It is a dicey business for scholars housed at academic institutions to embark on projects to influence public opinion and practical politics. That is one of the relentless premises of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, a scurrilous attack on James M. Buchanan that is written as a screed, published with a popular press, and suffused on every page with an obvious intent to influence public opinion and practical politics.
MacLean, the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University, might better have entitled the work, which is pervaded with innuendo and guilt by association, “Six Degrees of Jim Buchanan.” His constitutional focus on veto points is similar to John C. Calhoun’s; Buchanan is therefore tarred by association with Calhoun’s racial views. Buchanan came to prominence in Virginia when the state was under the thumb of the segregationist U.S. Senator Harry Byrd. Byrd’s beliefs on voter suppression are unfurled in tandem with Buchanan’s story, inviting the reader to infer a phantom link between them. Likewise the implied association of Buchanan with the full range of the Virginia journalist James J. Kilpatrick’s views.
National Journal, contributing to the perennial wringing of hands among the political puritans who comment on affairs of state, has proclaimed super PACs to be an “existential threat to the old order.” These groups are said to have overwhelmed the once-intimate bond between candidates, parties, and voters.
To whom does Jefferson belong in today’s political debates? The reality, it seems, is everyone. Quotes can be found on almost any topic expressing virtually any sentiment, in large measure because unlike so many others of his day, Jefferson saved everything.
That’s why I am rarely bothered by either side of the political spectrum quoting him. What does bother me, though, is when people who ought to know better think they can claim Jefferson, exclusively, enlisting his pen in their ideological causes.
Richard Eskrow ought to know better.