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Democracy in Chains

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Democracy in Chains

The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America


15 min read
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Learn how compassionate conservatism became today’s take-no-prisoners, hardline right.

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Powerful oligarchs have hijacked America’s institutions and successfully pushed a radical agenda of union busting, tax cutting and prison privatization. How did US conservatism end up on this path? According to Duke University historian Nancy MacLean, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan lay the groundwork for a libertarian, anti-democratic plan now financed by the billionaire Koch brothers. When published in 2017, MacLean’s book won wide acclaim, though some scholars caught her in misquotes and general overreach. Democracy in Chains merits a perusal – followed by a Google search.


James Buchanan found ideological allies at the University of Chicago.

James Buchanan was born in 1919 in Gum, Tennessee. Though he would later claim to have grown up poor, Buchanan’s dairy farming family was prosperous compared with their neighbors. The intellectually precocious Buchanan studied at Middle Tennessee State Teachers College and earned a scholarship for a master’s degree at the University of Tennessee. He served in the US Navy during World War II and then headed to the University of Chicago to earn a doctorate in economics. There, he found economists who regarded the New Deal as socialism and otherwise supported “antigovernment” sentiments.

Buchanan arrived in Chicago at an inflection point in economic theory: Milton Friedman was ushering in a new era of mathematically-minded economic ideas. But Buchanan found himself drawn to questions of social contract and governance. He turned his attention to the issue of how to undermine public confidence in big government. After teaching appointments at the University of Tennessee and Florida State, Buchanan became chair of the economics department at the University of Virginia. 

About the Author

Nancy MacLean is the award-winning author of Behind the Mask of Chivalry and Freedom Is Not Enough. She is the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University.

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