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 ... 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.
MacLean doesn’t hide her antipathy to Buchanan’s goals. As a historian of American social movements, she brings this expertise to her study of Buchanan, showing how his work helped to sow doubt that anyone — whether individuals, groups or institutions — can act in the public good. Nevertheless, her overt moral revulsion at her subject can sometimes make it seem as if we’re getting only part of the picture ... With this book MacLean joins a growing chorus of scholars and journalists documenting the systematic, organized effort to undermine democracy and change the rules ... Power consolidation sometimes seems like a perpetual motion machine, continually widening the gap between those who have power and money and those who don’t. Still, Democracy in Chains leaves me with hope: Perhaps as books like MacLean’s continue to shine a light on important truths, Americans will begin to realize they need to pay more attention and not succumb to the cynical view that known liars make the best leaders.
MacLean persuasively weaves together biography, intellectual history, and political history to show how the public has been fooled by right-wingers who claim to value 'liberty,' but who actually intend the corporate takeover of public resources ... While the book has all the juiciness of a conspiracy theory — it’s highly readable and absorbing with a cast of characters drawn as carefully as they would be in a novel — it is also painstakingly researched and deeply intelligent. It is an urgent call to liberals to put down frivolous debates about whether Bernie would have won or whether Hillary invested too heavily in the discourse of identity politics. It’s an urgent call to conservatives to wrest back control of their party. It’s also a wake-up call about how desperately those of us who do not want to live in an autocracy need our institutions to survive, to stand up to the remarkable assault against them ... MacLean’s book is necessary reading for this moment. However, the book’s biggest oversight is its failure to detail how crucial the Evangelical element has been to the Koch strategy.
It's grim going; this isn't the first time Nancy MacLean has investigated the dark side of the American conservative movement, but it's the one that feels like it was written with a clock ticking down ... And it's painstakingly laid out. This is a book written for the skeptic; MacLean's dedicated to connecting the dots ... But this isn't a biography. Besides occasional asides, MacLean's much more concerned with ideology and policy. By the time we reach Buchanan's role in the rise of Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet (which backfired so badly on the people of Chile that Buchanan remained silent about it for the rest of his life), that's all you need to know about who Buchanan was. If you're worried about what all this means for America's future, you should be. The clear and present danger is hard to ignore. When nearly every radical belief the Buchanan school ever floated is held by a member of the current administration, it's bad news.
Is Buchanan of sufficient importance to sustain a narrative viewing him as the leader of a covert plan to transform America?...A tall order, no doubt—and far too tall. At times, MacLean sounds like the British writers who filled in the details of the lives of the Cambridge spies in elaborately plotted novels. She all but announces herself as a solitary truth-teller. She all but announces herself as a solitary truth-teller. If Buchanan and his friends want to change America, she argues, 'they should do it honestly and openly.' The trouble is that they did—and they still do. Buchanan, after all, won a Nobel Prize, which is not generally awarded to scholars who refuse to publish ... MacLean has nonetheless written a book that deserves attention. She is also, in my opinion, very much correct to conclude that this version of libertarianism 'actually wants a very strong government'—since any government that seeks to protect the few from the many, at least in a democracy, will require strong public authority to keep the majority in their place ... Democracy in Chains offers an essential guide to this strain of thought and the damage it has done.
Reading this book felt like a demisting of the window through which I see British politics. The bonfire of regulations highlighted by the Grenfell Tower disaster, the destruction of state architecture through austerity, the budgeting rules, the dismantling of public services, tuition fees and the control of schools: all these measures follow Buchanan’s programme to the letter. I wonder how many people are aware that David Cameron’s free schools project stands in a tradition designed to hamper racial desegregation in the American south ... Buchanan’s programme is a prescription for totalitarian capitalism. And his disciples have only begun to implement it. But at least, thanks to MacLean’s discoveries, we can now apprehend the agenda. One of the first rules of politics is, know your enemy. We’re getting there.
A worthy companion to Jane Mayer’s Dark Money (2017), MacLean’s intense and extensive examination of the right-wing’s rise to power is perhaps the best explanation to date of the roots of the political divide that threatens to irrevocably alter American government.
MacLean creates a chilling portrait of an arrogant, uncompromising, and unforgiving man, stolid in his mission to 'save capitalism from democracy' ... MacLean offers a cogent yet disturbing analysis of libertarians’ current efforts to rewrite the social contract and manipulate citizens’ beliefs—e.g., by spreading 'junk pseudo science' about climate change. An unsettling exposé of the depth and breadth of the libertarian agenda.
...an erudite, searing portrait ... MacLean examines the reach of this powerful group and its think tanks, such as Charles Koch’s Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. She has delivered another deeply important book that will interest general readers and scholars alike. Her work here is a feat of American intellectual and political history.