U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Promise and Perils of Popular History

More than any other academic discipline, historians like to imagine ourselves writing for a broad audience. Unlike most other academic disciplines, there is a broad audience for history. But the history that the general public consumes is often not written by academics and often concerns a small range of subjects: the Civil War, World War II, a handful of presidents. The notion that we academic historians are writing for a broad audience beyond the academy is a myth, though a productive one. That largely imagined general, literate audience does lead to some admirable traits of academic history. It discourages the hermeticism and abstruseness that more frequently plagues writing in other humanistic disciplines. But when we as historians actually want to reach a broader audience, we need to alter our usual practice.[1]

Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains is quite intentionally aimed at a broader audience. And it is a particular kind of history for a broader audience.  MacLean’s book is written as history that the reader can use…though not in the sense of a “usable past,” that oft-repeated coinage of Van Wyck Brooks. Brooks saw the past as:

an inexhaustible storehouse of apt attitudes and adaptable ideals; it opens of itself at the touch of desire; it yields up, now this treasure, now that, to anyone who comes to armed with a capacity for personal choices.[2]

MacLean’s book comes from a darker tradition, one that sees in the past not ripe possibilities, but portents of disasters of the present and possibly to come. In that sense it is similar to Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (1990), which tells the history of the built environment of Los Angeles as if it were a dark novel by Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, or Thomas Pynchon, but which was something of a bible among activists in California in the early 1990s.  Like Davis’s book, MacLean’s bears a family resemblance to the jeremiad, though unlike a true jeremiad, these books are written with a sense that learning of a dark past that makes the present seem even worse than the reader might have thought can empower him or her to change the future.

One of the reasons historians don’t generally write for a broader audience is that the traditional requirements of a work of academic history are to a certain extent at cross-purposes with the goals of a work of popular history. Academic history is not usually history you can use. And popular history frequently lacks the rigor of academic history. It’s worth briefly noting how Democracy in Chains, a popular work by an academic historian, draws from both traditions.

Unusually for a work of popular history, Democracy in Chains is built on the sort of extensive primary-source research and knowledge of secondary literature that we expect from a work of academic history.  Even more unusually for a work of popular history – especially these days – the book has extensive endnotes. Both MacLean and her publisher deserves to be praised for this.

But MacLean does not give us many of the things we might expect in a work of academic history. In particular, we academics are used to historians’ carefully placing monographs in the context of other works of history and spelling out how their books advance historical knowledge.  There is very little of that in Democracy in Chains.  The book certainly opens up further lines of historical inquiry, as Kurt Newman suggests in his piece in this roundtable, but it does not spell these out very carefully. MacLean’s principle goal here is not advancing academic history.  And MacLean does not always display the kind of terminological precision we might expect from a more academic book.  A number of reviewers, including Lawrence Glickman in his contribution to this roundtable have expressed some frustration with her definition of democracy (or lack thereof). Democracy in Chains often expects that the reader will know democracy when s/he sees it.[3]

As a number of defenders of the book have pointed out, many of the attacks on Democracy in Chains flow from treating the book as something that it is not, e.g., an intellectual biography of James Buchanan, an internalist account of the development of public choice theory, or an attempt to offer a comprehensive history of the libertarian strain of American conservatism.  But unlike an academic book, MacLean never stops to tell us exactly what her project is. She largely lets her work speak for itself. Toward the end of the book, on p. 234, she offers what amounts to a summary of her argument:

The libertarian cause, from the time it first attracted wider support during the southern schools crisis, was never really about freedom as most people would define it. It was about the promotion of crippling division among the people so as to end any interference with what those who held vast power over others believed should be their prerogatives. Its leaders had no scruples about enlisting white supremacy to achieve capital supremacy. And today, knowing that the majority does not share their goals and would stop them if they understood the endgame, the team of paid operatives seeks to win by stealth.

This passage is also typical of the not-very-academic tone of the book: MacLean is openly choosing sides and she considers her opponents – most notable Buchanan and Charles Koch – to be evil.

But notice what the passage does not claim. It makes no claim about the personal racial attitudes of Buchanan and other libertarians, though it does argue that they were willing to “enlist white supremacy” to achieve their ends. It does not describe a conspiracy, pace Carl Weinberg. It does not claim to be telling a comprehensive history of conservatism. But it does, as Lawrence Glickman points out, narrate the history it does tell as the story of a few intellectuals and the ideas they bring to bear on the public sphere.[4] And while I disagree with Carl Weinberg that the book tells of a conspiracy, he’s right that it draws on the language of conspiracy. I think MacLean is very careful to steer clear of actually arguing for the existence of conspiracies, except on the few occasions that she has evidence for them.

Nonetheless, the book absolutely has what Weinberg calls a “conspiratorial tone.” As he notes, it’s highlighted in the book’s subtitle – “The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.”  Is this, as Weinberg argues, an instance of Hofstadter’s “paranoid style” in American politics? Or is it something else?

One of the primary ways in which we historians describe our craft is by describing ourselves as detectives.  We investigate the past, uncover facts that have been buried or forgotten, and through doing so arrive at a better understanding of the present.[5]  The idea that there are things to be found, in the archives or at any rate in primary sources, that are generally unknown but that contain important truths that help us explain the past is pretty central to our enterprise.

