Following the death of Charles Koch it seems fitting to share the article about his life's work that I wrote last year for Progressing Spirit. It is good to remember the past in order hopefully not to repeat it and to better understand what ails us as a nation.
A Sobering Tale of the Demise of American Democracy (Part I)
Historian Nancy MacLean’s book, Democracy In Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, is scarier than a Stephen King novel or a movie such as “The Exorcist.” Yet the former is non-fiction through and through! The author declares she is offering up “the utterly chilling story of the ideological origins of the single most powerful and least understood threat to democracy today: the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance.”
Chilling as it is, Democracy in Chains is also necessary reading for anyone interested in the purposeful unraveling of American Democracy that is racing ahead so furiously and that the current Paul Ryan/Donald Trump Republican party is pushing forward relentlessly. It is a must-read for anyone asking: “What happened to the Republican Party? Where did the Tea Party come from? Where is it going? What is its agenda? What rabbit holes are we being asked to enter next? What is the end game?”
The bottom line to this book can be summarized as follows: You can kiss government “of the people, by the people, for the people” Good Bye if the principal players in this book have their way. And much is going their way at this time. (How ironic that it was the first and greatest Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who left those words of government of, by and for the people, in our collective memories.) The goal of this movement is a government of the few, by the few and for the few along with a government of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations.
MacLean has done a masterful job of laying bare the philosophy and thinkers that lay behind the activism of the deep right movement of our generation. She tells us whose intellectual shoulders the Koch brothers (and their countless progeny of think tanks, universities, law departments, economic departments, politicians, judges, etc) stand on and how it all came about. The litany of institutions spawned by the Koch brothers and their wealthy donors include the following: the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, the State Policy Network, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Tax Foundation, the Reason Foundation, the Leadership Institute, the Charles Koch Foundation, Koch Industries and more.
(One has to marvel at the fecundity of the right wing—and ask where are more progressive thinkers and corporations putting their wealth? Where is the fecundity from the left? Where are the scholarships for young thinkers and activists from the left? Is all the money sitting offshore making interest for shareholders? Is it all going to create prettier campuses for tech schools? Where is the support for authentic values education? I don’t see anything of that happening frankly and I have been in the field of values education for over forty-five years and that includes support for spirituality and progressive politics. Do you?)
Among the most revered “intellectual saints” of the extreme rights movement are Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Friedrich A. Hayet and—here lies the heart of this book’s revelations—James McGill Buchanan and his “Buchanan Center for Study of Public Choice.” MacLean had unusual (and almost accidental) access to Buchanan’s private papers and this forms the meat of her book. What does she find? She puts it bluntly: The stealth agenda and supreme value is “To save capitalism from democracy—permanently.” Theirs is “a quest to ensure the supremacy of capital.” (xxxi)
Buchanan began his movement at the University of Virginia in 1956 and relocated to George Mason University “to train a new generation of thinkers to push back against Brown and the changes in constitutional thought and federal policy that had enabled it.” (xix) He also had in mind "a much more audacious project, one that was national in scope,” that is to train operatives who would eventually staff the Koch brother’s network of think tanks alluded to above. Koch of course gave multi millions of dollars over the years to Buchanan and all of these enterprises. These think tanks advised many Republican actors over the decades including Trump administration hires along with their staffs, Virginia governors, presidential candidates and Supreme Court judges. One hire is Vice President Mike Pence who “has worked with many of these organizations over the years and shares their agenda.” (xx) No one could say this movement has not been successful in their efforts.
