The Chronicle Review

A New History of the Right Has Become an Intellectual Flashpoint

July 19, 2017

Duke Photography
Nancy MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke U., has riled libertarians with her new book, "Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America."

Polemical books often provoke a strong response. But the argument over a new intellectual history of the right has played out with unusual intensity. A phalanx of largely libertarian critics has waged an online battle against the Duke University historian who wrote the book, Nancy MacLean, accusing her of scholarly misdeeds so egregious that she should be stripped of tenure, fired, and perhaps sued. MacLean’s sympathizers have also quickly dug in, branding the criticism a Koch-backed smear campaign. Scholars on both sides manned their ramparts without actually reading the entire book.

The personal attacks have unnerved MacLean. In an email interview with The Chronicle Review, she described how supposed reviewers on Amazon recycled right-wing critiques of her book, sometimes in "crude terms." Without her knowledge, someone put up a Wikipedia page about her featuring the attacks. One online commenter on Mises Wire, calling her a "rabid feminazi" and an "anti-Southerner," posted information about her home. "It made me feel vulnerable and exposed (which may have been their intent)," she writes. As for the call to fire her, "Such rhetorical bullying would be laughable," she says, "if it weren’t part of a pattern on the right of escalating attempts to intimidate scholars who disagree with them."

The response reflects the polemical charge of MacLean’s study, Democracy in Chains (Viking). A bumper crop of historians have investigated the history of the right over the past quarter century, often writing with empathy, but MacLean’s book is a different beast. From the image on its cover, a sinister gaggle of cigar-puffing white men in suits, to the subtitle, The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, the study proclaims its intention to expose its subjects as threats to democracy.

The Washington Post, Getty Images
“Democracy in Chains” suggests that James McGill Buchanan, a libertarian economist and Nobel laureate who taught at George Mason U. and died in 2013, inspired the billionaire Charles Koch’s campaign to “save capitalism from democracy — permanently.”

At the heart of this purported plot is a Nobel-winning economist whose ideas MacLean characterizes as "diabolical" and "wicked": James McGill Buchanan. Buchanan, a libertarian who taught at George Mason University and died in 2013, developed a novel way of analyzing government that would have far-reaching consequences for democracy, MacLean argues. In his view, self-interest dictated the behavior of public officials and those who tried to influence them. The incentives that shaped officials’ actions — winning re-election, expanding their bureaucratic turf — encouraged profligate government spending at the expense of a minority of taxpayers. This violated the taxpayers’ freedom and burdened the economy.

In MacLean’s telling, Buchanan was both an intellectual and a "deeply political foot soldier of the right." Over time, she says, he came to believe that the best way to bring about radical change was to focus on the rules, not the rulers. Freedom would flourish only by imposing legal and constitutional shackles that prevented public officials from responding to the will of democratic majorities. In the late 1990s, MacLean writes, a like-minded billionaire, Charles Koch, seized on Buchanan’s ideas as a "personal operational strategy" for his campaign to "save capitalism from democracy — permanently." Because most Americans didn’t support their ideas, that strategy required stealth: small, piecemeal moves that could win approval without provoking an outcry.

The result, MacLean suggests, is much of what has run amok in the modern Republican Party, including efforts to suppress voters, erode union rights, slash school budgets, privatize public resources, and dismantle environmental protections. Viking is marketing Democracy in Chains as a companion to Jane Mayer’s 2016 bestseller Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Doubleday). The pitch: Where Mayer followed the plutocrats’ money, MacLean traced their ideas.

It’s red meat for leftists, but how does it stand up as a piece of research? Since late June, shortly after MacLean published her book, skeptical scholars from fields like law, history, economics, and political science have sought to dismantle it, footnote by footnote. These critics, many of them libertarians, accuse MacLean of indulging in speculative leaps and misrepresenting sources to further her argument.

Viking is marketing Nancy MacLean’s book as a companion to the journalist Jane Mayer’s 2016 bestseller “Dark Money.” The pitch: Where Mayer followed the plutocrats’ money, MacLean traced their ideas.

Case in point: an essay by Russ Roberts, a libertarian economist affiliated with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who hosts a wide-ranging interview-based podcast, EconTalk. Roberts picked up Democracy in Chains after people suggested he have MacLean on the show. He was stunned by how she had twisted the words of a George Mason economist, Tyler Cowen, depicting him as a revolutionary bent on undermining democracy. MacLean quoted Cowen as writing that "the weakening of the checks and balances" in the American system "would increase the chance of a very good outcome." But, as Roberts points out, Cowen’s full sentence had read as follows: "While the weakening of checks and balances would increase the chance of a very good outcome, it also would increase the chance of a very bad outcome." Such misrepresentations, Roberts says, are "unfair and bordering on dishonest."

In a written response to Roberts, MacLean stood by her interpretation, arguing that the "totality" of Cowen’s "words and actions" supported her portrayal. But other critics have piled on with similar accusations, turning the hunt for MacLean’s scholarly infractions into what one blogger calls "this summer’s hottest pastime for libertarian-leaning academics." A particular focus has been MacLean’s portrait of the lineage of libertarian ideas and activism, which, she says, can be traced to John C. Calhoun’s defense of slave-owners’ rights in the 19th century and the fight against perceived federal overreach embodied in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in the 20th century.

