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Nancy MacLean: Just how reliable is her scholarship? (©Scribe UK)

The rise of America’s radical Right is one of the most underappreciated stories of the last 50 years of American history.

You’ve doubtless read about the counter-cultural Left, the Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock, but are you familiar with, say, the Young Americans for Freedom and their 1969 convention, where an angry young libertarian burned his draft card, starting a brawl with the meeting’s more conservative delegates and opening up a lasting split on the American Right? If you want to understand the US today, these shenanigans are just as important as Pete Seeger protest songs.

The Right’s revolutions and fissions also make for a colourful tale, featuring bold ideas — some good, others abominable — and an irresistible cast of iconoclasts, zealots, scoundrels and heroes. 

That, however, is not how Nancy MacLean, Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke Univeristy, sees it. To read Democracy in Chains is to see what should be an ensemble play put on as a one-man show. That man is James M. Buchanan, the Nobel prize-winning architect of public choice theory. According to MacLean, to recount Buchanan’s career is to tell the “utterly chilling story of the ideological origins of the single most powerful and least understood threat to democracy today: the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance”. 

Given the importance she gives to Buchanan, MacLean starts with a surprising confession: before she started work on Democracy in Chains she hadn’t heard of the famous economist. Should we admire her honesty or be appalled at her ignorance? That an expert on public policy had never heard of one of the 20th century’s most influential theorists of how and why public servants do the things they do is hardly a good start. But when his name kept cropping up in Milton Friedman’s footnotes, MacLean was intrigued. “He seemed to be someone with big ideas,” she writes. Her curiosity takes her to the “unlisted” Buchanan archives at George Mason University, Virginia, where he once taught. We are treated to an account of her trip to the “deserted” clapboard mansion: “There were file cabinets everywhere — even, I soon learned, in a closet under a stairwell.” In the over-excited language of an airport thriller writer, she describes Buchanan’s old study and her discovery there of confidential letters from the Koch brothers, the billionaire backers of Buchanan and numerous right-wing causes and, in the eyes of the Left, the essence of all that is wrong with American politics: “Catching my breath, I pulled up an empty chair and set to work.”

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