Let us look briefly at the origins of this movement/cult/political-economic crusade dedicated to the proposition that democracy must not interfere with capitalism. The movement burst on the scene in Virginia’s response to the Supreme Court decision Brown v Board of Education to de-segregate schools. (While it was born of racism, part of the strategy of the movement however is to never bring up the subject of race or racism and of course to deny it if someone else brings it up.) Its roots go back to Jim Crow days and to the slave times and the philosophy of then Senator John C. Calhoun as well as to mid-fifties Virginia, that of Senator Harry Byrd, Sr. who “exhumed Calhoun’s theories of government” in his battle against school integration. (10)
Feast on some of the wisdom of Calhoun who pronounced thus: “Slavery is an institution ordained by Providence, honored by time, sanctioned by the gospel, and especially favorable to personal and national liberty.” Notice the word “liberty” because that is central (that and the word “freedom”) to the ideology that followed, civil war included.) Comments MacLean: “If he [Calhoun] deemed it necessary to punish one of his workers with '30 lashes well laid on’ and a diet of ‘bread and water,’ as he did a young runaway slave named Aleck, such was his prerogative as an owner. How he disciplined his labor force to keep his enterprise profitable should be no one else’s business.” (9f)
That is what liberty meant to Calhoun and its meaning is not that different in the rhetoric intoned today. To ensure the endurance of one’s profits, the idea of a federal government was a menace. That is what “liberty” still means to his admirers in the extreme right. The dominance of “the aggressive few over the collective rights of the many” is alive and well in moves the red states are taking today including of course the push to limit voting rights (winked at by today’s Supreme Court which dismantled the voting rights act). (p. 5)
What is the agenda? The goal of this movement is not merely to change who rules by achieving success in election; but rather to change the rules. Only by changing the rules can they succeed since the majority of Americans, when they eventually wake up, do not see their goals as, well, all that American. To accomplish this “revolution” (a word common in their parlance), their goal has to remain under wraps and as stealth as much as possible because if out in the open it would be roundly defeated in elections. But truth telling also suffers (“fake news,” any one?) for where the agenda “could not be fully disguised, where necessary they had to be presented to the American public as the opposite of what they really were—as attempts to shore up rather than ultimately destroy—what the majority of American wanted, such as sound Medicare and Social Security programs.” The argument put forward is that “we are protecting these programs so they won’t go bankrupt;” but in fact “the real goal was to destroy them.” (193f)
Thus the word reform is inserted whenever the truth is in danger of coming out. Consider the recent “reform” of the tax code (the media in its intellectual laziness invariably succumbs to the language they are fed) that helped you-know-who the most and not those near the bottom or even middle of the economic ladder. In a recent tweet by house speaker Paul Ryan he lauds the new “tax reform bill” because it increased the pay of a secretary at a public high school in Lancaster, Pa, by $1.50 per week. (sic) Meanwhile, the same new” tax reform bill” will allow Ryan himself a $19,000 annual tax cut and the Koch brothers an estimated tax cut of $1.4 billion and Mr Trump very likely much more than that. In their excited largess the Koch brothers, immediately on the tax “reform” bill passing, poured $500 billion into Paul Ryan’s coffers for the 2018 elections.
How successful have the extreme right zealots been? Consider that by 1990 “more than two of every five sitting federal judges had participated in his program—a stunning 40 percent of the U.S. federal judiciary had been treated to a Koch-backed curriculum.” (195) Consider the number of laws being passed currently in state houses to curtail voting rights, increase gerrymandering, tell women what they can and cannot do with their bodies, etc. Consider the make-up of the Supreme Court and its decisions, especially Citizens United, that has opened the floodgates for inviting an oligarchy to the head of the table. (The newest supreme court judge was chosen by the Heritage Foundation along with many other lower court judges as well.) Consider the complete frozenness of congress to pass legislation or govern.
Not all Republicans have gone along with Koch’s efforts to take over the party and declare all who disagree with him RINOS or “Republicans in name only.” But throwing big money into primary elections proved immensely successful over time to seize the party and to expel all non-believers in their goals. U.S. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, one of the first longtime Republican senators to lose out to the movement, called those who attacked him “cannibals” who are eager to bring about “the end of governing as we know it.” (xxvii) Orin Hatch at first said “they’re not Republicans” and “I despise these people.” But then, like so many others, he relented, learned the new rules of the game and came on board. Former House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio called one of their leaders, Ted Cruz, “Lucifer in the flesh.” And of course he fled the new Republican Party, retired as leader, and gladly returned to Ohio.
MacLean warns that our accustomed mindset (and surely that of the media) where we still think in terms of Republican vs. Democrat is so outdated and knee-jerk that we are not seeing what is truly underway. “A shrewd long game blocked from our sight by these stale classifications” is happening right under our noses. (xxviii)
Democracy in Chains and a New Religion of the True Believers (Part II)
In her book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, MacLean alerts us to how “the Republican Party is now in the control of a group of true believers for whom compromise is a dirty word.” Such “true belicving” as we know is usually reserved for a religion.
