they have: in the government of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile. (see pages 154-168)
But to start at the beginning, the key character in her story, James Buchanan, was, interestingly for me (since I now live in Tennessee), a country boy from a family of limited means who lived in Middle Tennessee. A bright boy, he aspired to attend Vanderbilt University, but due to the Depression, could only afford Middle Tennessee State Teachers College (now Middle Tennessee State University). He did a triple major in English, math, and economics, then went on to get his masters in economics at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Directly after graduating, he went into the military service in 1941 and was sent to New York. He felt ill at ease and as though the "eastern establishment" looked down on his credentials. After military service in the Navy, he made his way to the University of Chicago for doctoral study on the advice of one of his professors from Tennessee. His ideas dovetailed neatly with those of the free-market views developing there. As the author says, "The lineaments of a long battle were being drawn: collective security versus individual liberty". (page 37) The author follows the development and implementation of neoliberal ideas through this one man and those sympathetic to the cause who came and went throughout his life. She traces his professorships from the University of Virginia in the 1950s, to Virginia Tech (with a brief excursion through Los Angeles, which he hated), and finally to George Mason University., at which point Charles Koch became heavily involved in the project. Buchanan developed "public choice theory", which, as I understand it, is an effort to control the majority (the "takers") in order to protect the economic rights of the minority (the "makers"). You have heard these ideas: government should only be involved in protection (with the military and local police forces); as much as possible , everything else should be privatized. It's pretty much a very individualistic model. You are on your own and if, perchance, you come to retirement age and don't have enough to support yourself, well, it's your own darned fault. Can't afford your medical care? Again, whose fault is that? Your kids' public school is poorly funded and falling in quality? Ah, good---it should have been privatized anyway. Infrastructure needs updating? Take bids and contract it out to private companies. The free market is always a better option than anything your government could achieve. If these choices were put to a popular vote, would they succeed? Probably not, so the solution is a stealth operation. (This is where the critics blast the book as a sort of conspiracy theory. I don't know---to me, it seemed entirely plausible.) Let me say this: say, this book is not your cup of tea. Books about politics are kind of boring. Do me a favor and read the conclusion, " Get Ready", if nothing else. And again, look at her sources, do a bit of checking. Read arguments from the other side, which are well-represented in all of the one-star reviews. Then , make up your own mind. That is all any of us can do. But above all, be informed. That is what I ask. This is the future of our country here. Ideas have consequences.
Profile Image for Christopher Saunders.
931 reviews861 followers
June 9, 2019
Disappointing would-be expose of right-libertarian ideology, whose simplistic analyses obscure more than they reveal. MacLean, ordinarily a perceptive historian, seems married to a bizarre thesis: that James M. Buchanan, a far-right economist associated with the Virginia School, was the godfather of modern conservatism. MacLean shows us, at least, that Buchanan was a man of some import, with his fingers in a lot of pies: the massive resistance to desegregation in 1950s Virginia, consultancies with the Koch Brothers and Milton Friedman's "Chicago Boys" in Pinochet's Chile, formulating the calls for privatizing Social Security. He also codified an extremist economic philosophy that rejects even the limited intervention allowed by Friedman, for a stunningly absolute social Darwinism - and naked contempt for democratic process. What's unconvincing is MacLean's continued assertion that Buchanan was a singularly influential or important figure in this movement. Her book's historical background is amazingly thin, even shallow, for someone who's written extensively on American social movements. Its fine to assert that Buchanan was influenced by John Calhoun's extremist advocacy of nullification; her subsequent claim that the anti-government, anti-tax extremism trumpeted by Calhoun and the Virginia School vanished between Appomattox and Brown vs. Board is mindbogglingly silly (most all for a woman who's written a book on the Second Ku Klux Klan!). She knows enough to mention, for instance, the DuPont-backed American Liberty League several times, but discounts the influence of these and other anti-FDR plutocrats for reasons murky and unconvincing. Nor does she convince us that Buchanan is more influential than contemporaries like Friedman, F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, William F. Buckley or the Kochs themselves in shaping or affecting libertarian thought. As a biography of Buchanan, it's mildly interesting; as a general history of libertarian thought and conservative ideology, it's thin, incomplete and unpersuasive; as a portrait of corporate influence in politics and policy, it pales next to Jane Mayer's Dark Money or Kim Phillips-Fein's Invisible Hands. A colossal letdown.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
5,030 reviews1,166 followers
August 9, 2017
This is an extraordinarily relevant study of a powerful tendency within contemporary U.S. politics. Aligned to the biography of Nobel Prize winning 'Neo-liberal' economist James M. Buchanan, this book gives the history of that radical right-wing libertarianism which would abolish government except for its war-making and policing functions, a movement which today is substantially funded by the Koch brothers but whose ideology can be traced back to the work of Buchanan in original alliance with the States Rights movement of the fifties. The author, no fan of this tendency, provides an example of its implimentation in Pinochet's Chile and describes how it has become a powerful force within today's Republican Party, now rent between this deep-pocketed faction, the Christian Right, traditional fiscal-conservatives and the Trump infection.

