Duke University’s Nancy MacLean, professor of history and public policy, was in Providence Tuesday to talk about her recently released book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, about little known economist James M Buchanan, whose ideas shaped the Koch Brothers‘ bid to permanently disable the democratic process in favor of unrestrained free-market capitalism.
MacLean is a well-respected researcher and author with over a dozen prizes and awards for her scholarship. She was also a gracious visitor. Having been invited by the Brown University History Department to speak, MacLean asked that a local advocacy group be invited to host a community event as well. Rhode Island Jobs With Justice stepped up, hosting MacLean at the Bell Street Church.
What MacLean does in her book is trace the roots of the modern, extreme right wing to its sources in the Southern racist policies born out of the Brown v the Board of Education decision, and even earlier, to the rantings of the pro-slavery Senator John C Calhoun. The philosophy of and blueprint for the modern Koch-backed attack on democracy, public education and the social safety net in favor of unfettered capitalism and overt oligarchy finds its origins here.
Much of MacLean’s research came in the form of documents left behind when the institute Buchanan founded moved to new offices. Left behind was a treasure trove of documents through which the development of Buchanan’s ideas and the plans to implement them could be examined.
MacLean’s scholarship has come under attack from some reviewers who feel she reaches extraordinary conclusions on too little evidence, but the history of ideas and their influence is a tricky and sometimes subjective undertaking. While its sometimes impossible to determine the origin or importance of an idea when it comes to taking action, sometimes correlation does mean causation, it’s just not possible to prove conclusively.
That said, MacLean’s book, which I’ve read, is a powerful exploration of conservative ideas and their origins, with important, forgotten history and a bit of a mystery thrown in as well.
Justice Gaines moderated the event, which can be seen in its entirety here:
All photos for this piece are by Selene Means.