Has the National Book Award been 'corrupted by politics'?

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Over at Balkinization, Northwestern law professor Andrew Koppelman wonders whether the National Book Award has been "corrupted by politics." His concerns were prompted by the naming of Nancy MacLean's "Democracy in Chains" as a 2017 National Book Award finalist in the nonfiction category.

As Koppelman notes, MacLean's book is riddled with inaccurate and unfounded claims, distortions, and misrepresentations (some of which are indexed here). Writes Koppelman:

The book is well written and a fast read. It tells a story that is heartening to those who fear the Kochs' growing power. It is, however, full of errors and distortions, which have already been extensively documented. The selection, in the face of these notorious problems, raises uncomfortable questions about what the committee is thinking.

Awards committees have occasionally recognized scholarship that later turned out to be badly flawed. They can't check sources. Scholarship inevitably relies on norms of trust that are sometimes betrayed. But this may be the first time that a work was honored with a nomination for a major award after the flaws were widely known.

While Koppelman is largely sympathetic with MacLean's project, and has been quite critical of libertarian thinkers and activists (as in this book), he is aghast at the award's apparent willingness to honor such a deeply flawed work.

It is hard to avoid the inference that the book's defects are outweighed, in the committee's judgment, by the book's eloquent denunciation of the Kochs. Perhaps the committee so distrusts MacLean's attackers that it has not bothered to look into their claims. This development is bad news for the political left, which, until now, has prided itself on its ability to face inconvenient truths.

MacLean's central historical claim is false. That claim is that the economist James Buchanan devised the "master plan" . . . by which the Koch brothers are now subverting democracy. Buchanan devised no master plan, and there's no evidence that the Kochs' political actions were influenced by anything he wrote. . . .

Koppelman even compares MacLean's work with that of Michael Bellesiles:

Committees sometimes make mistakes: after Michael Bellesiles won the Bancroft Prize for his book Arming America, the book was shown to be full of fabrications, the prize was rescinded, and Bellesiles resigned his Emory University professorship in disgrace. But the Bancroft committee did not know about the book's defects when it made its decision. What excuse has the National Book Award committee?

The political left has until now prided itself on being the reality-based community. Unlike Fox News and Breitbart, it does not embrace invented facts when they support its melodramatic narrative. Until now. With a few honorable exceptions, it has received MacLean's book with enthusiasm.

The nomination bespeaks a new low in polarization: if you write a readable book denouncing the Kochs, we love you, and we don't care whether anything you say is true. The prize is being used to make a political statement, like Obama's 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded less than nine months after he took office. Even he found that embarrassing. Party solidarity now overrides all other considerations. This is, of course, the kind of thinking that led otherwise thoughtful Republicans to vote for Trump.

Again, it is worth emphasizing that Koppelman holds no brief for Buchanan, the Kochs or libertarians. (Indeed, his next book is a critique of contemporary libertarianism.) He is, however, a serious and careful scholar—and one of the few who has approached "Democracy in Chains" with a modicum of skepticism.

[For a round-up of posts and articles discussing and critiquing MacLean's book, go here]

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