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  • Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean
  • Tula Connell
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America
Nancy MacLean
New York: Viking, 2017
368 pp., $28.00 (cloth); $14.99 (e-book)

If one word could encapsulate the current environment in the United States, divided would be a strong contender. The gap between the wealthiest and the rest of the nation is the widest in a century; scapegoating of and attacks on marginalized groups such as African Americans, women, and immigrants are at fever pitch; and emboldened white supremacists and widespread distrust of the media all have evaporated the arguably post–World War II “liberal consensus.”

Yet these developments have not emerged solely by chance, as historian Nancy MacLean brilliantly demonstrates in Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. The country’s extreme rightward turn and the dangerous divisions it has spawned are the result of a long-term strategic game plan by far-right actors, one based on redefining government, traditionally the country’s unifying force, as the enemy.

With its focus on economic conservatism, Democracy in Chains is in conversation with, even as its exploration of the movement’s intellectual roots departs from, the historiography of mid-century business conservatism examined by Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Kim Phillips-Fein, and Elizabeth Tandy-Shermer. Democracy in Chains is also part of the expanding scholarship on far-right postwar conservatism, such as Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, by Nicole Hemmer (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), and What’s Fair on the Air? Cold War Right-Wing Broadcasting and the Public Interest, by Heather Hendershot (University of Chicago Press, 2011). Until recently, scholars and contemporary analysts writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s were far more likely than later scholars studying the period to take seriously the extreme end of the conservative spectrum. MacLean’s work further documents the extent to which far-right actors laid the groundwork in the immediate postwar decades for their late twentieth-century political and economic ascendance.

MacLean’s narrative centers on James Buchanan, a mid-century economist whose papers she uncovered unaccessioned in a remote outpost at George Mason University. Over the course of several decades, as Buchanan set up economically and politically libertarian institutes at universities across the country, he refined his ideological opposition to government into a credible economic theory, cultivated a new generation of like-minded students, and ultimately connected with billionaires like the Koch brothers. MacLean argues that, in Buchanan, the Kochs found the intellectual architect of a strategy by which they could successfully accomplish their plans for a capitalism unfettered from democracy.

Significantly, MacLean also demonstrates the racism inherent in Buchanan’s anti-government crusade. Buchanan launched his career as an academic institute builder in [End Page 129] the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, a decision he regarded as forcing him and other taxpayers to pay for services—education for African American children—they did not want. In racially coded language, Buchanan argued throughout his life against those who, via government programs, sought to put their hands in the pockets of “productive” individuals.

Majority rule was not for men like Buchanan. Supreme Court decisions and federal laws enacted by democratically elected lawmakers, he believed, infringed on personal liberty. Eventually, Buchanan and his associates challenged what they saw as a government that catered to “collective” interests, such as labor and environmentalists, with a new economic theory they labeled “public choice.” Public choice rewarded individuals rather than the collective good. Unlike most economic analysis, public choice “focused on nonmarket decision-making—above all in government,” providing “the moral vocabulary for a political economy like that which had prevailed in the United States in the late nineteenth century, when property rights were nearly sacrosanct” (79–80).

MacLean scrupulously details how Buchanan single-mindedly pursued his vision through the years when his dogmatically one-sided approach and autocratic personality more than once spurred his removal by alienated university hosts. Eventually, his efforts achieved the ultimate vindication: In...


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pp. 129-131
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