The Volokh Conspiracy

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


Did Nancy MacLean make stuff up in 'Democracy in Chains'?


Critics of "Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America" have accused its author, professor Nancy MacLean of Duke University, of mangling quotations to change their meaning, asserting facts that are not only false but are not supported by her own footnotes, and drawing wildly speculative conclusions about matters regarding which she has no documentary evidence. In short, critics accuse MacLean of making stuff up. Co-blogger Jonathan Adler links to many of these (and other) critiques in this post.

Many historians and others who have become aware of these criticisms have responded not by investigating the allegations, but by reasoning that MacLean is a respected historian, and respected historians don't just make things up, and therefore MacLean's critics must be wrong. (Adler also links to a couple of substantive defenses).

That's where her allegations of a coordinated conspiracy against her book come in. As Adler notes, MacLean was asked in her recent interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Do you have any evidence for your claim in that Facebook message [that you wrote] that the attacks on your work are 'coordinated'?"

She responded, "I'm not saying they called each other up and planned a series of critical responses to my book. What I'm saying is many of the critics come from similar backgrounds—they are libertarians who trained at or are employed by the very institutions I write about in my book."

In other words, no, she doesn't and didn't have any evidence of coordination. And she didn't just generally suggest in her Facebook message "coordination" in some vague sense, she provided details of a conspiracy that did not exist:

This will sound nutty, I know, but it's actually happening: the Koch operatives and the riders of their academic "gravy train," as James Buchanan called it, are working very hard to kill DEMOCRACY IN CHAINS -and to destroy my reputation (as they have done to climate change scientists and others bearing inconvenient truth).

It appears they are using Washington Post blogposts as a seemingly respectable pivot for a coordinated and interlinked set of calculated hit jobs. By using the WAPO blogposts, they make it appear to the ordinary web surfer that the WAPO itself is trashing my book when it's really the Koch team of professors who don't disclose their conflicts of interest and the operatives who work fulltime for their project to shackle our democracy. AND have used their bottomless wealth to buy Google "Top Stories" placement so their hits are what come up if I or the book is searched. (emphasis supplied)

Note that in her recent response, she drops all mention of the full-time "Koch operatives" who were supposedly involved in the conspiracy. And as I've noted previously, not only did no one buy Google "Top Stories" placement, it's impossible to do so. (And, for the record, Jonathan and I didn't coordinate the Volokh posts she referenced with each other, much less with "Koch operatives.") So should we just assume MacLean doesn't make things up? Draw your own conclusions.

Bonus criticism of "Democracy in Chains": On Page 189, MacLean refers to the Federalist Society as being created "with inspiration from Ed Meese." Her footnotes cite two sources. The first, a Ph.D. thesis, doesn't say anything about Meese inspiring the Federalist Society. The second is a famous 1985 speech by Ed Meese that doesn't mention the Federalist Society at all and couldn't have inspired its founding given that the Society was founded in 1982.