Historian Nancy MacLean: We’re under attack “by a right-wing machine”

By Chauncey DeVega, salon.com 10.10.2017

Nancy MacLean on her hot book “Democracy in Chains” and the evil genius of the Koch brothers’ donor network https://www.salon.com/2017/10/10/historian-nancy-maclean-were-under-attack-by-a-right-wing-machine/

Excerpt

American democracy is in crisis. Across almost every issue, from the environment to the economy to gun control, the policies advocated by Donald Trump and the Republican Party are widely unpopular with the American people.

Yet Republicans now enjoy a near-monopoly on political power, with control of the White House, both houses of Congress and a large majority of state legislatures and governorships. How did this happen?

One part of the answer is that Republican voters are very obedient. Today’s version of conservatism functions almost as a religion, offering simple solutions to complex problems. There is a right-wing media machine that is without peer in its ability to distort reality by disseminating lies and disinformation. The Republican Party has used gerrymandering, voter suppression, and — now, apparently — aid from a hostile foreign country to manipulate the outcome of elections. By comparison, the Democratic Party in particular, and liberals and progressives more generally, possess no such competitive advantages.

There is another explanation as to why the Republican Party and movement conservatives have been able to sustain and expand their power. An extremely well-funded and highly organized network of right-wing interest groups, financiers, think tanks, lobbyists, media personalities, journalists, educators, activists, public relations firms and politicians has been working for decades to undermine American democracy.

What does this network look like? Who are the personalities and groups involved in this plan? In what ways has this extreme right-wing ideology influenced the Republican Party and Trump’s administration? What are the origins of this political and intellectual tradition? How have Charles and David Koch, and other leaders on the radical right, twisted the country’s laws and regulations to their advantage while hurting the American people? What can be done to stop this onslaught?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Nancy MacLean. She is the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. Last year she published the explosive and controversial book “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” which is now a nominee for the National Book Award. It has come under sustained criticism from libertarian academics and intellectuals, many of them funded by the right-wing network MacLean discusses in the book.

A longer version of this conversation can be heard on my podcast, which is available on Salon’s Featured Audio page.

As a historian who has studied the philosophy and origins of the radical right in today’s America, how do you explain Donald Trump’s election?

There are many elements to his victory. One very important element is how Trump was the only Republican front-runner in the primaries who appeared to not be carrying the Koch brothers’ agenda. Every other front-runner had signed off on the Koch demands, in terms of radical changes to Social Security and Medicare. Trump, in contrast to the other Republican candidates, said that he would defend Social Security. He called the other front-runners puppets of the Kochs and said he didn’t need the money of these donors. Trump seemed like the only way for the Republican voters who would never vote for a Democrat. He was the only way they could vote for the Republican Party and not swallow the Koch agenda.

And of course, obviously the racism and so much of the ugliness that we’re seeing now were there before. It’s not like it came out of thin air. But Trump is channeling that behavior in ways that we have not seen before from a mainstream politician in recent history.

 You have also studied and written extensively about white supremacy in America. How does the color line factor into Trump’s election?

I would take it back to Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. There’s no way that Barry Goldwater gets to be the candidate without the architects of that campaign making a conscious pivot to the white segregationist South to get voters who were enraged by the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. There were bitter fights between moderate and liberal Republicans on the Republican National Committee and these newcomers from the South who were really, really aggressively racist and pro-states’ rights. So the idea that Trump is bringing something fundamentally new to the Republican Party is, I think, at the very least an overstatement and really misleading in some other ways.

Who are some of the key figures in the story about how the Koch brothers and other elements of the radical right are working to undermine American democracy?

Some people that we know from earlier political history appear in a new light in my story, through their connection to this history.

For example, [former House Majority Leader] Dick Armey — of the so-called Republican revolution — is a crucial player in the Koch brothers’ assault on American democracy. Phil Gramm [a former Texas senator] as well. He is an economist from Texas who ended up in the Senate and first betrayed his Democratic colleagues by assisting Ronald Reagan, then changed parties and became a loyalist of the radical right’s effort to change the country. It is worth pointing out it was Gramm who helped push through financial deregulation, which would prove to be disastrous later on.

Grover Norquist would certainly be one of these individuals as well. Then there are people who are more connected to the academic and the intellectual wing of the extreme right-wing libertarian effort to subvert American democracy.

Tyler Cowen of George Mason University is one. Charles Koch has been directing an academic operation at George Mason called the Mercatus Center. And then there are all the people who come out of the Koch operations who are staffing up the Trump administration. The key senior figures include Mike Pence, Scott Pruitt, Mike Pompeo, Mick Mulvaney and Betsy DeVos. I would say it’s almost impossible to overstate how much the Kochs have gotten from this Trump administration and expect to get in the future.

What is the radical right’s vision for America?  

The Koch network and their allies claim they want “liberty.” They actually call themselves “the liberty movement” or sometimes “the freedom movement,” and speak in this very anodyne language about how they want to have limited government and freedom and lower taxes. For older white conservatives this language is very appealing. But what really bothered me in writing “Democracy in Chains” is that they’re not being honest. As libertarians they believe that there are only three functions for a legitimate government: To provide for the national defense, to ensure the rule of law and to maintain social order. Other than that, everything is illegitimate because other functions of government depend on taxing people — and particularly better-off people, in a system with progressive taxation. For this type of libertarian thinking, taxing people to provide for programs, services and resources with which they may not agree is illegitimate coercion and therefore must stop.