I've had some dealings with these people during the struggle to prevent the right-wing takeover of Shimer College, a tiny 'great books' school with a valuable-because-hoary charter, a take-0ver presaged in George Mason University's history (detailed in this book) and substantially involving members of its faculty. We succeeded, but only by a single vote, after a long effort in researching and exposing the subversive board members and their myriad well-funded and interconnected institutional homes (many of which link to Geo Mason).
Profile Image for Lisa Reads & Reviews.
441 reviews119 followers
October 13, 2018
Everyone should read Democracy in Chains. If the political climate has your head spinning, MacLean reveals the Libertarian strategy that makes sense. The GOP is no longer the party of Reagan, or Bush. They were losing the popularity war, as shown by Obama's victory. Now they shamefully embrace a strategy to sabotage the system so they will not require mass approval. Their allegiance to the wealthy would not be popular anyway--so they blatantly lie. They cannot be shamed or held accountable by their constituents because their goal is replace our democracy into what is essentially an oligarchy, who are not to be taxed, where the government serves the wealthy and contributions to the common good are voluntary. This is exactly what is happening.

The story began with James McGill Buchanan, the movement strengthened by Charles Koch. I highly recommend this book for everyone, regardless of party affiliation.
Profile Image for Alan Johnson.
Author 5 books221 followers
August 4, 2017
This is one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. It is very well documented. The author, who is a professor of history and public policy at Duke University, cites and quotes hundreds of books, articles, letters, and memoranda of the principal movers and shakers on the libertarian right. One of the mistakes these self-described "libertarians" made was to document everything, often in unpublished letters and memoranda that the author found in collections available at public institutions. The author even attended the funeral and graveyard service of "public choice" economist James Buchanan. Spoiler alert: At the end of his life, Buchanan vaguely became aware that he had been used by the Kochs and that his academic endeavor had been taken over by fanatical right-wing operatives. Accordingly, he broke with the Koch brothers, and neither they nor their many paid minions attended his funeral. But Buchanan’s epiphany was too little, too late. The Kochs won, and their goal is nothing less than the destruction of American democracy and its replacement by an oligarchy of wealth. The public choice and other strands of the libertarian movement loved the brutal Pinochet regime in Chile and did much to aid and abet it.

This book, which took the author ten years to research and write, is long and complicated, but it is well worth reading. It has a hundred pages of endnotes, most of which I read. It is impossible to summarize all the many threads of history that the book documents. But the epigraph epitomizes the main lesson: "The public choice revolution rings the death knell of the political 'we.'—Pierre Lemieux." Lemieux considered that development to be a good thing; Nancy MacLean laments the decline of democracy that the public choice revolution has fostered.
July 5, 2017
Micheal Munger is an economist and former department chair of political science at Duke University (from 2000-2010)that teaches economics and public policy, he is also a member of the Libertarian Party and affiliated with the Cato Institute (formerly the Charles Koch Foundation). The Independent Institute (according to Source Watch-The Center for Media and Democracy) is primarily “part of the libertarian think tank phenomenon” and in itself is affiliated with the Center for the Study of Public Choice (which as you know was founded by James Buchanan). I offer a review of Democracy in Chains by Genevieve Valentine (http://www.npr.org/2017/06/18/5319292...) whom is neither an indoctrinated Libertarian ideologue, is not affiliated with Libertarian Policy Institute nor is she a proponent of Neo Liberal Economics. There is a noticeable difference in perspective on this book in which she describes MacLeans scholarship as “clear, at a precipice.” Of course Micheal Munger (among others) would seek to discredit and or impugn MacLean’s work. It would seem that the most vociferous criticism of Democracy In Chains originates from Libertarians.
Profile Image for Greto  Jewberg.
3 reviews
July 12, 2017
I'm just going to leave here a comment from David Bernstein (without his knowledge) because he sums up very well some of the huge problems with this book:

>...For example, she devotes the entire preface to John Calhoun, whom she claims was a major influence on Buchanan and libertarianism more generally. This is false (Buchanan, for example, never cited Calhoun, despite citing many other scholars; the entirety of her support for Calhoun's influence on libertarianism is one citation to an article by libertarian Murray Rothbard, who himself was clearly most influenced by Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand, not Calhoun).
She claims that libertarian Frank Chodorov praised southern resistance to Brown. This is false, he in fact praised Brown in the very article she cites. She claims that southern agrarians were a significant influence on Buchanan. False.
She claims that GMU law school dean Henry Manne didn't engage in open searches for positions, and only hired white men. False and false.
She weirdly claims that neoconservative William Kristol and social conservative Ed Meese, appointed by a Republican governor, were part of a "libertarian cadre" that dominated GMU's board of visitors. And so on.
Footnotes exist in most cases, but they don't support the text. --David Bernstein
Profile Image for Mlg.
1,172 reviews10 followers
July 8, 2017
If you are worried about the direction of the country and the erosion of democratic ideals in the US, you need to read this book. It begins with a little known man named James Buchanan who taught in Virginia and tried to preserve the power of the white elite in the wake of Brown vs. the Board of Education. He embarked on a mission to rewrite the social contract of the modern world, dividing us into the "makers and takers" the Republicans love to talk about.
The book progresses into the era of the Koch Brothers and their funding of Buchanan's ideas. The main goals of the modern day Buchananites are to turn out compliant laborers who will work with no minimum wage or benefits, Social Security or Medicare. They justify the superiority of their leadership by their vast wealth (much of it inherited) believing that they are intellectually and ethically superior to everyone else. These Libertarians want to see the end of public education, Social Security, Medicare, the post office, minimum wage laws, child labor laws, taxes and regulations. They want to sell off public property and privatize as much as possible. They supported unlimited campaign contributions, masquerading as free speech. So far, Reagan and Bush II were unsuccessful in gutting social programs. After Reagan they decided to stop being honest with the public and to start altering the perception of reality ("SS is going broke") and dividing the populace in order to conquer. Now with ALEC, the Tea Party, Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works, they are launching an attack on democracy itself.
Tyler Cowan who succeeded Buchanan believes we must all fend for ourselves, let others fall by the wayside, and ignore those who are left behind in poverty. Paul Ryan is one of his adherents. Remember his line about school lunches for poor kids? According to Ryan it "leaves them with a full stomach and an empty soul." Nothing worse than a little moocher trying to get free stuff.
Their latest targets sound like a to-do list of the Trump administration. Deny climate science, turn public schools into for profit charters, privatize prisons, break unions, get rid of pensions, weaken the checks and balances we have, and take advantage of any good crisis (Shock Doctrine anyone?)
Buy up the media to shape public opinion, stack the judical branch. Let state governments restrain local governments, suppress the vote to get rid of minorities and the young and gerrymander. Now they also have an active political surveillance of liberal opponents.
America is at a crossroads and "will soon make a decision about its future. It will be a permanent decision. There will be no going back." Too much wealth in the hands of two few, may indeed end our democracy for good.
Profile Image for Jenn "JR".
469 reviews78 followers
September 24, 2020
"Democracy in Chains" is a thorough examination of 20th century efforts to undermine democratic systems through slow, methodical and intentional erosion and manipulation of the democratic system. Their interests are to maintain property for the wealthy -- and to reduce access to education and intergenerational mobility to the many. Having been a child in the Reagan years - I saw the message clearly: plan now for things that most people think are a right or you will never have them. I have chosen not to have children. I have worked my ass off but now at middle age -- it seems unlikely that I will avoid poverty in old age. At least now it's clear that's part of a larger design out of my control.

Profile Image for Amy.
1,617 reviews152 followers
January 1, 2019
After asking myself over and over and over for the last few years what the heck the radical right wing is thinking, someone suggested that I look at this book. And I'm so glad that I did. It's really given me a great deal to think about - it covers the philosophy behind the Radical Right and their comprehensive plan for political and economic control. It really is stunning to see it all laid out in such detail in this book. The breadth and scope of the plan is staggering. What a tangled web they've weaved, full of deception and reliance upon ignorance and secrets.

Highly recommended, especially to those who would like to see beyond the conservative rhetoric and really understand how they've manipulated their followers into voting against their best interests over and over and over again.
July 16, 2017
awful book. the author misrepresents most if not all the ideas of the scholars she tries to criticize. she unironically quotes economist like Keynes and John r commons while accusing Buchanan of being a racist. if you didn't know Keynes being to avoid eugenics group post ww1 and commons thought African Americans were sub human.
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