What is the Koch Republican Party’s position on religion? Koch actually compared his movement to Luther’s Protestant Reformation waged against “the corrupt hegemon of an earlier century.” (195). It seems to me that Koch & Co. are introducing us to a whole new religion—one that is secular in the fullest sense of that term, a religion of the market, by the market and for the market, a religion of might (economic might that is), makes right, the religion of mammon.
Is what we are observing a new cult, a new version of religion where mammon rules? If so, it would seem to echo what the late Catholic monk Thomas Merton predicted would be the “greatest orgy of idolatry the world has ever seen,” namely the marriage of materialism and fundamentalist beliefs. Buchanan evolved to call himself not just an economist but a “social philosopher.” (115) He also veers into theology. Consider an article entitled “The Samaritan’s Dilemma,” where he offered a unique take on the story of the Good Samaritan. Because “modern man” has gone “soft” and lacks “strategic courage,” Jesus is mistaken: To help another in need is not the ethical thing to do after all for it would render the other dependent, a “potential parasite” who “deliberately exploits” society’s leaders, i.e. its “producers.” MacLean concludes that Buchanan’s theology is to “shackle the Samaritan, so to speak,” rather than to assist him. (142f)
Surely this is a new religion isn’t it? Offering a new take on Jesus’ words? How amazing that so-called Evangelical “Christians” seem eager to follow what so blatantly contradicts Jesus’ teachings. It is curious that the new Koch Republican Party continues to court the Evangelical vote successfully since Buchanan and many of the thinkers in this cult were in fact atheists “who looked down on those who believe in God.” (xxvii) Koch chose “to make peace—at least in the short term” with religious types like the late Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed and Tim Phillips who prefer private schooling to public schooling and charity to justice. Jerry Falwell jr, current president of Liberty University, has called President Trump the “dream president” and “one of the great visionaries of our time.” Trump offered him the position of Secretary of Education but he turned it down. Instead, he serves on a task force on reforming the US Department of Education. No doubt exchange of money with Liberty University (notice the title of Falwell’s school as I dealt with their definition of “liberty” in my last essay) and other pet causes of these pastors has not hurt the evangelical relationship one bit.
The new Koch Party is vaster and more accomplished than the former Republican Party (many of whom have jumped ship including George Wills, David Brooks, Steve Schmidt, David Jolly, Nicole Wallace, Joe Scarborough, et alia. It employs more than three times as many people as the Republican committees had on their payrolls in 2015. From late 1990’s to today Koch & Co. have “wrestled control over the machinery of the Republican Party” mostly by offering the swift vengeance of primary challenges to anyone veering from the strict party line. Orthodoxy is a must; heretics are to be banished.
One of its tactics is to “overwhelm” the normal political process with schemes to disrupt its functioning and, I would add, to distract the media. Is it succeeding in achieving what MacLean calls “ends that most Republican voters do not want, such as the privatization of Social Security, Medicare, and education?” (xxxii) She comments: “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.” (Ibid.) To do this it is necessary to disenfranchise voters and to delegitimize labor unions.
The mantra of this new cult was and continues to be “excessive government regulation of business” and they offer their own unique definition of “freedom,” a word which, like “liberty” they love to invoke as often as possible. To them “unrestrained capitalism is freedom.” (italics hers) (xxxii) This is the clear dogma of this religion.
Early in the game they came to the conclusion that “the biggest threat” to their agenda came from the environmental movement (even though a Republican president, Richard Nixon, launched the EPA). The Environmental movement was seen as a “quest for control over industry” and therefore had to be “not merely defeated, but defamed, with their personal ‘hidden agenda’ exposed.” (195) Climate Change Denial was and is part of their orthodoxy and was fully at work in every one of the Republican candidates for president in 2016 (and the media acted supine by not asking a single question about climate change in their so-called interviews of the candidates on television). How thrilled they must have been when President Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord!
To underscore the current relevance of this book consider that in early February Donald Trump was forced to withdraw his nominee to oversee the Council on Environmental Quality, Kathleen Hartnett White. Who is White? She is a senior fellow at the Koch Brothers and Exxon-funded Texas public Policy Foundation. A climate denier , she believes carbon dioxide is harmless “plant food” and calls solar and wind power “unreliable and parasitic.” Anti-science extremists and climate deniers, financially buttressed by the fossil fuel industry and “trained” in the Koch institutions of learning are being hand-picked to run our government agencies.