Beyond the academy, there’s also a popular hunger for secret histories, a hunger which perhaps gets us closer to Hofstadter’s “paranoid style.” Mike Davis’s City of Quartz is very much a story of secret histories, as its literary debts to Chandler and Pynchon suggest. And this was – and is – part of its appeal to its popular audience. The notion that there’s something – an object or a text — hidden somewhere that, if we knew of it, we’d suddenly understand the world has deep cultural roots. This is the illusion at the heart of Citizen Kane, though Orson Welles and his screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz were clever enough to question the enterprise – the hunt for the meaning of Charles Foster Kane’s last word, “Rosebud” – that structures their film.  At the end of the film, the reporter Thompson (William Alland) has failed in his quest to discover the meaning of “Rosebud,” but he concludes that he wouldn’t have answered any questions if he had found its meaning: “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life.” Of course, unlike Thompson, the audience does find out the meaning of “Rosebud” in the film’s famous conclusion. And yet, it’s hard to argue with Thompson. “Rosebud” is just a “piece of the puzzle.” But Welles is happy to indulge our desire that there be a secret key to Kane: he cinematically treats the object that the word refers to as just such an answer, even if it really isn’t one.

In a way, I think MacLean is engaged in a similar enterprise here. In perfectly mundane, and academically acceptable terms, she writes about herself as a sleuth, discovering documents in the archives that have not been written about before (p. xviii-xx). But she also uses that tone of conspiracy that bothers Carl Weinberg.  What she doesn’t do is ever actually argue that she has discovered the one secret that will reveal the true history of conservatism and of American politics today…though the book’s subtitle unfortunately seems to promise this.

At least two things separate the historian as detective from Hofstadter’s “paranoid style.” First, the secrets we historians reveal are usually hidden because of the passage of time, not because some nefarious historical actor has locked them away out of sight.  Though, of course, sometimes we do encounter things in the archives that nefarious historical actors have actually tried to lock away.

Secondly, though paranoid views of history can be complicated, in the world of conspiracy theories, there is a single, actual truth…if we can find it.  The Kennedy assassination in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) is mysterious and complicated. But if somehow one can penetrate the conspiracies, there is a truth to be found, as Mr. X (Donald Sutherland) assures Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) toward the end of the film. This is not the postmodern world of Don DeLillo’s Libra (1988), another fictionalized account of the Kennedy assassination, but one that essentially suggests there is no truth of the matter to be found. The Oliver Stone vision of the past has broader appeal. Witness the popular tendency in some progressive circles to treat the Powell Memorandum (1971) as the secret key to everything that followed it in U.S. politics. The Memorandum, is of course, very real. It was initially intended for a private, powerful audience. And it was written by a man who would soon after serve as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court.  But most historians would tell you that the Powell Memorandum is more like Rosebud turns out to be.  It’s a piece in the puzzle, not the key to it all.

In my reading, MacLean appeals to that popular (perhaps paranoiac?) desire for secret histories, while ultimately treating her material as just an important piece of a larger puzzle. I suppose the question is whether using the language of conspiracy is, as Carl Weinberg suggests, playing with fire, or whether it’s a sensible way to package significant material in a form that’s likely to engage with an audience that might find it very useful.  Though I have to admit that the tone of conspiracy occasionally made me a little uncomfortable, I entirely share MacLean’s sense of the importance of this story reaching a broader audience.


  1. I’ve blogged about these issues in the past.
  2. Van Wyck Brooks, “On Creating a Usable Past,” The Dial, April 11, 1918.
  3. Like Glickman, I think her argument about democracy is absolutely coherent, but a number of the criticisms of the book rest on misinterpreting what she means by the term.
  4. This is, in fact, the way a lot of conservative intellectual historians narrate the history of conservatism. George Nash’s classic The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, Since 1945 takes this approach to the topic.  While I share Glickman’s sense that this approach has its limits, it has a pretty good pedigree.
  5. This metaphor actually crosses the academic / popular divide. We use it in our internal discussions of methodology. Courses, like the University of Oklahoma’s HIST 2573: The History Sleuth, are built around it. And it’s the basis of a popular PBS series, History Detectives.

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  1. “the book has extensive endnotes” That’s only praiseworthy if the endnotes actually support the text, otherwise they give the text an undeserved aura of trustworthiness. Critics, myself included, have identified quite a few examples where the fns either don’t support the text, or even directly contradict it.

    • Endnotes allow readers, whatever their attitude to a text, to see the evidence that the author is relying on to make his or her argument. Assuming the endnotes themselves are not dishonest (e.g. refer to non-existent documents), providing them is admirable, quite independent of the quality of the argument itself.

      In this case, they have allowed certain critics to be admirably specific in their cases against MacLean’s book…and in turn those defending the book can be just as specific in their responses. And that is a good thing.

      I think the critics’ claims about MacLean’s use of evidence are, at the very least, overblown. Andy Seal answered many of them in his first essay on the book, which appeared both on this blog and at Public Seminar. But rather than opening up an argument about evidence on this thread, I want to insist on my claim about the admirable quality of providing endnotes, whatever the quality of the evidence.

      • That’s fair, though to the average reader not following the broader debate, all they see is “wow, this is well-documented.” As for Andy, he hasn’t responded to many if the documented errors, and those he did respond to involved either rewriting the book to make MacLean’s claims more defensible, or arguing that we should ignore the trees for the forest. No one has remotely adequately addressed the question of why one should trust the author when so many errors, unsupported speculations, And mangled quotations have been identified, and with one brief and unsatisfying exception,The author has refused to respond in anything resembling a substantive manner.

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