Historian Nancy MacLean says much of the radical right’s agenda is being pursued at the state level. Republicans already have “trifecta control” in 25 states—control of the governor’s seat and both chambers of their legislative bodies—compared to six states for Democrats. “The ultimate Big Bang of this project is that they want to change our Constitution,” Maclean says. “They are actually building towards a constitutional convention. So they have 28 states that have called for this constitutional convention. They need six more.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We’re speaking with Nancy MacLean, author of the new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. She’s a professor of history and public policy at Duke University.
I’d like to get your response to an excerpt from the BBC TV documentary series directed by Adam Curtis. The documentary is called The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom? In this clip, James Buchanan, whom you profile in your book, explains why he believes there is no such thing as the public interest.
JAMES BUCHANAN: There’s certainly no measurable concept that meaningful—that could be called the public interest, because how do you weigh different interests of different groups and what they can get out of it? The public interest, as a politician thinks, it does not mean it exists. It’s what he thinks is good for the country. And to—if he would come out and say that, that’s one thing. But behind this hypocrisy of calling something “the public interest” as if it exists is—that’s—that’s what I was trying to tear down.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that was economist James Buchanan in the BBC TV series directed by Adam Curtis. So, Nancy, could you tell us—first of all, respond to what he says about the public interest. And also, you say that Trump is almost the logical conclusion of some of Buchanan’s ideas. So could you explain what you mean by that, and what ideas specifically?
NANCY MacLEAN: Yeah, I actually have never seen the clip that you just pulled, so I just want to underscore for listeners those words: “That’s what I wanted to tear down,” the idea of a public interest. You know, when we try to understand the mayhem that’s unfolding all around us, the ugliness that’s out there, the gross, you know, aspersions on people’s character who are trying to, you know, help people in our society—right?—and make a better country, that’s where this comes from. So that was Buchanan’s idea, yes, is that we’re all just self-interested actors, and nobody is telling the truth. So—I’m sorry, I forgot the follow-up.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, about what the connection is between—
NANCY MacLEAN: Oh, with Trump.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yeah.
NANCY MacLEAN: Of course. So, I mean, if you listen to any of Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail, he is speaking that language of tearing down the notion of the public interest, of, you know, slandering any of his critics, of making anybody who is from the opposition party look—you know, crooked Hillary. All that kind of language comes from this Buchanan notion that our modern politics is essentially a system of corruption that transfers from some people to others. And this language of “makers” and “takers” that we have is very much Buchananite. So he actually portrayed citizens—he talked about coalitions of exploitation. So, for example, if you had, say, home healthcare workers who were working with public health professionals, who were trying to expand the amount of moneys for Medicaid, you know, for child’s healthcare, he would see that as exploiting wealthy taxpayers. And this is the language that the Republican Party has picked up and channeled from the radical right. It’s a language that—and he used these words, “predators” and “prey.” It’s a “predatory system.” So this is antithetical not just to 20th century democracy, this is antithetical to the ideas on which this country was founded, the idea that there is something called “We the people” and that together, through deliberation, we can make a more perfect union.
AMY GOODMAN: This is a clip of an interview with White House strategist Steve Bannon at the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC.
STEPHEN BANNON: I think if you look at the lines of work, I kind of break it out into three verticals or three buckets. The first is kind of national security and sovereignty, and that’s your intelligence, the Defense Department, homeland security. The second line of work is what I refer to as economic nationalism. The third, broadly, line of work is what is deconstruction of the administrative state. … If you look at these Cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason. And that is the deconstruction. The way the progressive left runs is that if they can’t get it passed, they’re just going to put it in some sort of regulation in an agency. That’s all going to be deconstructed. And I think that that’s why this regulatory thing is so important.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Steve Bannon speaking at CPAC, talking about the deconstruction of the administrative state. And as the media focuses on just a particular series of issues in Washington, whether it’s the healthcare plan or the Russia investigation, in fact, there is a very systematic, very fast dismantling of the administrative state that is going on. And I was wondering if you could comment on that and some of the people who are involved with this, from Scott Pruitt to Mick Mulvaney, the OMB director, even to the White House counsel, Don McGahn.
NANCY MacLEAN: Yes, thank you. This notion that Bannon represents something very different from the Kochs is troubling, because it leads us to not notice exactly what your clip just showed, that he is utterly devoted to deconstructing the administrative state. This also comes from Buchananite thinking, which said that agency officials don’t—and this includes public health professionals, too. This apparatus has tried to discredit people who test children’s blood for lead. I mean, this is how bad it is. But they will say that agency officials only want to expand their fiefdoms, they don’t actually care about the issues they’re working on, they just want their own self-aggrandizement.
