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'Speculative historical fiction': Duke professors criticize colleague's award-nominated book

A Duke history professor’s latest book has gained critical acclaim, but not without drawing criticisms from two fellow Duke professors.

Nancy MacLean, William H. Chafe professor of history and public policy, released “Democracy in Chains: the Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America” this past summer to national attention. The work—which focuses on the effects of the late economist James M. Buchanan—is one of five texts included on the shortlist for a National Book Award.

However, Georg Vanberg, chair of the political science department, and Professor of Political Science Michael Munger have publicly written about problems they see with the text, with Munger going so far as to call it a “work of speculative historical fiction.” 

“The book traces the history of an idea—the idea of enchaining modern democratic government, as developed by James Buchanan,” MacLean told The Chronicle of Higher Education a few months back. “It shows how the idea came to appeal to an extremely wealthy and messianic individual, Charles Koch, who has harnessed it and organized other extremely wealthy donors to fund efforts, staffed by thousands of people, to radically alter our government in ways that will be devastating to millions of people and already seem to be producing an utterly unsustainable society in terms of social norms and governance.”

She noted that in telling the story of a man who believed that “government failed” because of self-interest seeking actors, she became fixated on the effects of the movement Buchanan was a part of, that she said could constitute “a fifth-column assault on American democratic governance.”

John Martin, chair of the history department, wrote in an email that the nomination is a mark of pride for the department.

“‘Democracy in Chains’ is a beautifully-written and courageous book that has the rare quality of reaching a broad public and sparking a national conversation,” he wrote. “For me, it is evidence that history remains a vital discipline for trying to make sense of our present political moment.”

Duke professors’ critiques

Munger, who penned a review of the book for The Independent Institute, called out MacLean for not consulting Duke’s political science department as she wrote it.

He wrote that several resources at Duke included Georg Vanberg—also a political science professor and current president of the Public Choice Society—and Geoffrey Brennan—research professor of political science, past PCS president and one of Buchanan’s colleagues.  

Munger wrote that he, too, is a past president of PCS. He wrote in an email to The Chronicle that he has 35 years of knowledge of Buchanan and his work, but that MacLean never reached out to any of the three professors.

“The reason this matters is that all three of us—Brennan, Munger and Vanberg—can attest that Buchanan was extremely cautious about the propriety of taking money from sources that attached any kinds of strings or conditions to a grant,” he wrote.

Vanberg told The Chronicle he was disappointed by MacLean’s response, in that he felt she has not responded to others’ substantive critiques about out-of-context quotations or misunderstandings about public choice theory. 

He argued that Buchanan was not interested in day-to-day politics, and that his work was primarily “abstract economic and political philosophy.” He also rejected claims that Buchanan acted out of bad motives.

“I think what motivated Buchanan in the end was trying to think about how we make political order and political institutions that are to the benefit of everybody,” he said. “You may disagree with his approach or his conclusions, but that’s the thing that really motivated him.”

Munger wrote that though MacLean cannot be accused of fabricating facts, the book’s substantive conclusions are “idiosyncratic interpretations of the facts that she selects from a much larger record, as is common in the speculative-history genre.”

“As an actual history, as a reliable account of the centrality of the work of James Buchanan in a gigantic conspiracy designed to end democracy in America, it turns far away from its mark,” he wrote. 

MacLean’s defense

The Chronicle emailed MacLean a list of nine questions in August. Citing her busy schedule promoting the book, she declined to answer. However, she pointed to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education and an August podcast as addressing most of the questions presented. 

With regard to concerns that she did not reach out to Buchanan scholars at Duke, MacLean said on the podcast that she made it a point to not reach out to them. 

“I have been attacked by some people [at Duke], but again with deep undisclosed conflicts of interest,” MacLean said. “I don’t know them, I don’t engage them and I didn’t reach out to them precisely because I understood that they had ties to this project and I didn’t want to alert Charles Koch’s broad team of people who either are employed by organizations he funds or are scholar grantees of his.”

In private correspondence with other Duke political science faculty, she said she was told “they have felt bullied by the people who are criticizing me.” These unnamed faculty, she said, were happy the book was published. 

She added that she has identified two themes among her critics. First, that they have not read her book and pointed out small flaws on individual points. Second, that her critics are often funded by the Koch network. 

But MacLean said she paid Buchanan the ultimate respect by reading as much of his work as she could get her hands on. 

In her interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, MacLean said that one way to view the backlash is as a “backhanded compliment.”

“This kind of strong reaction can suggest that a work is timely and important and lead more people to want to check it out,” she said.

‘Author meet critics’

When Vanberg spoke to The Chronicle, he suggested an open and honest debate to engage in further intellectual discussion.

“I could imagine having a kind of campus event in the Fall—author meets critics,” Vanberg explained. “I can’t imagine doing that kind of event in a setting in which the provision is going to be that anybody who disagrees with MacLean or who defends Jim Buchanan’s work must be a racist interested in preserving white privilege.”

In the list of nine questions sent to MacLean, The Chronicle relayed Vanberg’s request for a debate. As of publication, MacLean has not responded to that request.

Bre Bradham

Bre is a senior political science major from South Carolina, and she is the current video editor, special projects editor and recruitment chair for The Chronicle. She is also an associate photography editor and an investigations editor. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief and local and national news department head. 

Twitter: @brebradham



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