Was Nancy MacLean Secretly Influenced By the Ideas of Joe McCarthy?!

by Don Boudreaux on July 17, 2017

in History, Myths and Fallacies

Other commitments prevent me from now responding more fully to this attempted defense of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains by Andy Seal.  But I can’t resist now calling attention to his argument that MacLean is within her scholarly rights to claim, as she does, that James Buchanan was influenced in his world view by the writings both of the apologist for racism John C. Calhoun and of the southern agrarian Donald Davidson, two authors who Buchanan never cited in any of his vast published works.  (As I mentioned in this earlier post, I knew Jim for the final 28 years of his life and spent quite a bit of time with him.  I do not recall Jim once mentioning Calhoun or Davidson.  And as Jeff Tucker points out about Davidson, many of his core views and values were ones that Buchanan consistently opposed.)

The part of Seal’s argument that I focus on here is footnote #3 in his essay:

There’s a kind of sub-argument here about whether MacLean can make inferences about the intellectual influence of writers on Buchanan when they don’t show up as explicit references in Buchanan’s published writings. Basically, if Buchanan doesn’t say, “hey, I got the idea of calling the overreaching state Leviathan when I read Donald Davidson,” is it fair to say that there’s still a probable connection given that Davidson was active in the same state Buchanan grew up in at the time of his intellectual formation? I would argue that yes, that’s a permissible inference, but not one that you should rest other important arguments on. (Which MacLean doesn’t.) I’m pretty sure that I have all kinds of intellectual influences rattling around in my head that I’ll never think to acknowledge explicitly—but that doesn’t mean that if someone else points them out they’re doing something underhanded.

Seal’s argument is strange, to say the least.  I’m no professional historian, but I cannot believe that it is a norm among historians to conclude that the controversial views of X were held by, and influenced the writings of, Y – Y who never cites or mentions X in any of his writings – simply because X “was active in the same state Y grew up in at the time of his intellectual formation.”  Of course, Seal would likely respond by saying that it’s more than merely being in the same state at the same time; an additional connection which justifies concluding that X was a significant influence on Y is that X’s and Y’s views are similar in some regards.

Again, Jeff Tucker demolishes the notion that Buchanan’s views overlapped much with those of Donald Davidson or with any of the other southern agrarians; in fact, Buchanan disagreed with a great deal of what was held dear by the southern agrarians.  (See also this piece by Art Carden.)  But let’s here ignore that fact (despite it being rather decisive against MacLean’s case and Seal’s apology for that case).  Instead, keep in mind that MacLean purports to have written a book of history, significant parts of which are passed off as intellectual history.  How can it be legitimate for an historian to attribute the controversial views of Davidson to Buchanan when Buchanan never mentions Davidson?  I simply do not see how any such attribution – given, as MacLean might say, the “totality” of her project – can be excused.  It’s either an intentional lie by MacLean or, more likely, egregiously sloppy scholarship on her part.  Imagining that which might be – and having available some circumstances that can be pointed to in support of that which is imagined (‘Y grew up in the same state where X taught and wrote!’) – doesn’t begin to come close to establishing the claim that “Y’s worldview and work were influenced by that of X.”  A serious and honest scholar does not attribute to someone important influences based on so utterly flimsy a case.  (The evidence for MacLean’s “case” is so non-existent that to call it a “case” is, really, to give it too much credit.)  There is no historical evidence for MacLean’s asserted connection between Buchanan and Donald Davidson.  None.

If you remain skeptical of my dismissal of Seal’s defense of MacLean’s case, you’ll likely find merit in the following hypothesis:

A major influence on the views of Nancy MacLean is Joe McCarthy.  It’s true that MacLean never credits McCarthy with helping to form her worldview, and many of MacLean’s expressed views are quite the opposite of those of McCarthy.  But MacLean graduated from the University of Wisconsin – the flagship university of the state that Joe McCarthy represented in the U.S. Senate.  Born just a few short years after McCarthy served in the Senate and conducted his famous witch hunts, MacLean also is pretty closely aligned in time with McCarthy.  My insistence that MacLean was deeply taken with, and influenced by, McCarthy’s views is further supported by the close similarity of their views: just like McCarthy, MacLean accuses people of actions and thoughts with little or no direct evidence to support the accusations.  Also like McCarthy, MacLean tars those whom she wishes to discredit with innuendo and illogical inferences.  And like McCarthy, MacLean – with zero evidence – infers the existence of conspiracies against all that she holds dear.

Now let me quickly remind the reader that I do not really believe that Joe McCarthy was an influence on the ideas and ideals held now by Nancy MacLean.  Although MacLean does exhibit in her work some traits that might be interpreted by the dogmatic or the ungenerous to be similar to some of Joe McCarthy’s infamous traits, there is in fact absolutely nothing approaching real evidence for anyone to tar Nancy MacLean as being an intellectual disciple of Joe McCarthy.  And yet if we take seriously Mr. Seal’s defense of MacLean’s claims about a connection between Buchanan and Davidson, then I see no reason – using this bizarre method of historical “research” and argument – to reject my fanciful claim about a connection between MacLean and McCarthy.

The same non-existent connection between Buchanan and Davidson is (non-) existent between Buchanan and Calhoun.  But I’ve other work now to do so I’ll leave for later a comment on Buchanan, libertarianism, and Calhoun.

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