In this Koch-donor dream, we are all responsible for ourselves from the cradle to the grave, unless there is a charity that happens to take an interest in us. We do not have federal laws to outlaw pollution or to prevent discrimination. Instead we trust everything to the free market and private property. This cause has pitted itself against the whole American model of 20th-century government. Regulation of food and drugs, the New Deal’s federal support for workers to organize and hold corporations accountable, the civil rights movement, the women’s and the environmental movements, all of these things are illegitimate in the eyes of these people on the right.

In the present, this takes the form of the extreme gangster capitalism that the Republican Party advocates for and is literally embodied by Donald Trump.

One of the key thinkers in this type of extreme right-wing thought is the economist James Buchanan. I detail in my book how he preached, from the late 1960s forward, that it was time to stop focusing on who rules and start to focus laser-like on the rules. So he said, in a sense, that it doesn’t really matter who is elected, right? The question is, “What are the rules that are going to constrain their behavior?”

This is something that the Koch donor network is applying with a vengeance. They did not care who among those empty suits was going to be the Republican candidate in 2016, as long as they followed the Koch agenda.

They’re so much smarter than liberals and progressives in that way. The Koch brothers and their allies are thinking in really strategic ways about how to rig the game so it benefits capital and corporations and it restricts the rights and powers of labor unions, civil rights groups, environmentalists, women and retirees.

The radical right-wing movement has to operate in this stealth manner because they fully understand that they are a permanent minority who will never persuade a majority. I don’t think that these Koch-type libertarian thinkers could ever get above 10 percent of the American people to agree to their ideas, if the public actually knew what they were really advocating and working towards.

This also speaks to how many Americans confuse democracy with capitalism, as if they were one and the same thing. In reality, unregulated capitalism results in extreme wealth and income inequality, which in turn undermines democracy.

Actually, I think that more people are increasingly aware how America is an oligarchy where capitalism is swallowing up our democratic institutions. Bernie Sanders and his surprising success point to the fact that the American people no longer see a direct link between capitalism and democracy.

Conservatives, especially right-wing libertarians, have been enraged by your book. 

Well, I clearly have agitated some libertarians on the right, many of whom are affiliated with the organizations about which I’ve written in the book. They have made various charges against “Democracy in Chains,” most of which have been refuted by people who’ve actually read it.

These critics don’t read very closely. Most of them are either economists by training or legal scholars or just libertarian journalists. They do not seem to understand what historians actually do, which is close reading of documents and interpreting them in context with what we know about the author.

What is really impressive to me is the number of historians in particular who have taken on these allegations and refuted them brilliantly point by point. I do not know those people. But what’s been interesting to see is that those refutations make absolutely no difference to the people living the charges.

Ultimately, I think the attack on my work is also part of a larger effort to undermine the legitimacy of higher education more generally, and scholarly research in particular, that might disapprove or stand against the policies and ideas advocated for by the radical right wing. I do not think it’s coincidental that these critics are getting so frenzied at a time when the Koch donor network is expanding the number of implants it has around in schools around the country.

To them, it seems like you have violated the tenets of their political religion.

They’ve certainly never had an outsider research and write about their movement. So what I have done, in effect, is create a mirror to this cause and its history, and I believe these critics are looking at that mirror and they don’t like what they’re seeing. It’s deeply disturbing to them. Emotion is a huge part of what is driving the response.

The right wing’s effort to subvert democracy by rigging the system and working against the common good and the American people is so well-funded and expansive, as you have documented. I can imagine readers of “Democracy in Chains” feeling powerless when they finish it. What has the reaction by readers been like so far?

What you’re describing was part of my fear as I was writing the book because, frankly, I too was getting nauseated by what I discovered. As I started to put some of these pieces together and see how big and well-funded it was, yes, I did fear that reaction.

I am really gratified by the people who are writing to me about my book. It is amazing. What they’re feeling empowered by, and what they’re saying to me, is that they felt like they knew something was going really wrong in the country. That there were all these different ways in which things had gone haywire — the phrase they keep using is that my book is connecting the dots for them in a way, and in helping them to see, to understand. Almost like an X-ray.

What are some concrete things that the American people can do to resist the Koch brothers, as well as the radical right more generally?

Rebuild civil society. Protect our existing organizations such as labor unions, public teachers unions and other groups that defend American democracy. Stand up for civil rights groups. Fight voter suppression.

It is also important to get out of the silos that we’ve been in for a long time. For example, it is crucial for the AARP to understand that they need to care about what’s happening to African-Americans, whether it’s voter suppression or police brutality.

It’s crucial for environmentalists to understand that these attacks on Planned Parenthood are also an attack on the model of government on which environmentalists depend. We’re finally in a position where the connections between all these progressive causes are becoming clear — and they’re becoming clear because we’re all being attacked by a right-wing machine that wants to destroy everything.