And so, Bannon is expressing this and talking about the deconstruction of the administrative state. And they are doing it, as you pointed out, Amy, in your opening news segments about all the environmental regulations they’re undoing, all kinds of other regulations they’re undoing. As we all focus on Trump’s tweets, they are undermining core features of our democracy and of our regulatory system, on which we all depend for our health, our well-being, our clean water, our clean air and the quality of our public health apparatus. And we can see this in the Republican Party being captured by this donor network, because they vote against things like funding for Zika and Ebola, you know, and they don’t believe in public health. They don’t—you know, they just come from a different philosophical system.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you find out about the Nobel Prize-winning economist Buchanan and his close ties to the Koch brothers, particularly Charles Koch?
NANCY MacLEAN: I did not set out looking for this man. This man announced himself to me from the archives. I had just finished a book on something else, when I happened on the story of the school closures in Prince Edward County from 1959 to 1964. In protest against Brown v. Board of Education and in the name of individual liberty and states’ rights, a county in Virginia completely shut down its public school system and sent all the white children off to private schools and deprived black children of education, any formal education, for five years. And it was part of the system of mass resistance that came with the first modern system of tuition grants, they called it, but it was essentially school vouchers. And I became intrigued in this—about this.
And then I learned that Milton Friedman had written his first modern case for vouchers in 1955, as news came up that the most arch segregationists were saying they were going to completely shut down public education rather than desegregate. So, I thought, “What are these people, who talk about a free society and who talk about liberty, doing, essentially abetting the most arch segregationists who are trying to destroy public education in order to preserve segregation?” So, at first I was following Friedman. But Buchanan kept appearing, with different reports, pushing, pushing, pushing for the most arch privatization. And then—so I followed those reports. He came on my radar.
Then I learned that his impact on Chile was more lasting than Milton Friedman’s, because he advised the Chilean constitution that made it so that when there was a transition back to elected government, only super-supermajorities of people would be able to effect change. So, essentially, he shackled—he helped shackle democracy in Chile in ways they’re still wrestling with.
AMY GOODMAN: And this shored up Pinochet.
NANCY MacLEAN: Hmm?
AMY GOODMAN: And this shored up Pinochet in Chile.
NANCY MacLEAN: Yes. It was 1980. You know, I have a whole chapter about it. It’s a really chilling story. But, so then I saw him—that was my second data point.
My third data point was moving to North Carolina in 2010 and then seeing the radical Republican takeover of my state government. And what they were doing, I realized, was a concrete incarnation of what Buchanan had written about. And that included things from the most draconian unemployment insurance changes that we had seen in the country, later a monster voter suppression bill, some of the most arch gerrymandering in the country, undermining public education, shifting resources to totally unaccountable private education providers. I mean, just the list goes on. And, I mean, I could tell you 30 things, if we had time, that they did in North Carolina. But that helped me to see what was going on.
And also, the person who’s crucial in North Carolina, as the journalist Jane Mayer pointed out, Art Pope, has been working with the Kochs for several decades now. And he actually used the phrase—his organization used the phrase “big bang” to describe what they were doing. And that’s a phrase that actually comes out of the George Mason operation that Koch funded by—someone that Charles Koch has worked with there for several years urged that if you want to push through this agenda, that most people do not want and would not support if they knew it was coming, you should have a big bang. He said you should have clustered big bangs. And that’s what we’ve seen all around the country.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain, clustered big bangs.
NANCY MacLEAN: Yeah, that was his phrase.
AMY GOODMAN: Meaning?
NANCY MacLEAN: Oh, meaning that you push things through very, very radically, a whole series of things. It’s like the shock-and-awe doctrine of warfare—right?—that you push out so much so quickly that people are utterly shocked. You know, they just don’t even know where to start to resist. And they can’t—they can’t respond to the whole panoply of measures. And while they’re shocked and dazed, you’ve effectively changed the terrain.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s turn to Reverend Dr. William Barber—you’re talking about North Carolina—president of the North Carolina NAACP, one of the state’s leading progressive voices. We’ve spoken him over the years. This is back in 2012, when he talked about the role of Art Pope in North Carolina state politics.
REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: The Koch brothers and some of the leaders of a group called Civitas are highly connected to the tea party elements and the Koch brother money. Art Pope—
AMY GOODMAN: And the Koch brothers are the billionaire funders of the Republican Party.
REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Yeah, billionaire funders. And we call Art Pope in our state a little Koch brother. You know, he’s connected to that whole funding.
AMY GOODMAN: He is?
REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Yes, he is.
AMY GOODMAN: He is who?
REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Art Pope, who runs Civitas, funds—he funds all these ultra-conservative groups, has spent something like $40 million of his own money to try to take over the state Legislature. And they’re the ones that have pushed all of this regressive voting rights and the Amendment 1. But it was—
AMY GOODMAN: Amendment 1 on same-sex marriage.
REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Amendment 1 on same-sex marriage. But we clearly know what’s up. The reality is, it was to—they could not handle this diverse electorate that has now been produced by these progressive voting laws that we have in a Southern state. And so, Amy, what we saw in this, they, instead of dealing with the issue of poverty, instead of dealing with the issue of jobs, instead of dealing—we lost 300,000 jobs because of the bad policies of the last administration, during the Bush era. But instead of dealing with that, what did they do? They attacked voting rights, tried to pass voter ID.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Reverend William Barber back in 2012. We were speaking, actually, there at the Democratic convention that was taking place. Reverend Barber has gone on to lead the Moral Mondays movement, become a major figure in civil rights and human rights in this country, head of the North Carolina NAACP and Repairers of the Breach. But this also goes to the resistance. And you mentioned earlier about the book, campus unrest, that James Buchanan authored back in the 1960s. If you can talk about what he proposes as the strategies to deal not only with campus unrest, but with the kind of resistance that we’re seeing even today, though in fact he’s not around anymore, Buchanan?
NANCY MacLEAN: So, in the book—it was called Academia in Anarchy, and he proposed full tuition, no more state—accessible state public higher education. You should pay full-price tuition or not be there, because otherwise you would have a perverse incentive to organize and do other things than studying. He basically wanted to do away with faculty governance. He wanted to have donors and state legislatures exercise control over public institutions of higher education. And we’re seeing this happen in public institutions in red-controlled states around the country. There’s a brilliant documentary called Starving the Beast about this that I urge people to watch. It’s very widely available. So, that’s the education piece.
Now, the other piece that Buchanan’s ideas are informing is the state strategy. And so, we have talked about the federal, but I think listeners need to be aware that much of this is being rolled out at the state level. And I think the state level is key, because they already fully control—they have what’s called trifecta control—both houses of the legislature and the governorship—in three—I mean, in 25 states. Democrats only have that in six states. And in those 25 states, they’re effectively building up a kind of tourniquet over progressive policy nationally to push the agenda. This has been advocated by Buchanan. He convened corporate audiences and talked about policies on the spectrum of succession, he said, including privatization, decentralization, devolution, you know, and a few more things. But basically, the idea was that you could use states to whipsaw one another in the ways that we’ve seen, that we call the race for the bottom, not knowing that this was intentional strategy. So there’s that.
But the ultimate big bang of this project is that they want to change our Constitution. And they are actually building towards a constitutional convention. So they have 28 states that have called for this constitutional convention. They need six more. And, speaking to your point about resistance, the way that they plan to get those six more is by doing these things like these very aggressive right-to-work laws, to undermine unions, because unions have been significant defenders of democracy for all of us; attacking public education, because public school teachers have been important forces for democracy and defending democracy for all of us; the gerrymandering, the voter suppression. All those efforts are designed to suppress the popular voice, because these people know that if majorities understood what these guys have in mind for them, they would resist, they would oppose, and they would try to stop it, as they are doing with the healthcare, where they can see that it’s concrete, they can see the reality: This means people will die. People are responding to that. And they want to stop that resistance, and that’s why they’re doing the things they do.
And can I say? The single most important thing of my book that I hope people will take away is the number of times these people talk about what they’re doing, in the clear knowledge that they are a minority movement and that they can never persuade the majority, and that’s why they’re operating in the way that they are.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you speak specifically about what Buchanan—his take on social movements and why it was important to block social movements?
NANCY MacLEAN: Yeah, he did not actually write about social—you know, he talked much more about groups, and he would call everybody “special interests,” because the very idea of a social movement, like him, is like the public interest, right? It couldn’t possibly exist, because we’re just aggregations of individuals doing our self-seeking. But he very clearly understood that the labor movement, that was built up in the 1930s, the CIO, which was a very progressive force in all public life, for public transparency, for employment security, old age security, you know, just every—all these things, that the CIO was a very progressive force, and it deeply alarmed the Southern elite with whom Buchanan was allied. So the CIO was the first thing. The civil rights movement was another. You know, many of us think about the civil rights movement in terms of fighting attitudinal racism. But Buchanan was a specialist in public finance. Buchanan understood that if the civil rights movement succeeded, and if African Americans were able to vote and change public policy, it would be costly, because people who have been held in poverty, whose schools were terrible, who were denied public health, are going to want changes, and they’re going to vote for those changes and elect people who will bring them.
