Many leftist intellectuals “argue” this way: They dig into the past and purport to find that one of their right-wing opponents had some unsavory connection, therefore his ideas must be bad – and since the right has embraced those ideas, it is also bad. Books like that reinforce the leftist belief that they are not only on the right side of history, but also hold a monopoly on virtue.
A new exemplar of that style is Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Duke University history professor Nancy MacLean. For this work, she received a large grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Using a phrases like “radical right” and “stealth” are sure to get accolades from leftists who love a good horror story about their supposed enemies. Never mind that any fair account would have to say that there is nothing stealthy in what the “radical right” wants. It wants a return to limited government under the Constitution. And if that is “radical,” so was the American revolution, which also sought to secure individual liberty against an overreaching state.
But the fact that MacLean has written a book meant to appeal to leftists isn’t really the problem. The problem is that she has chosen to target one particular person, economist James Buchanan (1920-2013), who received the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his path-breaking work on public choice theory. MacLean portrays Buchanan as the dark figure who provided the intellectual veneer for the free market, minimize the government movement.
Georgetown’s Jason Brennan denounces her effort here, writing, “The government paid her over $50,000 to smear Buchanan and people like him. Rather than challenging his ideas, she accuses him of this and that. Yet, all the while, Nancy is quite literally a hired gun for the government, seeking to rationalize its oppression and abuses.”
Historian Phillip Magness of George Mason University elaborates on those accusations, which amount to nothing more than the guilt by association tactic of declaring that Buchanan was influenced by various bad people, in particular the “Southern Agrarians” who like segregation and longed for the old days. Magness writes that Maclean “misused evidence to depict a non-existent intellectual debt between Buchanan and a group of pro-segregation Agrarian poets from Vanderbilt. MacLean’s primary purpose in doing so was to prop up her own narrative, which portrays Buchanan’s role in the development of Public Choice economics as having been motivated by resentment over the Brown v. Board of Education decision. This claim is not supported by any evidence in Buchanan’s works.”
Moreover, Magness has done what MacLean must have assumed nobody would bother to do, namely to check her footnotes. He shows that a number of them simply do not say what she says they say. Scholars should not be sloppy in their work, but this seems to be not sloppiness, but deliberate deception. (It reminds one of the fascinating case of Professor Michael Bellesiles, whose book Arming America was lionized by the Left, then so completely torn apart by scholars who showed that his evidence was largely made up that Columbia University revoked the prize it had bestowed on the book and Emory University fired him. Here is one account.)
And here, Professor David Henderson notes that MacLean has a bad habit of leaving out words when she quotes people so as to mislead the reader as to just what the person actually said.
I’ll conclude this bombardment with one more quotation, from attorney Greg Weiner on Library of Law and Liberty. “In MacLean’s telling,” he writes, “Progressivism is normal and anything to its right, being deviant, requires apology. It is thus ‘hard to imagine’ why Charles Koch holds the views he does, so MacLean naturally turns to the ‘mysteries of individual human personality’ shaped by a warped father-son relationship. Would George Soros receive a similar diagnosis? That Koch might have actually reached his conclusions intellectually does not appear to be within the range of possibilities. Because what MacLean calls ‘the right’ cannot be rationally explained, only corruption, ill will or, failing those, neurosis can do the trick.”
Major universities ought to insist that the scholars they hire and grant tenure produce works that seek truth, but Duke is evidently happy to employ a history professor who writes hack partisanship.
As for the National Endowment for the Humanities, I’d say that the case for abolishing it just got a lot stronger.