Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jack Rakove reviews Democracy in Chains

Nancy MacLean. Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. New York: Viking, 2017. 368 pp.

Review by Jack Rakove

1 November 2017

The very idea that there is really an existing “stealth plan” for the subversion of American democracy might strike some readers of Nancy MacLean’s new book as the latest iteration of the great theme of Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”[1] If such a conspiracy exists, as MacLean implies, its origins lie in a most curious place. Democracy in Chains is primarily a trimmed-down intellectual and political biography of James Buchanan, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and a principal founder of public choice theory, which involves the systematic application of modes of economic analysis to political decision-making. MacLean has done a significant amount of archival research, well documented in her notes. Although the numerous detractors she immediately attracted as soon as her book was published argue that MacLean has misused various sources, her reconstruction of Buchanan’s career has a solid evidentiary foundation. In her account, the formulation of Buchanan’s project took place in conjunction with the vivid reassertion of states’-rights ideology that followed the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. As chair of the economics department at the University of Virginia, Buchanan was empowered to set up a center for political economy that pursued his libertarian agenda. Buchanan had no particular brief for maintaining racial hierarchies or waging a white supremacist campaign of massive resistance. But he understood that the political dynamics of the late 1950s favored the other libertarian causes he had adopted since his training in economics at the University of Chicago and his exposure to the ideas of F. A. Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society.

Except for a few unhappy years at UCLA in the late 1960s (a “lunatic asylum,” he later observed) Buchanan spent his academic career orbiting the ancient dominion of Virginia, teaching at Mr. Jefferson’s university in Charlottesville, then at Virginia Tech, and finally at George Mason (p. 102). Wherever he went, Buchanan attracted numerous students with a libertarian, market-oriented bent. Collectively their work established public choice as a serious school of political economy that everyone needs to reckon with one way or another. But in MacLean’s larger story, the critical moment came in the mid-1990s when Buchanan formed a working alliance with Charles Koch, who appears here as the ruthless, manipulative, domineering éminence grise of the radical right. In her account, Buchanan finally provided Koch with the fully articulated ideology he needed to rationalize his own political preferences.

Once MacLean forges the Koch-Buchanan connection, Democracy in Chains begins to read more like Ramparts-style journalism than academic history. The great goal of Koch’s movement would involve curtailing the public regulation of economic activity—or more specifically, capitalism itself—at every level of governance. Its ultimate objective, some of us suspect, is to secure the adoption of a balanced budget amendment to the US constitution, a policy-oriented renunciation of authority that would cripple the capability of the federal government to pursue the general welfare of the American people.

MacLean’s journalistic turn gives her book an admirable polemical vigor that makes it fun to read—especially for anyone who has never read Ayn Rand and is free from libertarian leanings or radical-right credentials. But as a serious intellectual history of public choice ideas or (more to the point) of Buchanan’s own substantial oeuvre, Democracy in Chains is disappointing. Buchanan’s ideological commitments were indeed quite pronounced and are therefore easy to ridicule. MacLean’s account of Buchanan’s academic maneuvers and migrations illustrates, among other things, that libertarian ideas and authoritarian academic politics are wholly compatible. Much libertarian and conservative academic thinking rests on the premise that the dominant liberal intelligentsia precludes hiring and promoting scholars on the right. Yet once they dominate particular institutions and departments, libertarians and conservatives seem just as militant, or perhaps even more so, since they perceive themselves as the embattled advocates of a beleaguered minority.

Yet beyond these claims of departmental trench warfare, Buchanan and his students are hardly alone in applying economic modes of analysis to political phenomena. Had MacLean prepared a better intellectual history, she would have done more, even by way of a survey, to convey the diversity and complexity of these approaches. Instead she steers us toward Buchanan’s fateful alliance with Charles Koch, who remains, it seems, the true dark prophet of “the radical right’s stealth plan,” its Darth Vader or even its emperor. By the conclusion of the book, one is left to wonder whether the “stealth plan” MacLean wishes to unveil belongs not to some amorphous entity known as “the radical right,” but is simply the property (that’s the right term here) of Charles Koch. And if the latter is indeed the case, and the key challenge is to grasp the origins and dimensions of the Koch project, readers might still prefer the acclaimed journalist Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (2017).

Nancy MacLean has been taking numerous hits ever since her book appeared in June. (Everyone knows how to google these responses, but one finder’s clue would be to use “Volokh Conspiracy Nancy MacLean.”) Serious charges about her misuse of sources have already been made, which I will not discuss because they lie beyond my scholarly competence and knowledge. At some point there should be a thorough scholarly review of these points, and one suspects that MacLean will have to make a more concerted effort to justify her argument than she has yet provided. Any reader of Democracy in Chains must keep these concerns in mind. Yet her questions remain important and well worth pondering. Even amid the daily turmoil of the Trump presidency, which can hardly embody the political endgame the Koch brothers imagined—though Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah (as it happens, a former student of mine) have other thoughts—deep concerns about the character and future of American democracy now dominate our political psyches. Somehow the idea that they can be rooted in the academic writings of James Buchanan remains a curious and highly problematic explanation. But as conservatives like to say, following the influential book by Richard M. Weaver, ideas (like elections) do have consequences. There is no question that Buchanan’s ideas have become part of our political discourse, even if the portion of Americans who would recognize his name is minuscule.


[1] See Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s Magazine (Nov. 1964): 77–86.