Full text 

Historian Nancy MacLean: We’re under attack “by a right-wing machine” by Chauncey DeVega, .salon.com 10.10.2017 https://www.salon.com/2017/10/10/historian-nancy-maclean-were-under-attack-by-a-right-wing-machine/

Nancy MacLean on her hot book “Democracy in Chains” and the evil genius of the Koch brothers’ donor network – American democracy is in crisis. Across almost every issue, from the environment to the economy to gun control, the policies advocated by Donald Trump and the Republican Party are widely unpopular with the American people. Yet Republicans now enjoy a near-monopoly on political power, with control of the White House, both houses of Congress and a large majority of state legislatures and governorships. How did this happen? One part of the answer is that Republican voters are very obedient. Today’s version of conservatism functions almost as a religion, offering simple solutions to complex problems. There is a right-wing media machine that is without peer in its ability to distort reality by disseminating lies and disinformation. The Republican Party has used gerrymandering, voter suppression, and — now, apparently — aid from a hostile foreign country to manipulate the outcome of elections. By comparison, the Democratic Party in particular, and liberals and progressives more generally, possess no such competitive advantages. There is another explanation as to why the Republican Party and movement conservatives have been able to sustain and expand their power. An extremely well-funded and highly organized network of right-wing interest groups, financiers, think tanks, lobbyists, media personalities, journalists, educators, activists, public relations firms and politicians has been working for decades to undermine American democracy. What does this network look like? In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Nancy MacLean. She is the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. Last year she published the explosive and controversial book “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” which is now a nominee for the National Book Award. It has come under sustained criticism from libertarian academics and intellectuals, many of them funded by the right-wing network MacLean discusses in the book. Q – As a historian who has studied the philosophy and origins of the radical right in today’s America, how do you explain Donald Trump’s election?Trump seemed like the only way for the Republican voters who would never vote for a Democrat. He was the only way they could vote for the Republican Party and not swallow the Koch agenda. A – And of course, obviously the racism and so much of the ugliness that we’re seeing now were there before. It’s not like it came out of thin air. But Trump is channeling that behavior in ways that we have not seen before from a mainstream politician in recent historyit’s almost impossible to overstate how much the Kochs have gotten from this Trump administration and expect to get in the future.  Q -What is the radical right’s vision for America?  A – The Koch network and their allies claim they want “liberty… and speak in this very anodyne language about how they want to have limited government and freedom and lower taxes. For older white conservatives this language is very appealing. But what really bothered me in writing “Democracy in Chains” is that they’re not being honest. As libertarians they believe that there are only three functions for a legitimate government: To provide for the national defense, to ensure the rule of law and to maintain social order. Other than that, everything is illegitimate because other functions of government depend on taxing people — and particularly better-off people, in a system with progressive taxation. For this type of libertarian thinking, taxing people to provide for programs, services and resources with which they may not agree is illegitimate coercion and therefore must stop.

In this Koch-donor dream, we are all responsible for ourselves from the cradle to the grave, unless there is a charity that happens to take an interest in us. We do not have federal laws to outlaw pollution or to prevent discrimination. Instead we trust everything to the free market and private property. This cause has pitted itself against the whole American model of 20th-century government. Regulation of food and drugs, the New Deal’s federal support for workers to organize and hold corporations accountable, the civil rights movement, the women’s and the environmental movements, all of these things are illegitimate in the eyes of these people on the right.

In the present, this takes the form of the extreme gangster capitalism that the Republican Party advocates for and is literally embodied by Donald Trump.

One of the key thinkers in this type of extreme right-wing thought is the economist James Buchanan. I detail in my book how he preached, from the late 1960s forward, that it was time to stop focusing on who rules and start to focus laser-like on the rules. So he said, in a sense, that it doesn’t really matter who is elected, right? The question is, “What are the rules that are going to constrain their behavior?”

This is something that the Koch donor network is applying with a vengeance. They did not care who among those empty suits was going to be the Republican candidate in 2016, as long as they followed the Koch agenda.

They’re so much smarter than liberals and progressives in that way. The Koch brothers and their allies are thinking in really strategic ways about how to rig the game so it benefits capital and corporations and it restricts the rights and powers of labor unions, civil rights groups, environmentalists, women and retirees.

The radical right-wing movement has to operate in this stealth manner because they fully understand that they are a permanent minority who will never persuade a majority. I don’t think that these Koch-type libertarian thinkers could ever get above 10 percent of the American people to agree to their ideas, if the public actually knew what they were really advocating and working towards.

This also speaks to how many Americans confuse democracy with capitalism, as if they were one and the same thing. In reality, unregulated capitalism results in extreme wealth and income inequality, which in turn undermines democracy.

Actually, I think that more people are increasingly aware how America is an oligarchy where capitalism is swallowing up our democratic institutions. Bernie Sanders and his surprising success point to the fact that the American people no longer see a direct link between capitalism and democracy.

Conservatives, especially right-wing libertarians, have been enraged by your book. 

Well, I clearly have agitated some libertarians on the right, many of whom are affiliated with the organizations about which I’ve written in the book. They have made various charges against “Democracy in Chains,” most of which have been refuted by people who’ve actually read it.

These critics don’t read very closely. Most of them are either economists by training or legal scholars or just libertarian journalists. They do not seem to understand what historians actually do, which is close reading of documents and interpreting them in context with what we know about the author.

What is really impressive to me is the number of historians in particular who have taken on these allegations and refuted them brilliantly point by point. I do not know those people. But what’s been interesting to see is that those refutations make absolutely no difference to the people living the charges.

Ultimately, I think the attack on my work is also part of a larger effort to undermine the legitimacy of higher education more generally, and scholarly research in particular, that might disapprove or stand against the policies and ideas advocated for by the radical right wing. I do not think it’s coincidental that these critics are getting so frenzied at a time when the Koch donor network is expanding the number of implants it has around in schools around the country.

To them, it seems like you have violated the tenets of their political religion.

They’ve certainly never had an outsider research and write about their movement. So what I have done, in effect, is create a mirror to this cause and its history, and I believe these critics are looking at that mirror and they don’t like what they’re seeing. It’s deeply disturbing to them. Emotion is a huge part of what is driving the response.

