Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Burns Slays Nancy MacLean’s 'Democracy in Chains'

Jennifer Burns is biting in her review of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean ---and justifiably so.

Unfortunately, MacLean gives almost no attention to the areas in which Buchanan
did have deep inªuence and in which he is widely known: the academic ¥elds of political
science and political theory.


What does interest MacLean is an ostensible connection between Buchanan and

John C. Calhoun, the nineteenth-century politician best known for defending slavery
and propounding the doctrine of nulli¥cation. It is this connection that has most mysti¥ed
critics of MacLean. There is no evidence that Calhoun was an important thinker
for Buchanan, and MacLean strains to make the connection.


While it is always dif¥cult to establish inªuence between thinkers or across generations,
MacLean is working at the edge of accepted historical methodology, relying on
assertion and suggestion rather than evidence.


 Her sloppiness with sources leads to arguments that are at variance with her evidence...


Perhaps the ultimate explanation is that McLean was not trying to bridge academic
fields, but to take a political message to a broader public audience. Her hyperbolic and
breathless introduction and conclusion, for instance, seem geared toward the casual
bookstore browser, and her book has been marketed as companion reading to New
Yorker writer Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History Behind the Rise of the
Radical Right. Reaching the elusive general reader has long been the ultimate dream
of ambitious historians. MacLean offers new wine; the assurance that one’s enemies
have always been craven.

In the end, Democracy in Chains is characterized by a fundamental lack of curiosity.
The book is disconnected from not just economics or political theory, but from all
social sciences. Its citations draw almost exclusively from recently published books
about American social or labor history. As such, it bears witness to an alarming parochialism. 
The narrative of American history it presents is insular and highly politicized,
laying out a drama of good versus evil with little attention paid to the larger
worlds—global, economic, or intellectual—in which the story nests. Ultimately it is
not a book of scholarship, but of partisanship, written to reinforce existing divides
and con¥rm existing biases. As such it will not stand the test of time, but will stand
rather as testimony to its time.
Read the full review here.


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