Academic journal article Independent Review

On the Origins and Goals of Public Choice: Constitutional Conspiracy?

Academic journal article Independent Review

On the Origins and Goals of Public Choice: Constitutional Conspiracy?

Article excerpt

This essay is a response to the recent book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America by my Duke University colleague Nancy MacLean, a professor in our distinguished Department of History.

It is, let me say at the outset, a remarkable book.

At first, I misunderstood its method. MacLean has argued persuasively throughout her career for the historical method. For example, in Debating the American Conservative Movement: 1945 to the Present (coauthored with Donald T. Critchlow), she writes: "We hope this book will help students learn that the strongest, most tenable positions are arrived at through careful sifting of evidence and respectful encounters with opposing points of view" (Critchlow and MacLean 2009, viii).

So perhaps I can be forgiven for my misunderstanding of her method in this book. Early in Democracy in Chains, in a preface entitled "A Quiet Deal in Dixie," MacLean recounts an exchange, a conversation really, between two conservatives. One is the president of a major southern university, the other is an academic worker intent on reverse engineering a repressive sociopolitical order in America, working from the ground up, using shadowy methods and discredited theories.

The academic writes a proposal for a research center where these ideas can be given a pestilential foothold, a source of viral infection hidden in a legitimate academic setting. The goal, as MacLean tells of the exchange, is to begin a Fabian war to reestablish a repressive, plutocratic society ruled by oligarchs. MacLean has actually examined the founding documents, the letters in this exchange, and cites the shadowy academic as saying, "I can fight this [democracy].... I want to fight this" (p. xv, emphasis in MacLean's original).

In his proposal, the professor expands on the theme, which I quote directly from Democracy in Chains: "Find the resources, he proposed to [the university president], for me to create a new center on the campus of the University ... and I will use this center to create a new school of political economy and social philosophy" (p. xv, emphasis in MacLean's original). Wow! That's pretty big stuff".

Except ... there's something odd. The italicized text in the quotations is written in the first person and is also italicized in MacLean's book. But the italicized passage is not placed within quotation marks there, and there's no footnoted source citation.

I was curious about both omissions, so I tracked down the founding documents themselves: "Working Papers for Internal Discussion Only--General Aims" (1959) and "The Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy and Social Philosophy" (1956) (both in Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville). And it turns out that the reason there are no quotation marks and no footnote is that this exchange, in particular the first-person italicized portion, never took place. It's not a quote. No, seriously: It's not a quote. It's made up. Fabricated. Fictional.

MacLean, to her credit, never claims it is a quote, although a careless reader could be excused for thinking it is, given the first-person voice and the italics. Once I realized that this was the approach, the larger point became clear: Democracy in Chains is a work of speculative historical fiction. There is considerable research underpinning the speculation, and because MacLean is careful about footnoting only things that actually did happen, she cannot be charged with fabricating facts. But most of the book and all of its substantive conclusions are idiosyncratic interpretations of the facts that she selects from a much larger record, as is common in the speculative-history genre. There is nothing wrong about speculation, of course, but there is nothing persuasive about it, either, in terms of drawing reliable conclusions about history.

The reason that Democracy in Chains is remarkable is that it is such a great story. …

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