The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


'Why have so many . . . embraced such a transparently flawed book?'


To date, most of the criticism of Nancy MacLean's "Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America" has come from libertarian writers and academics. Not anymore. Henry Farrell and Steven Teles have an extended essay on discussing the book and the broader phenomenon of sloppy, conspiratorial thinking about political and intellectual movements. Their piece begins:

It's always hard in politics for people to take their opponents' views seriously, but it has become ever harder in Trump's America. People are more engaged with politics, but only because they want to beat the other side, not understand it. This means scholars have a greater responsibility than ever to help ordinary citizens understand how the people with whom they disagree think, and what their political opponents are actually doing.

Most scholars get this. For example, political scientists and historians, who tend to range from the political center to the left wing, have written extensively about the origins and development of American conservatism. . . .

This kind of work is not just important because it involves scholarly objectivity and generosity—although that is true. It's also important because even when it doesn't promote agreement, it promotes smarter politics. Intelligent partisans want to understand what truly motivates their opponents, so that they can learn from their adversaries, and even steal their good ideas. Superficially pleasing scare narratives about the other side may make us feel good, but they can drive poor strategic decision-making.

Farrell and Teles are exactly right here, and they would know as they've both contributed to this literature, Teles in particular.

Then they get to MacLean's book and the resulting controversy:

A deep, historical study of public choice would be welcome, and Buchanan's role in the development of the thought and organizational infrastructure of the right has generally been overlooked. Unfortunately, the book is an example of precisely the kind of work on the right that we do not need, and the intellectuals of the left who have praised it are doing their side no favors. . . .

While some on the left have hailed the book, libertarians and conservatives have attacked it online. Several have argued that MacLean misleadingly truncates quotes, to make it seem as if Buchanan and other libertarians such as Tyler Cowen are anti-democratic. While they obviously have a great deal of skin in the game, their critiques of the book have landed a number of solid blows. . . .

Those on the left might be inclined to think that the libertarian and conservative critics of the book are lashing out, or overemphasizing a few errors, because MacLean has revealed the dark side of one of their heroes and the unsavory modern history of their movement. Or alternatively, as MacLean has publicly claimed is the case, one might see this criticism as a counter-campaign by "Koch operatives" aimed at discrediting her. Yet while we do not share Buchanan's ideology—and we would love to read a trenchant critical account of the origins of public choice—we think the broad thrust of the criticism is right. MacLean is not only wrong in detail but mistaken in the fundamentals of her account.

And then there's the question of why this book, and conspiratorial accounts of political and intellectual movements more broadly, seem to be so popular.

Why have so many left-wing readers embraced such a transparently flawed book? The most persuasive explanation is that MacLean confirms and extends their deep preexisting suspicions. The book tells them how a single man with a single plan united neoliberal economists, the Kochs, and Republican operatives in a secretive plot against democracy, before he was undone in an internecine clash with Charles Koch, which MacLean depicts as a titanic clash between two ambitious leaders. Leftists and liberals are left with the belief that their opponents are all working in coordination, implementing a single master plan with fiendish efficiency, while they themselves are in hapless disarray.

MacLean's book is only the latest to make this kind of "master plan" argument, which more typically tends to focus on the so-called "Powell memo" of 1971, written by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell. (MacLean also discusses the memo, which urged business to organize and wield its power to preserve "the American economic system," which Powell thought was under siege.) Seemingly unbeknownst to MacLean, the claims that the memo was the master plan for conservative mobilization has been shrunk down to size by a number of scholars (including Teles's own The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, which MacLean cites extensively).

Conservatives have their own versions of a mythology portraying opponents as secretive plotters, focusing on such supposed puppet masters as George Soros, Saul Alinsky, and Frances Fox Piven. Each side assumes the existence of a flawless, ruthlessly executed plan on the other side, while bemoaning the chaos and excessive scruples that beset their own allies. It is always tempting to think that the other side is more organized, more motivated, and more seamlessly united than they are, since all one can see are their successes, and not the compromises, mistakes, and frustrations that lie behind those successes.

This is an important piece for those interested in the "Democracy in Chains" controversy. As they say, read the whole thing.

For links to various critiques on "Democracy in Chains," see this post and the various updates. I have solicited a reply to the various criticisms from MacLean and her publisher. I will post any response I get.