Fortunately Friends of the Earth ran a campaign to shut down White’s nomination but more such nominees are springing up. They are legion; and they keep coming, not unlike the demon that was chased out of a human by Jesus only to end up leading pigs over a cliff.
Another goal, that corporations take over the public domains of schools, prisons, western lands, infrastructure and more is well underway. Though at first Trump and the Koch brothers were not in synch, it seems they are both marching to the same drummer now.
Another obstacle to the group’s vision of “liberty” (meaning liberty for the rich and powerful and their corporations) was government-supported “health and welfare,” which they feel impair the “normal workings of labor markets.” Their sworn enemies are Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, employer-provided pensions and insurance. These have to go; or at least be converted to individual savings accounts. (195f) One can see here of course the origins of the foaming-at-the-mouth attacks on Obamacare (62 efforts to kill it last count ?) which, when it came along, came under vitriolic attack as the ultimate bête noir. Recall the summer of 2010 when a kind of reality show of Obamacare haters took to showing up to scream and shout at town hall meetings. The fire they lit then still burns in the faithful’s hearts even though a large majority of American voters want some assistance with their health needs and more and more are seeing the issue as a “right” and not a privilege. Just as all other so-called “first world” nations offer it.
Indeed, “Obamacare” provides a “perfect storm” for their ire since not only does it propose some health care relief for many without insurance and not only does it do so by asking all, including the young and healthy, to contribute, but also Obama was a black president. Shouting against Obamacare is a three-for-one, with racism integrated into this unholy trinity.
As for tax policy, the belief of this cult is that voters’ “inevitable egalitarian instincts” would lead them to “redistribution.” What is the cure for this? The Father-Knows-Best tribe proposes “to bring about the end of the graduated income tax… in favor of a single-rate flat tax.” (196)
Another enemy is education (after all the movement was born of opposition to a “federal” Supreme Court decision around education). There is, they maintain, a “government monopoly” of schooling that renders education “the most socialized industry in the world” and results in nurturing “community values, any of which are inimical to a free society.” (Again, in their parlance, “free society” means free to be as rich as you can and as unencumbered in using all your wealth and power as you see fit.)
Surely it is striking that “community values” constitute an enemy. What is their medicine? “Vouchers” are the solution to miseducation for they could be put to the use of funding enrollment in all-white private schools in Virginia as a response to Brown v. Board of Education. When the word got out to voters about what it all meant, they retired their idea temporarily. Now it is back in vogue and out of the closet.
(Believe me, I too am a fierce critic of American education and have spent forty years trying to offer alternatives though my solutions have nothing to do with vouchers. Any accrediting board that offers credit to Koch-based schools that are committed to bringing down democracy ought to themselves be investigated. I recall a shocking moment of truth when I asked the head of the accrediting body of WASC about twenty years ago what it would take to garner accreditation. Said he: “If you had five million dollars you would have accreditation in six months. We gave it to an evangelical college in southern California in six months when they arrived at our doorstep with five million dollars.”
Another bête noir to this new Koch cult is feminism which they accuse of being “heavily socialistic.” MacLean defines their understanding of “socialism” this way: “Any effort by citizens to get their government to act in ways that either cost money to support anything other than police and military functions or encroached on private property rights.” (196)
This book rips open the veil which is covering up what is really happening in Washington—and it is far deeper than President Trump (whom the media fetishes and fixates on breathlessly); or the Republicans vs the Democrats; or left vs. right. There is a strategy, albeit stealth, at work. A movement whose pet name for the federal government is “the American Leviathan” which is a “monster on a rampage.” (Buchanan) (117) The Leviathan is of course a Biblical figure whom God would destroy at the end of time.
 Nancy MacLean, Democracy In Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (NY: Viking, 2017), xv. Subsequent references to this book are in the body of the article.
 Nancy MacLean, Democracy In Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (NY: Viking, 2017), xxviii. Subsequent references to this book are in the body of the article.
 See Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, 203-224.
 See my book The A.W.E. Project: Reinventing Education, Reinventing the Human. And my autobiography, Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest which reports on the alternative pedagogy I have employed for some forty years of educational programs for adults and for inner city youth.