An exposé of the libertarian right’s relentless campaign to eliminate unions, suppress voting, privatize public education, and change the Constitution, focusing on the man MacLean calls the plan's true architect: the Nobel Prize-winning political economist James McGill Buchanan.
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.