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The right wing’s effort to subvert democracy by rigging the system and working against the common good and the American people is so well-funded and expansive, as you have documented. I can imagine readers of “Democracy in Chains” feeling powerless when they finish it. What has the reaction by readers been like so far?

What you’re describing was part of my fear as I was writing the book because, frankly, I too was getting nauseated by what I discovered. As I started to put some of these pieces together and see how big and well-funded it was, yes, I did fear that reaction.

I am really gratified by the people who are writing to me about my book. It is amazing. What they’re feeling empowered by, and what they’re saying to me, is that they felt like they knew something was going really wrong in the country. That there were all these different ways in which things had gone haywire — the phrase they keep using is that my book is connecting the dots for them in a way, and in helping them to see, to understand. Almost like an X-ray.

What are some concrete things that the American people can do to resist the Koch brothers, as well as the radical right more generally?

Rebuild civil society. Protect our existing organizations such as labor unions, public teachers unions and other groups that defend American democracy. Stand up for civil rights groups. Fight voter suppression.

It is also important to get out of the silos that we’ve been in for a long time. For example, it is crucial for the AARP to understand that they need to care about what’s happening to African-Americans, whether it’s voter suppression or police brutality.

It’s crucial for environmentalists to understand that these attacks on Planned Parenthood are also an attack on the model of government on which environmentalists depend. We’re finally in a position where the connections between all these progressive causes are becoming clear — and they’re becoming clear because we’re all being attacked by a right-wing machine that wants to destroy everything.

 

American democracy is in crisis. Across almost every issue, from the environment to the economy to gun control, the policies advocated by Donald Trump and the Republican Party are widely unpopular with the American people.

Yet Republicans now enjoy a near-monopoly on political power, with control of the White House, both houses of Congress and a large majority of state legislatures and governorships. How did this happen?

One part of the answer is that Republican voters are very obedient. Today’s version of conservatism functions almost as a religion, offering simple solutions to complex problems. There is a right-wing media machine that is without peer in its ability to distort reality by disseminating lies and disinformation. The Republican Party has used gerrymandering, voter suppression, and — now, apparently — aid from a hostile foreign country to manipulate the outcome of elections. By comparison, the Democratic Party in particular, and liberals and progressives more generally, possess no such competitive advantages.

There is another explanation as to why the Republican Party and movement conservatives have been able to sustain and expand their power. An extremely well-funded and highly organized network of right-wing interest groups, financiers, think tanks, lobbyists, media personalities, journalists, educators, activists, public relations firms and politicians has been working for decades to undermine American democracy.

What does this network look like? Who are the personalities and groups involved in this plan? In what ways has this extreme right-wing ideology influenced the Republican Party and Trump’s administration? What are the origins of this political and intellectual tradition? How have Charles and David Koch, and other leaders on the radical right, twisted the country’s laws and regulations to their advantage while hurting the American people? What can be done to stop this onslaught?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Nancy MacLean. She is the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. Last year she published the explosive and controversial book “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” which is now a nominee for the National Book Award. It has come under sustained criticism from libertarian academics and intellectuals, many of them funded by the right-wing network MacLean discusses in the book.

A longer version of this conversation can be heard on my podcast, which is available on Salon’s Featured Audio page.

As a historian who has studied the philosophy and origins of the radical right in today’s America, how do you explain Donald Trump’s election?

There are many elements to his victory. One very important element is how Trump was the only Republican front-runner in the primaries who appeared to not be carrying the Koch brothers’ agenda. Every other front-runner had signed off on the Koch demands, in terms of radical changes to Social Security and Medicare. Trump, in contrast to the other Republican candidates, said that he would defend Social Security. He called the other front-runners puppets of the Kochs and said he didn’t need the money of these donors. Trump seemed like the only way for the Republican voters who would never vote for a Democrat. He was the only way they could vote for the Republican Party and not swallow the Koch agenda.

And of course, obviously the racism and so much of the ugliness that we’re seeing now were there before. It’s not like it came out of thin air. But Trump is channeling that behavior in ways that we have not seen before from a mainstream politician in recent history.

 You have also studied and written extensively about white supremacy in America. How does the color line factor into Trump’s election?

I would take it back to Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. There’s no way that Barry Goldwater gets to be the candidate without the architects of that campaign making a conscious pivot to the white segregationist South to get voters who were enraged by the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. There were bitter fights between moderate and liberal Republicans on the Republican National Committee and these newcomers from the South who were really, really aggressively racist and pro-states’ rights. So the idea that Trump is bringing something fundamentally new to the Republican Party is, I think, at the very least an overstatement and really misleading in some other ways.

Who are some of the key figures in the story about how the Koch brothers and other elements of the radical right are working to undermine American democracy?

Some people that we know from earlier political history appear in a new light in my story, through their connection to this history.

For example, [former House Majority Leader] Dick Armey — of the so-called Republican revolution — is a crucial player in the Koch brothers’ assault on American democracy. Phil Gramm [a former Texas senator] as well. He is an economist from Texas who ended up in the Senate and first betrayed his Democratic colleagues by assisting Ronald Reagan, then changed parties and became a loyalist of the radical right’s effort to change the country. It is worth pointing out it was Gramm who helped push through financial deregulation, which would prove to be disastrous later on.

