“Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” by Nancy MacLean

An explosive, yet controversial, exposé of the right’s relentless campaign to eliminate unions, suppress voting, privatize public education, and change the Constitution.

***** Review Results *****

The club met to review and discuss “Democracy in Chains” on March 22, 2019. The final averaged results, on a five-point scale, are as follows:

Readability: 3.36

Content: 4.43

Overall: 3.93

Comments include-

“very interesting and disturbing”

“hard to read given the impact of our current political situation”

“great political book”

“fascinating backstory of the high-jacking of the Republican Party by extremist libertarians”

“Good insight. Not high on the readability scale” [most agreed that the book was somewhat cumbersome to read]

The book focuses on economist James McGill Buchanan, an economist who developed a hidden program for suppressing democracy on behalf of the very rich. It is reshaping politics. 
James McGill Buchanan’s career as the intellectual godfather of libertarianism starts at the University of Virginia in the mid-1950s and in direct response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

The Players:

James Buchanan, winner of the 1986 Nobel memorial prize for economics

Gordon Tullock

John C. Calhoun (1782-1850)-Prominent U.S. Statesman and Renowned Leading Voice for those Seeking to Preserve the institution of slavery.

Buchanan and Company Revered Calhoun and adopted many of his positions in an effort to continue state-supported racism

Friedrich August von Hayek-Famous (Infamous) Economist and the Book for which he is Known

Milton Friedman-Another Famous Economist

Friedman was not one to let authoritarianism get in the way of a good legal experiment. Ultimately, Chile paid a dear price for embracing extremist conservative ideology

Ludwig von Mises-Yet Another Economist who Would Prefer to Live in a World of Illiterate People

General and Former Dictator of Chile, Augusto J.R. Pinochet

Photos of the victims of the Pinochet regime

The Ever-Popular Koch Brothers

Conservative Commentator William F. Buckley Jr.

Remember this guy? He strongly objected to Eisenhower sending in the 101st Airborne to Central High Sch. in Little Rock to protect African-American students

The Mont Pelerin Society

The Mont Pelerin Society is an international classical liberal organization composed of economists, philosophers, historians, intellectuals and business leaders.

It is not too late to register for the January 2020 meeting in Texas! https://mpstexas.org/

Discussion Questions:

1). Buchanan’s public choice theory argued that a society could not be considered free unless every citizen has the right to veto its decisions. What he meant by this was that no one should be taxed against their will.

What do you think of that theory? How would it work in practice?

2). Voter rights suppression was practiced widely in the South. It was successful in preventing both the minority and poor vote. Voter suppression has found new life in legislation requiring voter identification. Further, conservatives steadfastly object to measures that would increase voter participation such as making Election Day a federal holiday.

Does learning the history and purposes of voter suppression as provided in this book change your perspective on such tactics? Given that voter fraud is extremely rare in this country, do these policies have legitimate bases? If so, what are they?

“What if we had an election day holiday and everybody came?”

3). The author describes the Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas incident where President Eisenhower used federal troops and power to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Would President Trump have done the same? Why or why not?

Arkansas National Guardsmen prevent African-Americans from entering Little Rock Central High School, September 1957
Elizabeth Eckford (right) attempts to enter Little Rock High School on Sept. 4, 1957, while Hazel Bryan (left) and other segregationists protest.
White Citizens Council propaganda broadside depicts the “devastation” unleashed on southern schools by the Supreme Court.

4). In 1980 Buchanan was invited to Chile, where he helped the Pinochet dictatorship (Pinochet staged his coup in 1973) write a new constitution, which, partly through the clever devices Buchanan proposed, has proved impossible to reverse entirely.

The results of this “experiment” was an economic collapse in 1982 and a 22% increase in the nation’s poverty rate (23% in 1970 to 45% 1987). Why does this not settle the issue as to the efficacy of Mont Pelerin Society proposals?

Despotism is easy to ignore when there is an opportunity presented to test your economic theories

5). Is Buchanan right in that there is an inherent conflict what he called “economic freedom” and political liberty?

6). Finally, this book is somewhat controversial. See, e.g., https://www.npr.org/sections/publiceditor/2017/08/14/542634650/readers-rankled-by-democracy-in-chains-review

Does this controversy impact your feelings about the book? Why or why not?

What, Me Worry?

Podcasts and Media:

For a comprehensive discussion of the purported flaws in MacLean’s analysis, see:

Michael C. Monger, “On the Origins and Goals of Public Choice: Constitutional Conspiracy?” Independent Institute (June 29, 2017).


Nancy MacLean on ‘Democracy in Chains, WBEZ, Public Radio, Chicago: https://www.wbez.org/shows/worldview/nancy-maclean-on-democracy-in-chains/b83f4f7a-b0b5-4915-a43a-5db9ff7c5bce

Democracy in Chains

Nancy MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke, describes how she brought her book ‘Democracy in Chains’ to life.

About the Author:

Nancy MacLean is an award-winning scholar of the twentieth-century U.S., whose new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, has been described by Publishers Weeklyas “a thoroughly researched and gripping narrative… [and] a feat of American intellectual and political history.” Booklist called it “perhaps the best explanation to date of the roots of the political divide that threatens to irrevocably alter American government.” http://bit.ly/2oJklds. A finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction, it won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Current Interest, the Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Award, and the Lillian Smith Book Award.

MacLean is the author of four other books, including Freedom is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace (2006) called by the Chicago Tribune “contemporary history at its best,” and Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan, named a New York Times “noteworthy” book of 1994. Her articles and review essays have appeared in American QuarterlyThe Boston ReviewFeminist Studies, Gender & History, In These Times, International Labor and Working Class HistoryLabor, Labor History, Journal of American History, Journal of Women’s HistoryLaw and History ReviewThe Nation, the OAH Magazine of History, and many edited collections.

Professor MacLean’s scholarship has received more than a dozen prizes and awards and been supported by fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Humanities Center, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowships Foundation. In 2010, she was elected a fellow of the Society of American Historians, which recognizes literary distinction in the writing of history and biography. Also an award-winning teacher and committed graduate student mentor, she offers courses on twentieth-century America, social movements, and public policy history. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s