AMY GOODMAN: So that goes to the central issue of voter suppression.
NANCY MacLEAN: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: When you say they recognized they would always be a minority, so then you have to suppress the will of the majority.
NANCY MacLEAN: Absolutely. And also, let me add, too, that gerrymandering was a well-established practice in the South that was being threatened at the time Buchanan was writing. So the Virginia state Legislature grossly overrepresented rural conservative districts and underrepresented not only cities, but also the suburbs, where there were more moderate white Republicans. And one historian who has looked at this pointed out that if the cities and suburbs had been able to vote in proportion to their numbers, massive resistance would not have passed. They would not have shut down schools, because so many people didn’t want it.
So, all the things that we’re seeing now, we can trace back to then. And so, you know, my question for America is: Do we want to live in a cosmetically updated version of 1950s Virginia, or do we want to keep making the kind of progress toward an inclusive democracy that we had been making in the past few decades?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And talk about the idea of libertarianism. I mean, it’s very popular now amongst young people. What was Buchanan’s relationship to—what did he think of libertarianism? Did he ever articulate a position, what it meant for him?
NANCY MacLEAN: Yes. He spoke of freedom as being the highest value. And he said, “I don’t want to control you, and I don’t to be controlled by you.” And that sounds really nice. I mean, we all probably feel like that, right? I mean, who wants to be controlled by somebody else? But what he was getting at in that is that the control that libertarians want to resist, at least the architects of the strategy were looking at, not necessarily the teenagers, who—you know, who like the anti-empire kind of politics, they don’t want to be controlled by democracy. Right? They just want to do their own thing. And that’s particularly true for economic liberty. So, from what I’ve been able to learn in studying this movement over the years, following its intellectuals, following its operations, whatever they say about liberty, ultimately, it really comes down to economic liberty. And they’re very happy to sacrifice political or civil liberties in order to protect that economic liberty.
There’s a beautiful poem by Langston Hughes, which I should be carrying in my back pocket, and I haven’t, but I will after this, because I’m embarrassed not to have it. But in that poem, Langston Hughes talks about the difference between liberty and freedom, and basically talks about liberty as a source of nightmares, because liberty is the idea of the slaveholders and the John C. Calhouns and so forth, that was used to keep African Americans down for so long, whereas he talks about freedom as a beautiful thing. And so, I think what’s really important for progressives now and people who oppose this Koch apparatus, I think we have to take back that language of freedom, because we—you know, the civil rights movement, what was SNCC’s—its slogan was “Freedom Now,” right? We are the people who want people to have the freedom to live their lives autonomously, to do what they need to do, but we understand we need to do that together, in collaboration. And the people we’re up against will suppress all of our freedoms to get their economic liberty.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, David Koch, in 1980, ran as the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential candidate.
NANCY MacLEAN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, as you link James Buchanan, your research on this, on the late Nobel Prize-winning economist, to what we are seeing today in the Trump administration—and let’s be clear, the Koch brothers are opposed to the current Republican healthcare bill, because it doesn’t go far enough.
NANCY MacLEAN: Yes, yes. Well, I do want to say, too, that Buchanan was not around for the final rollout of this. And as I said at the outset, he actually, I think, was a little appalled at what was being done in his name. For example, as soon as the Kochs moved into George Mason, they moved—
AMY GOODMAN: This is George Mason University.
NANCY MacLEAN: I’m sorry, George Mason University, right outside D.C., very convenient to exercise control in Washington. As soon as the Kochs moved in and made their first big $10 million commitment in 1997, they moved in all these operatives. All these operatives started, you know, claiming titles for themselves—president of this, blah blah blah blah blah. But they also started violating nonprofit tax law, according to at least one whistleblower. And Wendy Gramm, who was the wife of a sitting senator, Phil Gramm, was sending out very partisan letters, fundraising letters, for the Buchanan Center, saying how it was going to change our politics. And I think that’s very interesting. And I personally know that Buchanan was sickened by that. So Buchanan actually pulls away from this as it takes off. But Koch is so well funded. I mean, we would not be here without Buchanan’s ideas and Koch’s money and the money that Koch has pulled together from these donors. They are pushing this system through in a way that I actually believe might have appalled Buchanan, too, because it’s such grotesque use of the political system and of the corruption of money in politics in order to get what they want.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, professor of history and public policy at Duke University.
When we come back, the EPA’s new water safety official is a lobbyist with deep ties to the Dakota Access pipeline. We’ll talk about that with The Intercept investigative reporter Lee Fang. Stay with us.