Grover Norquist would certainly be one of these individuals as well. Then there are people who are more connected to the academic and the intellectual wing of the extreme right-wing libertarian effort to subvert American democracy.

Tyler Cowen of George Mason University is one. Charles Koch has been directing an academic operation at George Mason called the Mercatus Center. And then there are all the people who come out of the Koch operations who are staffing up the Trump administration. The key senior figures include Mike Pence, Scott Pruitt, Mike Pompeo, Mick Mulvaney and Betsy DeVos. I would say it’s almost impossible to overstate how much the Kochs have gotten from this Trump administration and expect to get in the future.

What is the radical right’s vision for America?  

The Koch network and their allies claim they want “liberty.” They actually call themselves “the liberty movement” or sometimes “the freedom movement,” and speak in this very anodyne language about how they want to have limited government and freedom and lower taxes. For older white conservatives this language is very appealing. But what really bothered me in writing “Democracy in Chains” is that they’re not being honest. As libertarians they believe that there are only three functions for a legitimate government: To provide for the national defense, to ensure the rule of law and to maintain social order. Other than that, everything is illegitimate because other functions of government depend on taxing people — and particularly better-off people, in a system with progressive taxation. For this type of libertarian thinking, taxing people to provide for programs, services and resources with which they may not agree is illegitimate coercion and therefore must stop.

In this Koch-donor dream, we are all responsible for ourselves from the cradle to the grave, unless there is a charity that happens to take an interest in us. We do not have federal laws to outlaw pollution or to prevent discrimination. Instead we trust everything to the free market and private property. This cause has pitted itself against the whole American model of 20th-century government. Regulation of food and drugs, the New Deal’s federal support for workers to organize and hold corporations accountable, the civil rights movement, the women’s and the environmental movements, all of these things are illegitimate in the eyes of these people on the right.

In the present, this takes the form of the extreme gangster capitalism that the Republican Party advocates for and is literally embodied by Donald Trump.

One of the key thinkers in this type of extreme right-wing thought is the economist James Buchanan. I detail in my book how he preached, from the late 1960s forward, that it was time to stop focusing on who rules and start to focus laser-like on the rules. So he said, in a sense, that it doesn’t really matter who is elected, right? The question is, “What are the rules that are going to constrain their behavior?”

This is something that the Koch donor network is applying with a vengeance. They did not care who among those empty suits was going to be the Republican candidate in 2016, as long as they followed the Koch agenda.

They’re so much smarter than liberals and progressives in that way. The Koch brothers and their allies are thinking in really strategic ways about how to rig the game so it benefits capital and corporations and it restricts the rights and powers of labor unions, civil rights groups, environmentalists, women and retirees.

The radical right-wing movement has to operate in this stealth manner because they fully understand that they are a permanent minority who will never persuade a majority. I don’t think that these Koch-type libertarian thinkers could ever get above 10 percent of the American people to agree to their ideas, if the public actually knew what they were really advocating and working towards.

This also speaks to how many Americans confuse democracy with capitalism, as if they were one and the same thing. In reality, unregulated capitalism results in extreme wealth and income inequality, which in turn undermines democracy.

Actually, I think that more people are increasingly aware how America is an oligarchy where capitalism is swallowing up our democratic institutions. Bernie Sanders and his surprising success point to the fact that the American people no longer see a direct link between capitalism and democracy.

Conservatives, especially right-wing libertarians, have been enraged by your book. 

Well, I clearly have agitated some libertarians on the right, many of whom are affiliated with the organizations about which I’ve written in the book. They have made various charges against “Democracy in Chains,” most of which have been refuted by people who’ve actually read it.

These critics don’t read very closely. Most of them are either economists by training or legal scholars or just libertarian journalists. They do not seem to understand what historians actually do, which is close reading of documents and interpreting them in context with what we know about the author.

What is really impressive to me is the number of historians in particular who have taken on these allegations and refuted them brilliantly point by point. I do not know those people. But what’s been interesting to see is that those refutations make absolutely no difference to the people living the charges.

Ultimately, I think the attack on my work is also part of a larger effort to undermine the legitimacy of higher education more generally, and scholarly research in particular, that might disapprove or stand against the policies and ideas advocated for by the radical right wing. I do not think it’s coincidental that these critics are getting so frenzied at a time when the Koch donor network is expanding the number of implants it has around in schools around the country.

To them, it seems like you have violated the tenets of their political religion.

They’ve certainly never had an outsider research and write about their movement. So what I have done, in effect, is create a mirror to this cause and its history, and I believe these critics are looking at that mirror and they don’t like what they’re seeing. It’s deeply disturbing to them. Emotion is a huge part of what is driving the response.

Report Ad

The right wing’s effort to subvert democracy by rigging the system and working against the common good and the American people is so well-funded and expansive, as you have documented. I can imagine readers of “Democracy in Chains” feeling powerless when they finish it. What has the reaction by readers been like so far?

What you’re describing was part of my fear as I was writing the book because, frankly, I too was getting nauseated by what I discovered. As I started to put some of these pieces together and see how big and well-funded it was, yes, I did fear that reaction.

I am really gratified by the people who are writing to me about my book. It is amazing. What they’re feeling empowered by, and what they’re saying to me, is that they felt like they knew something was going really wrong in the country. That there were all these different ways in which things had gone haywire — the phrase they keep using is that my book is connecting the dots for them in a way, and in helping them to see, to understand. Almost like an X-ray.

What are some concrete things that the American people can do to resist the Koch brothers, as well as the radical right more generally?

