If you’re shocked to see a rise in right-wing keynote speakers visiting college and university campuses (see: Richard Spencer at University of Florida, Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley), then you’re probably not paying close enough attention to the radical movement happening before your eyes.
Last week, historian and Duke University professor Dr. Nancy MacLean paid UNCG a visit to discuss her book, “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.” She is the first discussant of the 2017 Fall Lecture Series: Challenges To American Democracy, presented by the The Center for Legislative Studies and the UNCG Department of Political Science.
“It’s not about who rules, but the rules,” a phrase MacLean repeated several times throughout her engaging lecture. According to her work, far right leaders have a “stealth plan” to push a conservative agenda, and while it’s making current headlines, the plan has been lurking behind years of policy-making from state legislatures.
As a historian, MacLean’s research and argument were premised on her findings regarding two important men: economist James McGill Buchanan (1919-2013), and billionaire Charles Koch, who, along with his team of wealthy donors, funds conservative agendas being pushed by interest groups across the country.
Tossing a CEO and an economist into this dark story of reportedly independent policies and institutions, now revealed to be connected by paper trails, left several students and faculty gazing in disbelief and confusion. MacLean came armed with historical events that most of us could recognize. She began with Buchanan’s involvement in policy work in the 1950s, the decade when white mothers and fathers were still reeling from the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
Buchanan and a fellow economist called for Virginia to issue taxpayer-backed vouchers to any parents who wanted to send their children to private schools, which would remain segregated. Buchanan’s thinking gained ground quickly in a city that recently made headlines for all the wrong reasons: Charlottesville. What these economists were calling for was essentially the privatization of public education. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Buchanan’s school of thought has been reincarnated into the current US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.
In terms of how this translated to Virginia families, it meant that conservative, white parents and right-wing policymakers were willing to shut down public schools and ship their kids off to private academies to avoid having desegregated learning environments. African-American parents, who are more likely than not to be denied access to the vouchers, may have to find a different means of educating their children. Buchanan’s “Public Choice Economics,” in a shocking turn of events, turned out to be a pretty racist policy, even though he didn’t see it that way. The idea of privatizing public schools was already being pushed by Virginia’s arch conservatives; all it took were two men to put the same case in economic terms.
At the time however, public schools found favor among many white families, even if it seems that the of idea of public interest was dominant. Buchanan was manipulating white anxiety through desegregation to promote his libertarian agenda, and it would be political suicide for the state of Virginia to push this. Buchanan’s plan failed, but he didn’t disappear.
Here is a great, shameless plug: take Political Science 355P with Dr. Fabrice Lehoucq. You can find Buchanan helping write the new Chilean Constitution with Augusto Pinochet’s administration in the 1980s. The same administration that led a coup against the socialist Salvador Allende in 1973. Buchanan’s “Public Choice Economics” idea was translated, labor unions were banned, and social security and health care were both privatized.
Manipulating white anxiety wasn’t a new idea either, and MacLean argues it to be the most successful of all the “southern strategies” used in modern conservatism. Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan all played to white rage against the Civil Rights Movement.
The strategy has been successful for even Charles Koch, and he’s still alive. You can track his movements here in North Carolina, by going back to 2010. When the GOP took the state, lead conservative donor, Art Pope, worked with the Koch foundation, on what MacLean refers to as the “Big Bang.” Pope made headlines in 2014 on the Washington Post, for being a generous UNC-Chapel Hill donor, and simultaneously funneling millions into a think tank that criticizes UNC for being politically correct all the time. That’s right, Pope, and by extension Charles Koch and his billions of dollars, turned this state red.
A conservative GOP agenda continues relentless gerrymandering, tax increases and budget cuts to public education on all levels, and using that same cash to fund charter schools. According to MacLean’s research, Betsy DeVos is involved with the Koch network, and her appointment is very telling of that. In fact, MacLean argues about 70 percent of President Trump’s network comes from the Koch network.
At the root of MacLean’s book, “Democracy in Chains,” there’s a call to action. Liberals and Democratic leaders have been unable to see the ultimate agenda, in cohesion, of the radical right and the GOP. This agenda has been backed by an ethical system that makes its enforcers feel confident and heroic — because in the end, it’s all about public interest. The Koch network is much bigger than the political apparatus of either major political party. Most pushback, thanks to interest groups, happens in the court system. NC legislature has taken that cue to begin the attempt of gerrymandering courts.
MacLean urges Spartans and other college students to read up on state legislature before jumping to protest right-wing speakers, which all but fuels conservative fire.
“I do think some of these efforts, like UnKoch My Campus, are incredibly important for young people on campuses to know about,” she begins. “Even if you don’t have Koch money on your campus, you know other people. They have money in about 400 campuses, along with larger institutions, and they’re Trojan horses, these implants.”
Nancy MacLean is the author of “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” now available for purchase through BN.com and Amazon.