The political threat of today is the attempt by the billionaire backed radical right to undo democracy, centrally in the USA, but world wide.
That something was happening began to be realised in the early 2010s. Extreme decisions were being made by some US elected officials:
- In Wisconsin in 2011, the newly elected governor, Scott Walker, submitted legislation to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights, by new rules decimating their membership.
- In New Jersey Governor Chris Christie started vicious attacks on teachers who were left wiondering why.
- Some other GOP-controlled state legislatures were cutting public education by legalising unregulated charter schools and offering tax subsidies for private education.
- In 2011 and 2012, legislators in forty-one states introduced more than 180 bills, mostly aimed at low-income and minority, young and less mobile elderly voters, to suppress voter turnout.
- Finally the Republicans aimed a massive campaign to defeat Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas, told the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, “we are destroying our institutions”. What he and other, even conservative, critics never considered was that was the objective!
Well, some did. William Cronon, a University of Wisconsin historian and the incoming president of the American Historical Association, having looked into Wisconsin Governor Walker’s attack on trade union rights, declared:
“What we’ve witnessed [is part of a] well-planned and well-coordinated ‘national’ campaign”.
He suggested that others look into the funding and activities of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) whose members were not revealed to the public. Every year Republican legislators could draw on hundreds of “model laws” for them to introduce to their states. Such laws covered:
- attacks on labour unions
- rewriting tax codes
- reversing environmental protections
- privatizing public services
- acting against illegal immigrants.
A fifth of them succeeded in being passed!
What was going on? Jane Mayer, a well known investigative journalist, in 2010 drew attention to those who had poured more than a hundred million dollars into a “war against Obama”. She wrote Dark Money a book revealing that two billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch (each worth $48.7 billion in February 2017, according to Forbes) were training operatives to staff supposedly independent but really connected institutions like the Cato institute. Rich right-wing donors led by the Koch brothers were supplying masses of untraceable money to groups and candidates intent on crippling unions, restricting voting, deregulating corporations, taxing the poor, and denying climate change all informed by the schools of trained operatives they had built. The current vice president, Mike Pence, is an example having been with many of these organizations over the years.
Historian, Nancy MacClean, extended Mayer’s discoveries and this year published a controversial book, Democracy in Chains, explaining them. George Monbiot wrote that the book was “the missing chapter: a key to understanding the politics of the past half century”. She found James McGill Buchanan to be the intellectual source of the threat to democracy. Charles Koch became interested in Buchanan’s work in the early 1970s when he called on his help to start the embryonic Cato Institute. Buchanan became a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Cato Institute.
Charles Koch was an entrepreneurial genius who had multiplied the earnings of the corporation he inherited by a factor of at least one thousand, but he also had a dream of liberty—not individual liberty for all, though that is how it is always presented, but of a capitalism all but free of governmental interference and thereby able to achieve the prosperity and peace that only this form of capitalism could produce—well that is his dream! How, though, could it be achieved in a democracy? Only by grooming the most promising libertarian thinkers to find a way. Koch had obsessively worked for three decades to do it.
From the outset, Charles Koch made it clear to Buchanan he wanted no one to know what the objective was. The people would not support the plan, so the cabal had to work in secret. Stealth was to be an intrinsic element of the conspiracy, and Buchanan agreed. They would use their knowledge of “the rules of the game”—how modern democratic governance works—to win.
Buchanan sought an economic definition of incentives to analyse and influence government behavior. Justice and fairness did not come into it for Buchanan. He was only aware of “collective” power, and that, once formed, democratic movements tended to persist, keeping tabs on government officials and sometimes using them to vote out those who stopped responding to their needs. The only fairness that concerned Buchanan and Koch was that the rich minority (and those who dreamt of joining them) suffered, and that was not “American”.
Buchanan regarded the need for elected representatives to respond to the demands of the electorate to win their votes as “government corruption”. He determined to stop it, but he recognised few politicians would risk electoral rejection to carry out his ideas. He named the study of how government officials make decisions (ie political behavior) “public choice economics”. His analysis of how the rules of government might be altered so politicians and administrators could not act on the will of the majority he called “constitutional economics”. The electorate and their organized social and political groups that sought to influence government representation became “the collective order”—the enemy!
