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Inside the Conservative Mind

Review: “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America”
Nancy McLean
Viking, 2017

“The Reactionary Mind” (2nd Edition)
Corey Robin
Oxford University Press, 2017

Steven Sherman Oct 20

Issue 229

With the Republicans controlling all three branches of the federal government and 26 states, now is a good time to examine far-right ideology. Two recent books, Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean and the newly revised edition of Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, do just that.

Democracy in Chains, focused on the life and legacy of little-known economist James Buchanan, makes the case that the far right is fundamentally anti-democratic, because its upper-class elites know that an economic agenda that makes them richer at the expense of everyone else cannot survive normal democratic proceedings.

MacLean begins by looking at John C. Calhoun, who, in the years before the Civil War, argued that property rights guaranteed by the Constitution prohibited the federal government from interfering with slavery. Defenders of slavery even questioned whether the principle of government by the people was as legitimate as their property rights.

Buchanan, after studying with libertarian economic philosophers Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek, began his academic career in Virginia, just after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Buchanan argued that funding for public education should be converted to a voucher program, in which parents could choose which schools their children attended and the state would pay, saying that he disapproved “of both involuntary (or coercive) segregation and involuntary integration.” This idea dovetailed neatly with some Virginia localities’ attempts to reinvigorate segregation by closing public schools.

When power relationships at work or in the family are unsettled by revolts from below the reactionary mind sets to work recasting those hierarchies.

It was in this context that Buchanan developed his “public choice” theory. Politicians are rational actors, analogous to economic actors in the marketplace. While the latter seek to maximize their return, he wrote, politicians’ primary goal is re-election. Since taxing the wealthy and redistributing funds was likely to be popular, this created incentives for them to entrench the tyranny of the state over property holders.

He passed through the University of California at Los Angeles, where radicals like the Black Panthers helped inspire him to develop ideas about how to empty the universities of critical thought and focus students on careers in business — not least through the promotion of student debt. He advised Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet on crafting a constitution that banned labor unions and privatized pensions and health care.

By the mid-1980s, he was ensconced at George Mason University in Washington’s Virginia suburbs. The limits of President Ronald Reagan’s assault on the welfare state left him convinced that Social Security should be attacked through stealth and deception, because there was minimal public support for destroying it. He won a Nobel Prize and crossed paths with Charles Koch, who would fund academic programs that led to George Mason becoming the training ground for a disciplined cadre sent out to reshape U.S. politics in line with extreme libertarian positions.

In the final chapter, MacLean describes those Koch-trained cadre wreaking havoc as they advance their vision of securing property rights against the dream of public governance. In this world, even providing public-health services is an overreach of government, and the people of Flint would have drinkable water if they had more “personal responsibility.” If I have a complaint about the book, it is that I wish there were one more chapter detailing the march from George Mason into centers of power.

Democracy in Chains touches on many subjects the left needs to think hard about. These include the relationship of racial backlash to extreme libertarian economics; the use of state governments as a bulwark against both federal regulation and local insurgencies; the potential for democracy in the United States to become further constrained; and the use of a base in the universities to train a cadre to march through the institutions of the state. One might wonder if the academic left’s emphasis on cultural studies in the last few decades has been a poor strategy, compared to what the Koch/Buchanan cadres have accomplished.

Corey Robin revised his 2011 book for two reasons — first, because some readers told him that after a strong start, it degenerated into a series of essays. Second, he wanted to say something about Donald Trump. The new edition is in some ways more cohesive than the original.

His statement of the theoretical framework remains powerful. The U.S. far right — obsessed with sustaining power and hierarchy — is more reactionary, he says, than conservative (skeptical of change, venerating the free market and tradition, and suspicious of state power). When power relationships at work or in the family, typically regarded as private, are unsettled by revolts from below and are no longer taken for granted, the reactionary mind sets to work recasting those hierarchies.

Reactionaries thus recognize the threat from the left and rise to the struggle. Robin demonstrates that they can be protean and intellectually daring, and seek regeneration through violence. He devotes a number of chapters to giants of Western political thought, including Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke, Friedrich Nietzsche, and F.A. Hayek, to show how this process works. Of particular note is the way they revise economic theories that give labor credit for the creation of economic value — most notably in the work of Adam Smith — and shift that credit to some elite, such as men of capital, entrepreneurs, or tastemakers.

When Robin shifts focus to the United States, the narrative loses something. Ayn Rand and Antonin Scalia simply aren’t as interesting thinkers as those mentioned above. More important, he doesn’t really address the question of right-wing populism, the embrace of reactionary ideas of hierarchy by ordinary people. He seems to think it’s cooked up by elites and sold to the masses, rather than allowing for the sort of subaltern agency that might produce it on its own.

All this is prelude to the question of Trump. In power, Robin believes, Trump is not an American Adolf Hitler, as he has repeatedly been checked by opposition within the halls of power and the street. He has done the most damage not through unprecedented authoritarian gestures, but through the ordinary presidential powers of appointing judges and executive-branch administrators.

Robin emphasizes the long-term downward trajectory of Republican electoral prospects, with Trump winning the presidency with a smaller percentage of the vote than Richard Nixon, Reagan, or either George Bush. He sees the splintering of the far right as different tendencies going their own ways. Trump has not been an effective leader for this moment, as his rage focuses on his own obsessions rather than resonating with the broader concerns of people outside his cult of personality.

Most strikingly, Robin suggests the real root of the dilemmas of both Trump and the Republicans is the weakness of the left — that the reactionaries are adrift without a genuine emancipatory project to confront. This is a very suggestive idea, but the timing is more complex. When Reagan entered the White House, the movements of the 1960s were mostly in retreat, if not altogether vanquished. George W. Bush had an impressive reactionary presidency without much of a left around at all. During the 2016 campaign, many observers, including Robin, took Trump’s candidacy as evidence of the right’s unprecedented weakness. Is it not possible that Trump is being underestimated again, based on the chaos of his first year?

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Illustration by Gary Martin.