MURFREESBORO, Tennessee — This week Middle Tennessee State University hosted a left-wing academic who told a room of about 200 students about a network of conservative and libertarian forces supposedly out to undermine democracy.
That woman, Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, made a lot of bold statements about the right during her 60-minute speech on Monday. A 30-minute question and answer session with students came afterward.
MacLean complained extensively about the billionaire Koch brothers and how they supposedly work to enable a system of rigged rules that benefit only the wealthy.
Tea Partiers, she said, are puppets who help carry out an agenda they unknowingly disagree with.
MacLean also told MTSU students that think tanks, the religious right, and white segregationists had past or present ties to this supposedly sinister right-wing complex.
“They are determined to use the religious right and the racially motivated right to get what they want. Behind all the chaos and dysfunction there is a calculated strategy that is far along,” MacLean told students.
She heavily criticized the work and legacy of MTSU graduate and Nobel laureate in economics James M. Buchanan.
“For the variety of capitalism they want to see in place, to thrive, then democracy must be in chains, not overthrown, as in a coup with tanks and generals and the things we think of when societies are radically transformed,” MacLean said.
“Rather (they think) the rules should be rigged to ensure the democracy can no longer get by on what citizens have looked to it to provide — things like retirement security, environmental protection, workers’ rights, and Social Security.”
MacLean also called out a variety of what she said were Koch-affiliated think tanks, including the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Nashville-based Beacon Center of Tennessee.
When asked about this, Beacon Executive Vice President Stephanie Whitt, in an emailed statement, had little to say.
“We are so focused on improving the lives of Tennesseans that we don’t have time to worry about the comments of a widely-discredited conspiracy theorist,” Whitt said.
As reported, members of the Charles Koch Foundation recently gave $3.5 million to establish the Political Economy Research Institute at MTSU to honor Buchanan.
Also as reported, PERI Director Dan Smith said MacLean’s book has several inconsistencies and errors.
Smith and MacLean skirmished with one another during the Q&A session.
MacLean said Buchanan affiliated himself with segregationists while fighting for school vouchers.
Smith took issue with that.
Smith told her that anti-segregation groups supported school vouchers to combat segregation.
“Her response to me was to question my authority to even ask her a clarifying question on her evidence simply because I am not an historian,” Smith later told The Tennessee Star.
“I am a public choice scholar who has written several papers on James Buchanan’s economic thought and I was asking a legitimate question regarding concerns over her scholarship in an economic journal.”
Smith denied he and his peers are out to cause harm, as MacLean attested in her speech.
“The heart of our research is helping people improve their lives with better economic freedom and the ability to have economic mobility,” Smith said.
“I certainly hope everyone across campus would see the benefit from a balanced perspective in terms of classes and lectures (at MTSU). I hope they bring in a diversified group of people to improve intellectual diversity on campus.”
For her part, MacLean said she was wary of debating Smith.
“What happens when I get in debates with folks from your team is I end up on Breitbart and FOX News and that’s when the real death threats and harassments start,” MacLean said.
MacLean did not provide any evidence to back up her assertion.
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