So, by the end of the 1990s, Koch had from Buchanan the ideas he wanted. From then on, he donated generously to save capitalism from democracy—permanently! Buchanan’s deep analyses of how incentives guide government action was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1986 having initiated research on how politicians' and bureaucrats' self-interest, utility maximization, and other non-wealth-maximizing considerations affect their decision-making!
Buchanan believed that government failed because of bad faith—because activists, voters, and officials alike used talk of the public interest to mask the pursuit of their own personal self-interest at others’ expense. By the 1970s, he was insisting that the people and their representatives must be permanently prevented from using public power as they had for so long. Those diligently representing their electorate had to be manacled. The plot is a fifth-column assault on American democratic governance.
The dream of this movement, its leaders will tell you, is liberty. Buchanan told an interviewer:
I want a society where nobody has power over the other. I don’t want to control you, and I don’t want to be controlled by you.
It sounds so reasonable, fair, and appealing. But the last part of that statement is by far the most telling, because the “you” Koch, Buchanan and their trained cadres do not want to be controlled by is the majority of the people. To them, unrestrained capitalism is freedom. What this cause really seeks is a return to oligarchy, to a world in which both economic and effective political power are to be concentrated in the hands of a few, an elite. It is fascism.
The way forward was by shifting the focus from “who rules” to “changing the rules”. For “liberty” to thrive, Buchanan decided the task was to figure out how to put legal—indeed, constitutional—shackles on to public administrators and legislators. They would no longer have the ability to respond to the mass of the people to get government to do their bidding. Once these shackles were put in place, they had to be binding and permanent. Though euphemistically called the “constitutional revolution”, by legally enforcing the permanent rule of a capitalist elite, indeed, it was a stealth road to fascism!
Realising that the vade mecum of revolutionary organization had already been written by Vladimir Lenin, Koch appreciated the power of Lenin’s system of cadres. So, paradoxically it seems, he funded “cadres” of high-level operatives to build a movement that refused compromise. The cadres fed morsals of the plan to elements of the large active conservative grassroots base thereby gradually drawing them in. Indeed, after 2008, the cadres increasingly adopted a cloak of conservatism, seeing advantages in doing so, though contrary to their aim to destroy the democratic system. Similar opportunism motivated Koch’s courting of the religious right, even though many libertarian thinkers, Buchanan included, were atheists who looked down on believers. Their aims had considerable common ground with TV evangelical types—men like the Reverend Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed and Tim Phillips, money grubbing exploiters themselves. So they were happy to sell libertarian economics to their flocks, especially campaigns against public schooling and calls for reliance on family provision or charity in place of public welfare.
The Koch team’s most important stealth move, beginning in the late 1990s, and the one that proved most critical to success, was to wrest control over the machinery of the Republican Party, tough the plotters had no loyalty was to their own anti-democratic cause.
US senator Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, spotted the mischief makers, perceptively describing the infiltrators as “cannibals” seeking “the end of governing as we know it”. The Reagan Republican and six-term US senator Orrin Hatch, of Utah, exploded after being targeted by a challenger from his own party in 2012 and declared:
These people are not conservatives. They’re not Republicans. They’re radical libertarians… I despise these people.
They were not what they claimed. This cause is different. Pushed by relatively small numbers of radical-right billionaires and millionaires who have become profoundly hostile to America’s modern system of government, an apparatus decades in the making, funded by those same billionaires and millionaires, has been working to undermine the normal governance of our democracy. And the Republican Party is now controlled by fanatical believers in a selfish capitalist goal that brooks no compromise.
Although its spokespersons would like you to believe they are disciples of James Madison, the leading architect of the US Constitution, it is not true. One of their manifestos calls for a “hostile takeover” of Washington, DC. Their real eighteenth century hero is John C Calhoun. He developed his radical critique of democracy a generation after the nation’s founding, as the brutal economy of chattel slavery became entrenched in the South—and his vision horrified Madison.
Their cause, they insist, is liberty, by which they mean the separation of private property rights from the reach of government, and the takeover of social services (schools, prisons, western lands, and much more) by corporations. For the many it is anything but liberty, it is slavery. The objective of the Kochites is to stop democratic resistance, and they have almost succeeded.