Journalist Sam Tanenhaus, a former New York Times book editor who fancies himself an expert on the conservative movement (without actual evidence of such expertise), has penned a review of a shoddy attack book on the conservative movement by Duke University scholar Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.
Many fatal flaws in the book have been spotted by conservative journalists. David Bernstein gives many reasons to be dubious about the book’s veracity at the Washington Post, and a professor colleague of MacLean, Michael Munger, devastatingly showed that her book was “speculative historical fiction” when she turned the Nobel winning economist James Buchanan into a racist Bond villain, not a scholar motivated by a love for individual liberty.
But it’s getting predictable raves in the liberal press and among shallow, wishful thinkers like Tanenhaus, who has supposedly spent at least the last 17 years writing a biography of William F. Buckley but spends most of his time making false links of conservatives past and present to racism.
Tanenhaus’s latest attack-cum-review appears in the July/August 2017 issue of The Atlantic: “The Architect of the Radical Right – How the Nobel Prize-winning economist James M. Buchanan shaped today’s antigovernment politics.”
Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains is part of a new wave of historiography that has been examining the southern roots of modern conservatism. That lineage features episodes like the third-party presidential ticket headed by the Virginian T. Coleman Andrews in 1956, with its double-barreled attack on the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the federal income tax. Further back lies the breakaway Dixiecrat candidacy of the South Carolinian Strom Thurmond in 1948, after the Democratic Party added a civil-rights plank to its platform. Earlier still was the quixotic insurrection in 1936 led by Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge, the front man for something called the Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution. A Dixie offshoot of the more visible Liberty League, it shared that group’s conviction that “an ever spreading governmental bureaucracy” spelled “the end of democracy.”
All of this, so plainly in view but so strangely ignored, makes MacLean’s vibrant intellectual history of the radical right especially relevant. Her book includes familiar villains -- principally the Koch brothers -- and devotes many pages to think tanks like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, whose ideological programs are hardly a secret. But what sets Democracy in Chains apart is that it begins in the South, and emphasizes a genuinely original and very influential political thinker, the economist James M. Buchanan. He is not so well remembered today as his fellow Nobel laureates Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Yet as MacLean convincingly shows, his effect on our politics is at least as great, in part because of the evangelical fervor he brought to spreading his ideas.
Even Tanenhaus’s valid criticisms are couched in an innocuous tone, as if afraid of offending a leftist.
This is the language of a movement intellectual. But a movement isn’t the same thing as a conspiracy. One openly declares its intentions. The other keeps them secret. It’s not always clear that MacLean recognizes the difference. Nevertheless, she has dug deep into her material -- not just Buchanan’s voluminous, unsorted papers, but other archives, too -- and she has made powerful and disturbing use of it all....
Tanenhaus colors Buchanan with shades of Southern racism that had nothing to do with anything the man actually did or said: “Blood and soil”?
Buchanan owed his tenacity to blood and soil and upbringing. Born in 1919 on a family farm in Tennessee, he came of age during the Great Depression. His grandfather had been an unpopular governor of that state, and Buchanan grew up in an atmosphere of half-remembered glory and bitterness, without either money or useful connections. His exceptional mind was his visa into the academy and then into the world of big ideas....
Buchanan got his first plum teaching job at the University of Virginia, in 1956, during the single most crucial event in the birth of the modern conservative movement, the rise of the strategy of “massive resistance” to the Supreme Court’s mandate for school desegregation. Since the New Deal, conservatives like Herbert Hoover and Robert A. Taft had pushed back hard against the expanding federal government and its tentacular programs. But it was an uphill battle; the public was grateful for Social Security. Brown changed all that. More than the economic order was now under siege. So was a way of life, with its cherished “mores and folkways,” in the phrase favored by defenders of Jim Crow....
Tanenhaus gullibly swallowed MacLean’s method of guilt by nominal association to smear Buchanan as a Jim Crow fellow traveler.
Buchanan played a part, MacLean writes, by teaming up with another new University of Virginia hire, G. Warren Nutter (who was later a close adviser to Barry Goldwater), on an influential paper. In it they argued that the crux of the desegregation problem was that “state run” schools had become a “monopoly,” which could be broken by privatization....
A little reality peeked through:
Yet race, MacLean acknowledges, was not ultimately a major issue for Buchanan. Fending off desegregation was only a skirmish in the long campaign to revive antigovernment ideas. That campaign dated back to the nation’s founding, gained new strength in the pre–Civil War nullification arguments of John Calhoun, and reached its modern apogee in debates over taxes and spending....
Tanenhaus jumped from racist Buchanan in order to smear modern-day Republicans as fellow travelers, though what Social Security reform has to do with Jim Crow is questionable at best.
At his death in 2013, Buchanan was hardly known outside the world of economists and libertarians, but his ideology remains much in force. His view of Social Security -- a “Ponzi scheme” -- is shared by privatizers like Paul Ryan. More broadly, Buchananism informs the conviction on the right that because the democratic majority can’t really be trusted, empowered minorities, like the Freedom Caucus, are the true guardians of our liberty and if necessary will resort to drastic measures: shutting down the government, defaulting on the national debt, and plying the techniques of what Francis Fukuyama calls our modern “vetocracy” -- refusing, for example, to bring an immigration bill to a House vote lest it pass (as happened in the Obama years) or, in the Senate, defying tradition by not granting a confirmation hearing to a Supreme Court nominee.
To see all this as simple obstructionism, perversity for its own sake, is a mistake. A cause lies behind it: upholding the sanctity of an ideology against the sins of the majority. This is what drives House Republicans to scale back social programs, or to shift the tax burden from the 1 percent onto the parasitic mob, or to come up with a health-care plan that would leave Trump’s own voters out in the cold. To many of us, it might seem heartless. But far worse, Buchanan once explained in a famous essay, is misguided Good Samaritanism, which, by helping the unlucky, cushions them against the consequences of their bad choices. This is exactly the sentiment voiced by the House Republican who voted to strip away Obamacare and then explained that the new proposal, which punishes people with preexisting medical conditions, has the advantage of “reducing the cost to those people who lead good lives.”
Tanenhaus eventually admitted that the author “loathes” her subjects, but that’s a good thing:
With a researcher’s pride, MacLean confidently declares that Buchanan’s ideological journey, and the trail he left, contains the “true origin story of today’s well-heeled radical right.” Better to say that it is one story among many in the long narrative of conservative embattlement. The American right has always felt outnumbered, even in times of triumph. This is the source of both its strength and its weakness, just as it was for Buchanan, a faithful son of the South, with its legacy of defeats and lost causes. MacLean’s undisguised loathing of him and others she writes about will offend some readers. But that same intensity of feeling has inspired her to untangle important threads in American history -- and to make us see how much of that history begins, and still lives, in the South.