Rebuild civil society. Protect our existing organizations such as labor unions, public teachers unions and other groups that defend American democracy. Stand up for civil rights groups. Fight voter suppression.

It is also important to get out of the silos that we’ve been in for a long time. For example, it is crucial for the AARP to understand that they need to care about what’s happening to African-Americans, whether it’s voter suppression or police brutality.

It’s crucial for environmentalists to understand that these attacks on Planned Parenthood are also an attack on the model of government on which environmentalists depend. We’re finally in a position where the connections between all these progressive causes are becoming clear — and they’re becoming clear because we’re all being attacked by a right-wing machine that wants to destroy everything.

Richard Rorty’s prescient warnings for the American left

By Sean D. Illing, Vox.com, Sep 26, 2017

This liberal philosopher predicted Trump’s rise in 1998 – and he has another warning for the left

Excerpt  (full text – see below or source https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/2/9/14543938/richard-rorty-liberalism-vietnam-donald-trump-obamaor )

A prescient passage from a forgotten book has been making the rounds since Donald Trump’s election. It’s plucked from a 1998 book titled Achieving our Country. The author is Richard Rorty, a liberal philosopher who died in 2007. The book consists of a series of lectures Rorty gave in 1997 about the history of leftist thought in 20th-century America.

To read the viral passage is to recognize immediately why it has caught fire:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers – themselves desperately afraid of being downsized – are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for – someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.

Today, Rorty’s words read like prophecy. Something has cracked. People have lost faith in the system...Recent history seems to support Rorty’s contention. Obama’s implacable optimism inspired the country. Bernie Sanders’s economic populism resonated with far more people than anyone supposed a year or two ago. This is a winning combination for the left. It’s also the formula that Rorty endorses in Achieving our Country.

Perhaps the left would do well to embrace it.

Full text

A prescient passage from a forgotten book has been making the rounds since Donald Trump’s election. It’s plucked from a 1998 book titled Achieving our Country. The author is Richard Rorty, a liberal philosopher who died in 2007. The book consists of a series of lectures Rorty gave in 1997 about the history of leftist thought in 20th-century America.

To read the viral passage is to recognize immediately why it has caught fire:

 Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers – themselves desperately afraid of being downsized – are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for – someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.

Today, Rorty’s words read like prophecy. Something has cracked. People have lost faith in the system. A strongman is upon us. So what happened? Over the course of three lectures, Rorty proffers a theory. He traces the history of the modern American left to show where, in his view, it lost its way, and how that digression prepared the way for the populist right. The story he tells is compelling, detached, and often oddly romantic. But it’s supremely instructive, even when it sputters.

The best way to make sense of Rorty’s argument is to follow it chronologically. He sees the American left as split into two camps: the reformist left and the cultural left. The reformist left dominates from 1900 until it is supplanted by the cultural left in the mid-1960s. The division has more to do with tactics than it does principles, but those tactical differences, for Rorty at least, carried enormous consequences.

Here’s the case he made twenty years ago.

The reformist left

“I propose to use the term reformist Left,” Rorty wrote, “to cover all those Americans who, between 1900 and 1964, struggled within the framework of constitutional democracy to protect the weak from the strong.” The emphasis on constitutional democracy is paramount here. Reformists believed in the system, and wanted to improve it from within.

Before the 1960s, the American left was largely reformist in its orientation to politics. Think of the people who engineered the New Deal or the Ivy-educated technocrats that joined Kennedy in the White House. John Kenneth Galbraith, the liberal economist and public official who served in the administrations of FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, is a favorite of Rorty’s. These were the liberals who weren’t socialist radicals but nevertheless worked to promote the same causes within and through the system. They were liberal reformers, not revolutionary leftists, and they got things done.

The reformist left was a big tent. It included people who thought of themselves as communists and socialist as well as moderate left-of-center Democrats. What united them was a devotion to pragmatic reform; there were no purity tests, no totalizing calls for revolution, as was common among Marxists at the time. But they were “feared and hated by the Right” because they gave us the fundaments of the modern welfare state.

The reformers had their flaws. FDR, a classic reformist liberal, delivered the New Deal and encouraged the growth of labor unions, but he also shamefully ignored the interests of African Americans and interned Japanese Americans during WWII. Lyndon Johnson did as much as any president to improve the lives of poor children, but he also doubled down on the unjust and illegal war in Vietnam. The Harvard technocrats in the Kennedy administration were complicit in countless horrors in Vietnam. But they also created lasting domestic policies that advanced the cause of social justice.

Rorty admired the reformist left both because they were effective and because they understood that the key dividing line between the left the right in this country was about whether the state has a responsibility to ensure a moral and socially desirable distribution of wealth. The right rejected this proposition, the left embraced it.

The reformist left “helped substitute a rhetoric of fraternity and national solidarity for a rhetoric of individual rights.” They proposed a counter-narrative to the libertarian right, which fetishized the individual and made a virtue of selfishness. The idea was to convince Americans that America was best — and closest to its moral identity — when it turned left, when it sacrificed, when citizens imagined themselves as participants in an intergenerational movement.

Such an orientation didn’t entail a blind spot for America’s sins. “America is not a morally pure country. No country ever has been or ever will be,” Rorty wrote, but “in democratic countries you get things done by compromising your principles in order to form alliances with groups about whom you have grave doubts.” The left made tremendous progress in this way.

