For the first few weeks after publishing, all was going pretty well.
Nancy MacLean’s book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, was “deeply important” and a “feat of American intellectual and political history,” said a review in Publishers Weekly.
The New York Times said the book joined an emerging corpus of important work of scholars and journalists that was “documenting the systematic, organized effort to undermine democracy and change the rules.”
But it didn’t take long for the apparatus of the “radical right” to swing into action, with attacks coming from many of the same individuals and institutions that the Duke University history professor documents in her book.
“At some point the libertarians, particularly people who are part of the apparatus in one way or another — either academics or the think-tanks — weighed in, and did the same thing with my work as they have done with climate science,” says MacLean.
“They don’t engage the central message but instead try and find what they imagine is a chink in the armor and they focus on that to try and undermine the credibility of the messenger rather than engage the substance of the message. They are still going… they’re very active.”
Mostly, the personal attacks have been in the public sphere “in the guise of critiquing the work”, although MacLean does admit to getting the occasional “hateful email.”
The attacks are hardly surprising, given MacLean’s central accusation that they have been complicit in a project to strangle democratic processes and demonise public authorities.
MacLean’s book charts the “radical right’s stealth plan” through the fortunes and influence of the late James M Buchanan, a pioneer of so-called economic “public choice theory” who was awarded a Nobel memorial prize in economics in 1986.
MacLean’s book also places Buchanan as a motivated and influential advocate of the free-market economics and neoliberalism preached by the influential members of the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) – the invitation-only group Buchanan joined in 1957 and served as president between 1984 and 1986.
The Mont Pelerin Society, established in 1947 by free market economist and philosopher Friedrich von Hayek, has about 500 members from more than 50 countries, according to a 2010 membership directory obtained by DeSmog.
But MacLean’s book also covers the much broader efforts of Buchanan’s fellow MPS members, including petrochemical billionaire Charles Koch who joined MPS in 1970.
Koch Co-Opted Mont Pelerin Society
As DeSmog has reported, MPS is populated by operatives from many Koch-funded conservative and libertarian groups that have worked to undermine the science linking fossil fuel burning to dangerous global warming while attacking renewable energy solutions.
MacLean says Buchanan and Koch’s efforts have had a “huge” impact on climate change policy in the United States and elsewhere.
“In the US, the impact has been enormous and this Koch network has effectively taken over the Republican Party and turned it into a delivery vehicle for this project,” she says.
“A classic example is on climate change when in the 1990s there was no significant difference between the parties in the US on whether climate change was happening.
“There were policy differences about how you would address it but there was no difference on the facts.
“But by 2014, only eight out of 278 Republicans in Congress would admit that climate change was man-made. That’s an extraordinary development and I would explain that by the way that Charles Koch’s donor network has applied Buchanan’s insights into political economy to change the rules of American politics and to change the incentives.”
“This donor network, by spreading so much misinformation, not just the donor network but the organizations that they fund, has spread so much misinformation that now the numbers have slipped to the level that action does not seem necessary to elected officials.”
MacLean suggests the Koch-funded network had essentially “co-opted” the Mont Pelerin Society. Soon after Charles Koch joined in 1970, MacLean says the billionaire was using MPS newsletters to recruit for his think tanks, including the Institute for Humane Studies and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
“He was clearly treating it as his own pipeline from the 70s forward,” she says.
She says: “The whole challenge of climate change is almost impossible for a libertarian to deal with, in the sense that it’s impossible to see how you could address this without government action and policies that involve regulation and restraints on corporate behavior.
“Libertarians – at least the hardcore that have been trained by this Koch network over the years – I don’t see how they can square a hardcore libertarianism with addressing climate change because of necessity. It’s going to rely on government action.”
She said it was “a hopeful sign” that at least one libertarian think tank, the Niskanen Center, was taking the science of the risks of human-caused climate change seriously.
MacLean says future historians will see the efforts of the Koch brothers and others as “huge” in the context of climate change.
“They will see that we were at a point where more and more people were recognizing the issue and recognizing the problem.
“This moment will be looked at with horror by future generations. It’s really frightening.”
But there is a chink of light, according to MacLean. The historian says a common response from readers of her book is that it gives people hope they can now wrestle back the reins of democracy.
“If the majority understood what they were doing, they would stop it. I think that’s a really powerful thing to know,” she says.
“They are doing all of this in the knowledge that they can’t win if they say openly what their end game is. If people work to patiently inform and activate the majority, then they could be stopped.”
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, is published by Scribe in Australia and the UK, and by Penguin Random House in the US.
Main image: Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains. Credit: Bruce Orenstein