But the critics aren’t all libertarians. Some in the center and on the left are also taking MacLean to task. Henry Farrell, a political scientist at George Washington University, argues that her book’s claims leap well beyond the evidence. For example, Democracy in Chains emphasizes a 1983 Buchanan paper that laid out a blueprint for dividing supporters of the welfare state, with the goal of introducing more market-oriented changes. MacLean presents this as central to grasping what the right has been up to ever since. Yet, in Farrell’s view, she lacks evidence for the core role played by this document or indeed by Buchanan himself. MacLean also distorts the impact of the school of thought Buchanan helped pioneer, called public-choice economics, Farrell says. She posits it as a right-wing plot against democracy, but Farrell argues that what’s really important is the way public-choice ideas about the limits of government influenced those in the center and on the center left. "This is a book where, fundamentally, the major conclusions that she reaches are not conclusions that I would trust based upon the evidence that she presents," he says.

The bigger point is that MacLean offers a caricature of her opponents that misinforms those on the left who want to understand the other side and formulate their own political strategy, as Farrell and another political scientist, Steven Teles, argue in Vox. Rick Perlstein, author of a trilogy of books on the history of conservatism, echoes their critique. "The foundation of the entire book is a conspiracy theory that suggests that if you understand THIS ONE SECRET PLAN, you understand the rise of the right in America in its entirety," he wrote in a Facebook post. "Which suggests you don’t need to understand any of a score of other important tributaries, some of them not top-down conspiratorial at all but deeply, organically bottom up, which gave us the political order of battle we know now. That you don’t need to read anything else. Which is actively dangerous to historical understanding."

The book also drives a wedge between two fields that could benefit from better communication and mutual understanding: history and economics, argues Jennifer Burns, a historian at Stanford University who specializes in conservative intellectual thought. It lacks a sense of why Buchanan’s ideas could be seen to have merit, she says, beyond nefarious political intent. "The history of economics and an understanding of what the discipline is, what makes it tick, and where Buchanan fits in that complicated 20th-century story is really absent from the book," she says. "It’s a thin intellectual history."

MacLean accuses her critics of misconstruing and failing to read her book closely. Democracy in Chains is not a history of public-choice economics but rather the history of an idea — "the idea of enchaining modern democratic government, as developed by James Buchanan," she tells The Chronicle Review. She pushes back against the notion that her book overstates his importance. It makes "abundantly clear," she says, that Buchanan belonged to a much larger movement. "But it also shows how his ideas provided that long-marginal movement with something it had never had before: an analysis with which to create an operational strategy to take down the liberal state." As to the anger over tying Buchanan to Calhoun, she points out that two of George Mason’s own economists (including Cowen) have described Calhoun’s thought as "a precursor of modern public choice theory." MacLean’s bottom line: "So far no criticism has made me question the fundamentals of the research, the narrative, or the interpretation. I stand by those."

And other historians have lauded Democracy in Chains. Sam Tanenhaus, author of a history of modern conservatism, praised it in The Atlantic as a "vibrant," well-researched history that illuminates the Southern roots of today’s right and makes a convincing case for Buchanan’s influence. Writing in Jacobin, Colin Gordon, a historian at the University of Iowa, greeted the book as a "revelation" that fused the fragmented scholarship on the right "into a much more coherent, and much more frightening, whole." Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University historian of American politics and social movements, calls it a "useful history" that highlights a basic truth: "Libertarians are not going to get what they want through the political system unless they use subterfuge, because most Americans don’t agree with those policies."

Beyond the book’s substance, two broader forces are shaping the fight over MacLean’s work, says Burns. One is an online environment in which scholarship on hot-button topics attracts immediate critical review on blogs and other websites — commentary that is often produced by disciplinary outsiders, that typically involves footnote-combing takedowns, and that can escalate into a "mob effect." It’s the kind of thing that could destroy the career of a less-established scholar than MacLean. The second trend is a partisan climate in which left and right feel that the other side is truly dangerous to the nation’s interests, with nothing to offer.

That’s complicated by the reality that serious histories of the right tend to be written by people on the left. (MacLean describes herself as "a politically progressive person who believes deeply in democracy and fair play.") These historians usually try to write with empathy, says Kazin. "But there’s always a tension between that desire to understand people on their own terms, and to point out with alarm the danger leftists think conservatives pose to democracy, freedom, human rights," he says. "Nancy’s book is about people who are still around — not Buchanan, but the Kochs and the institutions they set up. … It’s particularly difficult to write empathetically about people who have so much power today."

In this case, many of MacLean’s fellow historians have quickly circled the wagons — something she has encouraged. On social media, supporters have been circulating a message from MacLean that reframes criticism against her as a coordinated hit job orchestrated by the Koch machine. Her own book even foreshadowed such an operation. It describes how the Koch network sought to monitor and discredit liberal opponents, like Jane Mayer. "Anyone who tries to expose what this cause is up to thus must ask herself: Will I become the target of a similar scurrilous attack?" MacLean writes.

In her interview with The Chronicle Review, MacLean dials back the conspiratorial tone. Asked whether she had any evidence that attacks on her were coordinated, she responds: "I’m not saying they called each other up and planned a series of critical responses to my book. What I’m saying is many of the critics come from similar backgrounds — they are libertarians who trained at or are employed by the very institutions I write about in my book. And some of the rhetoric has been quite threatening." She points to Jonah Goldberg, senior editor of National Review, who remarked that if he were MacLean he would worry about "the libertarian super-posse on my ass."

To Burns, it’s no surprise that MacLean’s book would generate pushback. What’s surprising, perhaps, is that the discussion hasn’t gotten even uglier. "I’m just grateful that as of right now the alt-right hasn’t jumped on this," she says. "It’s only a matter of time before it gets dragged into something that might make this first round seem like Model U.N."

Marc Parry is a senior reporter who writes about ideas, focusing on research in the humanities and social sciences. Email him at marc.parry@chronicle.com, or follow him on Twitter @marcparry.