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 (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” (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 it, was to begin a Fabian war to re-establish 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.” (xv, emphasis in original reference).