Once more unto the breach

An unusual event happened last week at Middle Tennessee State University, the alma mater of economist James M. Buchanan. Attempting to capitalize on that connection, the MTSU philosophy and religious studies department invited Duke University historian Nancy MacLean to deliver an attack on Buchanan based upon her book Democracy in Chains. MacLean gave her standard speech on this deeply flawed book. But something was different this time.

Whereas almost all of MacLean’s public appearances to date have taken place in front of intentionally friendly audiences, or with interviewers who supply a succession of softball questions, this time she received push back from the audience. MTSU economics professor Dan Smith, who also directs the research center bearing Buchanan’s name, presented MacLean with a question about her repeatedly-asserted connection between Buchanan and segregationist newspaper editor James J. Kilpatrick during the “massive resistance” movement against Brown v. Board of Education.

Kilpatrick is a central figure in MacLean’s thesis. He dominates the early chapters of her book, where she attempts to link Buchanan to the massive resisters. She repeatedly implies that Buchanan shared Kilpatrick’s affinities for the constitutional theories of John C. Calhoun, and even accuses Buchanan of secretly coordinating his advocacy of school vouchers with Kilpatrick’s attempts to stave off desegregation through the influence of his newspaper, the Richmond News-Leader.

But Kilpatrick is also a problem for MacLean. As readers of this blog know, evidence of MacLean’s oft-asserted link between Buchanan and Kilpatrick on “massive resistance” is essentially non-existent. In fact, I’ve found conclusive archival evidence from the timeline that shows Kilpatrick was not even aware of Buchanan and his colleague Warren Nutter’s essay on school vouchers until only a few days before it appeared in print in the rival Richmond Times-Dispatch in mid-April 1959.

During the Q&A period of her talk at MTSU, Smith attempted to present MacLean with a question about the accuracy of her portrayal of Kilpatrick. The full exchange may be seen on video here. When Smith raised a question about the problems with MacLean’s documentation, she suddenly interrupted him mid-sentence. While she never answered the question about Kilpatrick, she did personally attack Smith and her other critics, myself included.

I transcribed the pertinent section of the exchange below, beginning at the point where MacLean interrupts Smith and continuing until she finally permits him to finish his question (the exchange goes on from there with additional ad hominem attacks by MacLean, though she never actually answers the question about Kilpatrick). I submit that it exhibits the astoundingly partisan and unscholarly nature of MacLean’s entire project with Democracy in Chains:

(SMITH, asking his question about Kilpatrick at which point MACLEAN interrupts)

MACLEAN: You are reciting the libertarian talking points by faculty members funded by Charles Koch to go through my footnotes – people who know nothing about Virginia history. All Virginia historians are laughing at the gymnastics that they are doing to try to exculpate Buchanan from the reality of his history. Why don’t you guys just say – okay – yeah. He did these things. Now let’s talk about the world we’re trying to bring into being. I mean you can keep going through the listing, but it’s been disproved by all the historians who know anything about this period, and is kinda way in the weeds for people here. Maybe we should talk about – Dan Smith – weren’t you at Troy University? Didn’t you boast about – didn’t somebody boast you trying to take down the pension system in Alabama, and the firefighters of Alabama, 10,000 firefighters, mobilized and stopped the effort to take down the pension system? Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about the real consequences for people’s lives, and I’d be happy to share with people footnotes and documentation back and forth. But I stand by everything in my book.

SMITH: We can have an official debate. I’d love to.

MACLEAN: No thank you. What happens when one debates with folks from your team is you end up on Breitbart and Fox News and that’s when the real death threats and harassment start.

SMITH: Can I finish my question though?


SMITH: So, you make this association with Kilpatrick, right? But Buchanan only had – so if we go through the UVA archives there’s only 2 letters from Buchanan. One’s a form letter sent to multiple editors. The other’s a request to get a letter back – to get a copy of an op-ed that cited Buchanan. So there is essentially zero evidence of documentation with Kilpatrick between him and Buchanan.

MACLEAN: Can I ask you something? Are you a historian? Did you did that research, or whose research are you using?

SMITH: Phil Magness. He’s a historian

MACLEAN: Yeah. I know. He’s hired to write on this full time. Come on. Really. It is silly. Okay? First of all, these guys do not seem to understand. This is one thing that I have understood is that while the rest of the academy, history, social sciences…

SMITH: This is an ad hominem attack against me. I’m trying to ask you a question about…

MACLEAN: Alright. Go ahead. He wants to talk about James Kilpatrick in a footnote I wrote.

(Smith is then interrupted by the audience at this point before proceeding with the remainder of his question)

Note that while Smith remains calm and persists in presenting his question on perfectly reasonable grounds of detail and evidence, MacLean’s demeanor throughout pivots between evading the question entirely and heaping personal abuse upon her interlocutors.

At one point in reference to myself (after Smith mentioned my forthcoming article on her thesis), MacLean even claims that I am “hired to write on this full time” – apparently, in her increasingly conspiratorial mind, by the Koch Brothers. MacLean offers no source for this charge, and it is yet another falsehood that she makes up out of thin air (well, either that or I’m owed a large paycheck that I had no idea I would be receiving!).

Unlike MacLean, who received a $50,000 taxpayer subsidy to write her book on top of the extensive resources and sabbatical time she enjoys as an endowed chair at an elite university, I conducted my research on my own time and almost entirely out-of-pocket. I further did so while maintaining a full-time teaching load at a small liberal arts college. The only “Koch money” that even came near the project was a small grant of a couple hundred dollars that my one of my co-authors received to pay for photocopies and a newspaper database subscription, none of which made it into my pocket.

It is revealing to compare and contrast the results of our respective efforts. My archival study of Buchanan underwent rigorous peer review, and is now set to appear in a well-regarded economics journal. MacLean’s book, by contrast, went out on a trade press where it was marketed as an openly partisan political work. To this date, not one single page of of her book has undergone the scrutiny of formal peer review. That’s a remarkably shaky position for her to be in – especially when it is contrasted with the bombastic attacks found in her remarks as excerpted above.