2017 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction

Nancy MacLean

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean Nancy MacLean
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America
(Viking / Penguin Random House)

ISBN: 9781101980965

National Book Foundation: Why did you write this book?
Nancy MacLean: I wrote Democracy in Chains by accident. I set out to study Virginia’s response to Brown v. Board of Education, especially its decision to issue vouchers to fund all-white private schools. That led me to Milton Friedman. But then I came across two references to someone I had never heard of, James Buchanan, who I learned had pioneered a new way of thinking about government. What came of those ideas? I had to find out. What I never imagined is that Buchanan supplied the ideas which the radical right has turned into a strategy for taking apart the modern liberal state. It was Buchanan, I discovered, who taught Charles Koch that for capitalism to thrive, democracy must be enchained.
Foundation: What’s your favorite bookstore or library?
MacLean: I have been visiting the Manuscript Reading Room of the Library of Congress since I was a student in the 1980s. It never fails to awe me that its archives contain so many of the stories that made us who we are today. And I love that a few of the same committed civil servants who guided me as a novice are still helping dozens of researchers every day. Where would we be without them?

judges' citation

Following the scattered paper trail of the late James M. Buchanan—a relatively obscure University of Virginia economist—historian Nancy MacLean provides a riveting story of revelations. It was Buchanan, alarmed by the 1954 Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision, who provided the blueprint for the radical right’s libertarian movement financed by billionaire activists such as Charles Koch. The author’s extensive research has unearthed the movement’s stealthy—and increasingly successful—efforts to limit participatory democracy through Constitutional means.


Behind today’s headlines of billionaires taking over our government is a secretive political establishment with long, deep, and troubling roots. The capitalist radical right has been working not simply to change who rules, but to fundamentally alter the rules of democratic governance. But billionaires did not launch this movement; a white intellectual in the embattled Jim Crow South did. Democracy in Chains names its true architect—the Nobel Prize-winning political economist James McGill Buchanan—and dissects the operation he and his colleagues designed over six decades to alter every branch of government to disempower the majority.

About the Author

Nancy MacLean is the award-winning author of Behind the Mask of Chivalry, a New York Times “noteworthy” book of the year, and Freedom Is Not Enough, which was called by the Chicago Tribune “contemporary history at its best.” She is the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University and lives in North Carolina.


- TWITTER: @NancyMacLean5

(Photo credit: Bruce Orenstein)


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