Nancy MacLean likes to say that the architects of the capitalist radical right found her, or rather, signaled to her from the sources.
When she set out to study Virginia's policy of massive resistance to the Brown v. Board of Education court decision, she'd never heard of the two men who would loom largest in her resulting book, "Democracy in Chains."
The further she delved, the more she discovered of the immense influence of Charles Koch, the libertarian billionaire, and James McGill Buchanan, the founder of the Virginia school of political economy, whose ideas informed Koch's efforts to transform the country.
MacLean, a National Book Award finalist and the William H. Chafe professor of history and public policy at Duke University, will be in town to deliver a lecture at Virginia Commonwealth University's Cabell Library on the Virginia-specific roots of the radical political right.
Style Weekly: At the core of your book are the archival papers of University of Virginia economist Buchanan. What was most surprising about what they told you?
MacLean: In a nutshell, I found that it was indeed James Buchanan who taught Charles Koch that for capitalism of the kind they wanted to thrive, democracy must be enchained. I already suspected this based on what I had learned from other archives and published materials and what I watched unfold in my own state of North Carolina after a Koch-backed radicalized Republican right gained power over both chambers of our state legislature in 2010.
What I learned in Buchanan's papers was just how deeply political this scholar was from the very beginning in Charlottesville in 1956. While he claimed the mantle of disinterested "science," the project was ideologically driven from the outset, down to the level of specifying students' political commitments in his letters of recommendation, a practice another shocked historian found before me.
How do you define the radical political right?
I should clarify here that the book isn't about all wings of the extreme right, but about the billionaire-backed radical right: a libertarian right-wing movement that now sails under the Republican flag, yet goes back to the 1950s in both parties.
President [Dwight] Eisenhower called them "stupid" and fashioned his approach, calling it modern Republicanism, as an antidote to them. Goldwater was their first presidential candidate. He bombed. Reagan, they believed, was going to enact their agenda. He didn't.
But beginning in the new century, they became a force to be reckoned with. What changed? The discovery by their chief funder, Charles Koch, of the approach developed by Buchanan for how to take apart the 20th century form of government, built by citizen demand for such things as labor rights, retirement security, federal antidiscrimination laws and environmental protection.
Why is the subject of your book such a timely topic in 2017?
Sadly, that's easy to answer. Because the Koch project has brought us to the worst political crisis in living memory. And readers are saying my book helps them understand how we reached this point.
The impact of combining Buchanan's thought with Koch's money has been enormous. Most of us still speak and act as if there is a Republican Party, a party with its own traditions and internal decision-making and accountability to its voters. But what's so alarming in this story is that, in a real sense, there is no more GOP, not like a U.S. major party and certainly not like the one my father voted for most of his life. Using a shrewd Buchanan-style alteration of incentives, the party has been turned into a delivery vehicle for the extremist donors' agenda.
How bad is it?
By realigning the lures and penalties facing elected officials, the Koch network has turned the GOP into a kind of Leninist party of the right, one in which no dissent is allowed after the course has been set. That's why John Boehner finally quit Congress. He understood that this Republican Party hates compromise. It considers horse-trading to be selling out. It wants to dramatically diminish the power of the federal government in order to remove any public reins from capitalists.
The conduct of these new-style Republican leaders, pushed to brinkmanship by the donors, has created a national crisis whose depth we've yet to fully plumb. S
"The Virginia Roots of Today's Radical Right and the Crisis of American Democracy: a Talk by Nancy MacLean" is Dec. 13 at 7 p.m. Cabell Library, 901 Park Ave.