It accepted, as Rorty put it, that the inequities of American society had to be “corrected by using the institutions of constitutional democracy.” And that meant acquiring power, taking control of institutions, and persuading people with whom you disagree. It was not enough to speak truth to power; elections had to be won and coalitions forged if you wanted to get things done.

This spirit of pragmatism held the American left together until the 1960s. The focus was on improving the material conditions of Americans by winning elections and appealing to national pride. Economic justice was considered a precursor to social justice. If the system could be made to work for everyone, if you could lift more people out of poverty, socio-cultural progress would naturally follow.

Or at least that was the idea.

The cultural left

The focus of leftist politics changed in the 1960s. For Rorty, the left ceased to be political and instead became a cultural movement. The prevailing view was that it was no longer possible to promote equality and social justice within the system.

The Vietnam War, more than anything else, set the left on its new trajectory. The war was seen as an indictment of the whole system, of America as such. Thus the broader anti-communist Cold War become a central fault line for left-wing activists. Led largely by students, the new left regarded anyone opposed to communism — including Democrats, union workers, and technocrats — as hostile.

America was viewed, increasingly, as a failed promise, a malevolent empire beyond redemption. Of what use is reformist politics in such a context? Rorty elaborates:

For if you turn out to be living in an evil empire (rather than, as you had been told, a democracy fighting an evil empire), then you have no responsibility to your country; you are accountable only to humanity. If what your government and your teachers are saying is all part of the same Orwellian monologue – if the differences between the Harvard faculty and the military-industrial complex, or between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, are negligible – then you have a responsibility to make a revolution.

It’s not that these sentiments were wrong; America was, for much of the country, a failed promise. The racial divide was real and socially engineered. The war in Vietnam was an inhuman sham. There was something deeply troubling about the structure of American society. Rorty disputed none of this.

From his perspective, the problem was the total rejection of pragmatic reform. The belief that there was nothing in America that could be salvaged, no institutions that could be corrected, no laws worth passing, led to the complete abandonment of conventional politics. Persuasion was replaced by self-expression; policy reform by recrimination.

There was a shift away from economics towards a “politics of difference” or “identity” or “recognition.” If the intellectual locus of pre-’60s leftism was social science departments, it was now literature and philosophy departments. And the focus was no longer on advancing alternatives to a market economy or on the proper balance between political freedom and economic liberalism. Now the focus was on the cultural status of traditionally marginalized groups.

In many ways, this was a good thing. The economic determinism of the pre-’60s left was embarrassingly myopic. Most of the gains made by the left in the early and mid-20th century went to white males. “The situation of African-Americans was deplored,” as Rorty notes, “but not changed by this predominantly white Left.” The plight of minorities and gay Americans and other oppressed groups was an afterthought. This was a moral failure the cultural left sought to correct.

And it did this by “teaching Americans to recognize otherness,” as Rorty put it. Multiculturalism, as it’s now called, was about preserving otherness, preserving our differences; it doesn’t oblige us to cease to notice those differences. There’s nothing morally objectionable about that. As a political strategy, however, it’s problematic. It reinforces sectarian impulses and detracts from coalition-building.

The pivot away from politics toward culture spawned academic fields like women and gender studies, African-American studies, Hispanic-American studies, LGBTQ studies, and so on. These disciplines do serious academic work, but they don’t minister to concrete political ends. Their goal has been to make people aware of the humiliation and hate endured by these groups, and to alienate anyone invested in that hate.

Rorty doesn’t object to these aims; indeed, he (rightly) celebrated them. The cultural left succeeded in making America a better, more civilized country. The problem, though, is that that progress came at a price. “There is a dark side to the success story I have been telling about the post-sixties cultural Left,” Rorty writes. “During the same period in which socially accepted sadism diminished, economic inequality and economic insecurity have steadily increased. It’s as if the American Left could not handle more than one initiative at a time — as if it either had to ignore stigma in order to concentrate on money, or vice versa.”

The left’s focus on cultural issues created an opening for the populist right, for people like Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump, who galvanize support among the white working class by exploiting racial resentment and economic anxiety. Rorty explains:

While the Left’s back was turned, the bourgeoisification of the white proletariat which began in WWII and continued up through the Vietnam War has been halted, and the process has gone into reverse. America is now proletarianizing its bourgeoisie, and this process is likely to culminate in bottom-up revolt, of the sort [Pat] Buchanan hopes to foment.

Racial animus is baked into the founding of America; it exists regardless of what the left does. But Rorty’s point holds: By divorcing itself from class and labor issues, the left lost sight of its economic agenda and waged a culture war that empowers the right and has done little to improve the lives of the very people it seeks to defend. Rorty’s advice to the left was to pay attention to who benefits from such a strategy:

The super-rich will have to keep up the pretense that national politics might someday make a difference. Since economic decisions are their prerogative, they will encourage politicians of both the Left and the Right, to specialize in cultural issues. The aim will be to keep the minds of the proles elsewhere – to keep the bottom 75 percent of Americans and the bottom 95 percent of the world’s population busy with ethnic and religious hostilities, and with debates about sexual mores. If the proles can be distracted from their own despair by media-created pseudo-events…the super-rich will have little to fear.

Big business benefits most from the culture wars. If the left and the right are quarreling over religion or race or same-sex marriage, nothing much changes, or nothing that impacts wealth concentration changes. Rorty is particularly hard on Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both of whom he accuses of retreating “from any mention of redistribution” and of “moving into a sterile vacuum called the center.” The Democratic Party, under this model, has grown terrified of redistributionist economics, believing such talk would drive away the suburbanite vote. The result, he concludes, is that “the choice between the major parties has come down to a choice between cynical lies and terrified silence.”

