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January 3, 2018

Duke professor speaks on the control of the Koch Brothers in politics

(Collegian File Photo)

Nancy MacLean spoke to a crowd of around 80 people at Goodell Hall on Monday on the tactics she described as being used by the Koch Brothers to control American democracy.

MacLean is the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University and the author of the book “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.”

MacLean argued that Charles and David Koch, owners of the multinational corporation Koch Industries, focus on changing the systematic workings of government through laws rather than on the individuals in power, allowing them to control American democracy. This is an idea she said the Koch Brothers learned from American economist James M. Buchanan.

“Buchanan had long urged the people he worked with…that if you wanted to see radical change, you had to stop focusing on this question of who rules, the particular personalities in power and start focusing on the rules,” MacLean said. “If you wanted to see radical transformation that the libertarians did, you had to focus laser-like on systematically changing the rules of government.”

MacLean also explained how Buchanan won the Nobel Prize for his work in public choice economics, where he argued, in order to instill radical change, it is important to alter the rules of the government. According to MacLean, it is this idea that would ultimately influence the Koch brothers in their current efforts to control the government.

MacLean further argued that the Koch Brothers are looking to institute certain policies in order to change the rules in their favor, such as gerrymandering, cuts to public funding for education and voter suppression, particularly targeting young voters.

According to MacLean, the political right and the Koch Brothers have also looked to institute these changes in private.

“[The Koch Brothers] broke with customary government practices…and instead they were moving with breakneck speed and secrecy,” MacLean said.

Kevin Young, an associate history professor at the University of Massachusetts, felt MacLean’s talk was enlightening and important.

“I thought [the lecture] was deeply informative. It’s a story that seldom gets told,” Young said. “Very powerful and wealthy forces that are profoundly hostile to the idea of democracy.”

In the question-and-answer section that followed the talk, an audience member asked what the next step should be in solving what MacLean viewed as a crisis.

MacLean responded that “a latent majority is a crucial, colossal position of strength.”

“The single most important [step] is to inform that majority,” MacLean added.

Dan Chard, a history lecturer at UMass, said that MacLean’s talk related deeply to his own teachings.

“I look forward to hearing what my students in my Social Movements in the 1960s United States [class] have to say about this, because they have been studying different social movements,” Chard said. “So I’m really interested to see how this presentation might inform their understanding of how they can create political change in the United States.”

MacLean’s lecture, entitled “Democracy in Chains,” was sponsored by the Political Economy Research Institute as part of a series of lectures entitled “The Right-Wing Assault on American Democracy: What is it? How can we defeat it?” The lecture was co-sponsored by the Department of History and the Department of Women, Gender and Sexual Studies at UMass.

Will Mallas can be reached at

2 Responses to “Duke professor speaks on the control of the Koch Brothers in politics”
  1. John Dodd says:

    Take a look at last year’s National Bestseller “Dark Money” by Jane Mayer to see the infamous Koch Brothers, Charles and David, hiring Beckett Brown International (BBI) to illegally spy on their own brother Bill Koch. This is just the very tip of what some experts are calling the biggest corporate espionage scandal in U.S. history! Also, you can go to to see massive BBI attacks on Greenpeace. And check out Chapter 6 of “Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy” by CNBC’s Eamon Javers and “We Know All About You” by Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones…

  2. NITZAKHON says:

    You talk about money’s influence in politics and you have the stones to decry it and not mention George Soros? Whatever the Koch Brothers have done pales in magnitude to the billions Soros has spent.

    Critical Theory at its finest: smear Conservatives / Libertarians without putting their actions into any context.

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