The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
No, this isn't another post about that horrible Nancy MacLean book, but it is related. As an early, vociferous critic of the book, I wound up in email, blog, and Twitter debates with some of her defenders among fellow historians, especially those who purport to specialize in intellectual history. And what I learned from this was troubling. While I'm sure there are many excellent historians around, I found that the historians I interacted with not only tended to reason backwards from their political priors, but that their standards of how one makes an appropriate inference from existing evidence are such that they would be laughed out of any decent philosophy or law school academic workshop.
Here are some examples of what I'm talking about.
(1) MacLean begins her book with a chapter on John Calhoun, in an effort to link Calhoun's thought to Buchanan's. The problem is that she doesn't actually present any evidence that Buchanan was influenced by Calhoun, and there is evidence to the contrary. I was told in response that my criticism is unwarranted. MacLean is an intellectual historian. Intellectual historians read lots of stuff about an era, and then reach conclusions. People who are not trained intellectual historians can't properly judge these conclusions, they just have to accept the end-result.
(2) While MacLean doesn't quite go so far as to assert that James Buchanan was racist in supporting school vouchers in Virginia in the late 1950s, some of her defenders do. I pointed out that he gave entirely non-racist reasons for his support of school vouchers, and there is no direct evidence that he preferred segregation to integration. In response, a historian noted that Ernest Van den Haag, a conservative writer, made similar non-racist arguments for school vouchers at the same time, but later became an overt supporter of Jim Crow segregation. This, he argued, shows that Buchanan was also a Jim Crow segregationist. When I teach Evidence, I always struggle for examples of something that almost seems on point but doesn't quite meet even the incredibly lax relevancy standard of Federal Rule of Evidence 701. I'm going to use this one. I also joked on Facebook that whenever I need a good non sequitur in response to a question I don't want to respond to, I'm just going to say "Ernest Van den Haag."
(3) Several historians asserted more generally that James Buchanan was a segregationist. I noted that MacLean presents no evidence that he favored segregation, and that others have presented at least suggestive evidence that he did not. The response was that calling Buchanan a segregationist doesn't mean that he actually favored segregation, even though that's how every dictionary defines the word "segregationist." Rather, historians of the segregation era have their own definition of segregationist, which in essence means someone who didn't support the NAACP's strategy for combating segregation. (So one could personally and politically be against segregation, but still be a "segregationist" if a historian decides that you didn't oppose segregation in the way the historian thinks you should have.) I should note that I've done my own historical research on the era, and I don't agree that there is any sort of historical consensus that "segregationist" has that definition.
(4) A big theme of MacLean's book is that Buchanan inspired an effort to promote an anti-democratic putsch by the Koch Brothers. As Ilya Somin has explained, her conception of democracy doesn't make any sense, at least if one assumes that she supports standard limits on democracy widely supported by progressives. But other historians have come to the rescue, arguing that the United States is a democracy when it follows the will of the people, as opposed to the will of organized reactionary interest groups. The U.S., for example, was democratic in the 1930s and 1960s, but not in the 1950s or 1980s. Democracy, in other words, means "progressive politics are winning out." Lack of democracy means "progressive politics are not winning out." Because in a true democracy, the will of the people wins, and the will of the people is naturally liberal-democratic-socialist. So Roe v. Wade is a "democratic" decision, even though it overturned the abortion laws of almost every state, because progressives approve of it. I kid you not.
(5) Relatedly, one problem for those on the left who suddenly proclaim that democracy is the be all and end all is that they love anti-democratic decisions* such as Brown v. Board of Education. The response I received when this was pointed out is that Brown was in fact democratic despite being a Supreme Court ruling invalidating legislation, because black people couldn't vote in the segregated South, and therefore the South didn't really have democracy. When I pointed out that Brown itself arose in Topeka, Kansas, where black people could in fact vote, the basic answer was that if a democratic legislature did something that harmed minorities, it was really being undemocratic, because all working class people would recognize they have common interests if it wasn't for the evil reactionary interests manipulating them. In other words, if we see policies enacted that the left sees as reflecting class solidarity, we know it's democracy at work. If we see majoritarian racial solidarity, that's not democracy.
The historians I've discussed and debated with are not fringe-y. One of my interlocutors is a chaired professor at a major state university. Others are junior professors or grad students or post-docs or think tank fellows with degrees from some of our most reputable history programs.
Again, I'm not saying that these folks represent all historians, all American historians, or even all intellectual historians who speciaize in the U.S. Nevertheless, the fact that all of these arguments (and more) have been made with a straight face by well-credentialed historians suggests something is amiss in the profession.
*UPDATE: Just to be clear, I understand that Brown can be squared with various versions of "democratic theory." But MacLean's basic normative thesis is that the Kochs, using Buchanan's "intellectual software," and understanding that libertarian ideas are unpopular and can't be enacted via ordinary majororitarian processes, seek to undermine democracy as defined in majoritarian terms. Given that, one has to either concede that Brown is an example of "anti-democratic" constraints on majority rule, or concede that sometimes constraints on majority rule are a good thing, and can even enhance "democratic politics." But the latter concession would undermine any cohrent defense of MacLean's thesis that Buchanan and the Kochs should necessarily be condemned for seeking to put "democracy in chains." Instead, we'd have to have a debate on what sorts and in what contexts constraints on majoritarian democracy are sound, which is a good part of Buchanan's life work.
My correspondents, not wanting to make either of the concessions noted above, instead bypased them by essentially arguing that "democratic" means "producing policy outcomes that I approve of," and that we can therefore evade the counter-majoritarian basis of Brown by asserting the opinion's essential rightness. If we accept that assumption, then MacLean could have written a much shorter book, consisting of a few sentences showing how she disagrees with libertarianish philosophy, and then concluding, "Buchanan and the Kochs are anti-democratic because they support(ed) policy outcomes I don't approve of."