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Democracy at Risk?

Searching for reasons behind the decline of the middle class

Jul. 14, 2017
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When I was in graduate school, historians were taught to dismiss conspiracy theories with an ironic smile. After all, what can a cabal of conspirators accomplish when history is determined by vast social forces? But some of the professors underestimated the power of individuals working in concert, behind closed doors, especially when animated by an all-encompassing ideology, embraced with fundamentalist fervor and impervious to contrary evidence. By faith alone they move forward.

Anyone reading past the USA Today headlines (and isn’t trapped in Fox News hell) has had reason to suspect the worst. Midcentury American values are under assault from a conspiracy emanating from the billionaire Koch brothers and their friends. Having hijacked the Republican Party, they are spending millions of dollars on Congressional and state campaigns. Stooges are being placed in power to implement legislation written for them by well-funded right-wing think tanks. The assault is aimed not only at Obamacare, trade unions and alternatives to fossil fuel, but on democracy and humane values. Basic opportunities and support for all of society’s members? Nah.

Duke University history professor Nancy MacLean investigates the little known roots of the Koch conspiracy in Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (Viking). Aside from the usual roster of radical free market society economists that provide the Kochs with bedtime reading, she identifies the Nobel Prize-winning economist James McGill Buchanan (1919-2013) as the strategist behind their plans. 

Like other militant libertarians, Buchanan was a philosopher of resentment who balked at government programs that taxed the rich to feed the poor. In his version of “liberty,” everyone fends for himself—the government’s only tasks are guarding the borders, punishing criminals and essentially empowering the rich to get richer. Strengthen those bootstraps if you want to rise, because the government will lend a hand to no one—except, of course, to help the one percent by removing all impediments to corporate power.

Buchanan differed from his colleagues by devising a plan for moving from the abstractions of academic libertarian economists to the reality of a Dickensian society. He was the Bolshevik of capitalism, hurrying history forward by drawing plans to seize the government only to undermine it—and to do so with honey-sweet phrases. Let’s not speak of demolishing public education. Let’s talk instead of school choice.

One problem with Buchanan’s fine talk of liberty comes down to “the sheer scale” of the wealthy Americans whose fortunes, often based on government contracts or concessions, purchase greater liberty than the rest of us could ever afford. The monopolies enabled by such wealth blocks the liberty of the less fortunate to rise.

Libertarianism is a seductive creed, but falls prey to the accumulation of power that inevitably accrues to a wealthy class unchecked by government, unions and civic organizations. Quoting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, MacLean reminds readers: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

Ganesh Sitaraman of Vanderbilt Law School conveys similar concerns along different avenues in The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution (Alfred A. Knopf). “Political power is increasingly concentrated in a smaller group, creating legitimate fears that government has been co-opted to serve corporations and wealthy individuals,” he writes, looking back to a golden age (roughly 1945-1975) of prosperity rising on the efforts of an expanding middle class. 

Some of Sitaraman’s history lessons are reductive. According to him, “The economic assumptions of our constitution were not just egalitarian but agrarian”—ignoring the “egalitarian” reckoning of each slave as three-fifths of a person and the influence of New England’s commercial class on the early republic. Nonetheless, his point is apt: stable democracies stand a better chance in predominately middle-class societies. 

Sitaraman is less concerned than MacLean with the culprits behind middle-class decline than with urging significant structural reform “rather than the Band-Aids” prescribed by Barack Obama. The economic notions of Donald Trump are left unexplored as the book went to press before Inauguration Day.


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