Rorty’s concern was not that the left cared too much about race relations or discrimination (it should care about these things); rather, he warned that it stopped doing the hard work of liberal democratic politics. He worried that it’s retreat into academia, into theory and away from the concrete, would prove politically disastrous.

Immediately after the now-famous passage about a future “strongman,” Rorty offered yet another disturbing prophecy:

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words ‘nigger’ and ‘kike’ will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

If this were to happen, Rorty added, it would be a calamity for the country and the world. People would wonder how it happened, and why the left was unable to stop it. They wouldn’t understand why the left couldn’t “channel the mounting rage of the newly dispossessed” and speak more directly to the “consequences of globalization.” They would conclude that the left had died, or that it existed but was “no longer able to engage in national politics.”

And they would be right in at least one sense: On a purely political level, the left would have failed.

 “Achieving our Country”

“Democracy is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.” -—Walt Whitman

There’s much to dispute in Rorty’s endogenous critique of the left. To begin with, his distinction between the reformist left and the cultural left is overly simplistic, as is his discussion of the compatibility of these projects. It’s also unclear how neatly the left, as it’s constructed today, fits into Rorty’s binary distinction. Much of his argument stands, but the political landscape has changed dramatically.

Rorty is also strangely sanguine about the race question. There’s a causal connection between the injustices of the past and the injustices of the present that makes history impossible to avoid. And one could argue that Rorty fails to appreciate just how entrenched racism is in this country.

At times, moreover, he seems to imply that the cultural strides made by the post-’60s left could have come about another way, and yet it’s never clear how. And if, as he admits, the gains of the pre-’60s left fell mostly to white males, was a revolt not justified?

There is, finally, Rorty’s praise of the reformist preference for working within the system. His point that this is how things get done in a constitutional democracy is well-taken, but the strategic value of such an approach has to be reexamined in light of the public’s weakened faith in that system. Confidence in the institutions of government has fallen precipitously in recent decades. Trump, after all, was elected precisely because he threatened to explode the system. As a matter of strategy, then, it’s not clear that Rorty’s argument holds. At the very least, it was more compelling in 1998 than it is today.

Nevertheless, Rorty’s vision of an “inspirational liberalism” is worth revisiting. He liked the idea of reform because it signaled a process. The first of his three lectures is devoted to John Dewey and Walt Whitman, both of whom, on his view, personified American liberalism at its best. These were pragmatists who understood the role of national pride in motivating political change. They understood that politics is a game of competing stories “about a nation’s self-identity, and between differing symbols of its greatness.”

The strength of Dewey and Whitman was that they could look at America’s past with clear eyes, at the slaughter of Native Americans and the importation of slaves, and go beyond the disgust it invoked, beyond the cultural pessimism. They articulated a civic religion that challenged the country to do better, to forge a future that lived up to the promise of America. In Rorty’s words, they recognized that “stories about what a nation has been and should try to be are not attempts at accurate representation, but rather attempts to forge a moral identity.”

Both the Right and the left have a story to tell, and the difference is enormous:

For the Right never thinks that anything much needs to be changed: it thinks the country is basically in good shape, and may well have been in better shape in the past. It sees the Left’s struggle for social justice as mere troublemaking, as utopian foolishness. The Left, by definition, is the party of hope. It insists that our nation remains unachieved.

In this dynamic, the right is “spectatorial and retrospective,” and the left seeks to mobilize Americans as agents of change. The right exalts and papers over America’s past, the left acknowledges that past but enjoins Americans to take pride in what the country might become.

A candidate like Trump upends this dynamic: He’s both a nostalgia candidate (“Make America Great Again”) and someone who describes America as a carnage-filled hellscape. But Trump is an outlier; his victory represents a negation of the entire system, not a fundamental shift in how the right talks about America. It’s possible that Trump’s rise does signal such a shift, but it’s too soon to make that determination.

In any case, Rorty’s pitch to liberals stands, and it starts with the symbolism of the phrase “Achieving our Country.” The words are borrowed from James Baldwin, the great novelist and activist, but Rorty read them through a distinctly Nietzschean prism. Much of Rorty’s scholarship was influenced by Nietzsche, and his political philosophy was no different.

Nietzsche conceived of life as literature. A human life is necessarily an act of self-creation, and if it’s a good life, it’s also one of constant self-improvement. This is how Dewey and Whitman imagined America. It was a story being written in real-time by citizen-activists. Here’s Rorty on Whitman one last time:

Whitman thought that we Americans have the most poetical nature because we are the first thoroughgoing experiment in national self-creation: the first nation-state with nobody but itself to please — not even God. We are the greatest poem because we put ourselves in the place of God: our essence is our existence, and our existence is in the future. Other nations thought of themselves as hymns to the glory of God. We redefine God as our future selves.

Rorty’s discussion of Dewey and Whitman verges on the quixotic. Politics is an ugly business, and the soaring rhetoric of Whitman only takes you so far. But the broader point about national pride and projecting a vision of the future that can build a consensus for specific reforms remains as relevant as ever.

Recent history seems to support Rorty’s contention. Obama’s implacable optimism inspired the country. Bernie Sanders’s economic populism resonated with far more people than anyone supposed a year or two ago. This is a winning combination for the left. It’s also the formula that Rorty endorses in Achieving our Country.

Perhaps the left would do well to embrace it.