Nancy K. MacLean ’81 AM’81 on the significance of understanding our history

In this episode of the Women’s Voices Amplified podcast, Ellen Hunter ’04 speaks with historian, author, and professor Nancy K. MacLean ’81 AM’81 about social movements, the state of our democracy, and how history can inform the present.

Recorded in December 2020, this conversation with Women’s Leadership Council member Ellen Hunter ’04 traces the origins of MacLean’s interest in history all the way through her most recent research and describes how Brown faculty helped shape her academic journey. 

“I grew up in the era when civil rights struggles were on the national news every night, when the war in Vietnam was on the national news, Watergate was happening when I was in high school. It was an incredibly politically engaged moment, and for somebody who was social justice-inclined, it really kind of galvanized me. And I always found history the most rewarding discipline for understanding and for looking at issues going on in our world and making sense of them.” 

After completing her four-year combined undergraduate/master’s degree program at Brown, MacLean earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin before teaching and eventually serving as chair of the history department at Northwestern University. Her scholarship — including five books and numerous articles and review essays — has received more than a dozen prizes and awards. MacLean now serves as the William H. Chafe Distinguished Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University.  

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Nancy K. MacLean ’81 AM’81


Historian, author, and professor Nancy K. MacLean ’81 AM’81 on the state of our democracy and the importance of understanding our history.

Ellen Hunter ’04: Welcome to Women's Voices Amplified, the podcast from the Brown Women's Network, where we talk with Brunonian change-makers about making an impact in their communities and beyond. I'm Ellen Hunter and I graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a bachelor of arts. In this episode, I'll be speaking with professor Nancy MacLean, Class of 1981, about her work as an American historian, her newest book, and how Brown played a role in her success and her outlook on the world. 

“There’s no area of our life, of anything that is contested or is important where history is not significant to the outcome.”

Let's dive in. What sparked your interest in history?

Nancy MacLean ’81 AM’81: You know, I think I was always interested in questions about why things were the way they were or are the way they are now. I grew up in the era when civil rights struggles were on the national news every night, when the war in Vietnam was on the national news, Watergate was happening when I was in high school. It was an incredibly politically engaged moment. And for somebody who was social justice-inclined, it really kind of galvanized me. And I always found history the most rewarding discipline for understanding, for looking at issues going on in our world and making sense of them. And so history was great and Brown had a phenomenal history department — I'm sure it still does. And because there was no distribution requirement, actually I took half of my classes in history. I loved the history faculty and courses.

Hunter: Yeah. What was it about history at Brown? I wonder if there was something that really connected for you?

MacLean: Well, history at Brown was changing then too, as it was around the country. So, for example, this was the period when African-American history was being transformed, Southern history was being transformed. Women's history was emerging. Mari Jo Buhle was my senior thesis advisor. She was a pioneer in the field of women's history, and so it was just a really exciting time when conventional wisdom was being toppled in arena after arena. And what people called history from below was emerging and just really drew me and excited me and I stayed with it.

Hunter: Yeah. Nice. I guess I'll just hop to your book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America. Can you explain how we got here and what you think this means for the future of U.S. politics?

MacLean: Sure. Well, I think it's not a revelation now, as it was in some ways when I was working on the book, to say that we are in a profound crisis in America in terms of the functioning of our democracy and democratic institutions. As flawed as they were, they're really even more imperiled now. And in the research for this book, I came across a trail for that, a trail actually of ideas that I found in the civil rights era South in Virginia of a particular thinker, the first Southern winner of the Nobel prize in economic sciences, a man named James McGill Buchanan, whose ideas were later weaponized essentially by Charles Koch to try to reverse engineer the 20th century, putting it in a nutshell. It was quite a sophisticated body of thought, it had a particular name — public choice economics or the Virginia School of political economy, is the way some people talk about it.

But basically, it was a theory for how government power grew over the course of the 20th century. And that had a lot to do with the empowerment of the citizenry, first labor and working-class union members and such in the 1930s and African-Americans and other groups. But this set of ideas about how government power grew kind of implicitly contained ideas about how to reverse that power. And so what I found in my research is that a network of organizations now numbering seriously in the hundreds are basically trying to sabotage democracy in the United States in all but name. 

So the things that we've seen, particularly since 2010, although even before that, fall under this rubric of getting a very concerted effort to gain control of state legislatures, now 32. To use those state legislatures to push through radical changes in voting rights, to do the most extreme and sophisticated gerrymander we've ever seen in our political history, to undermine collective power, whether it's of labor unions or groups like Planned Parenthood. And to use all this also to then drive changes in other domains, including transforming the federal judiciary. We now have a 6-3 pretty arch right majority on the Supreme Court that is a result of this effort. So it was really quite stunning to come to terms with these ideas and to discover that these actors understood that their extreme right/libertarian agenda was very unpopular, would never become popular. And therefore they believed that they needed to shackle democracy, essentially through measures like this, to make sure that the vast majority of people would not be able to get what they want from government. 

This is also a project that is based in the fossil fuel sector. So they have promoted climate science denial for three decades now. Promoted the myth of mass voter fraud to justify voter suppression. So it's really quite bone-chilling stuff, frankly. But I think it is really, really important that the public understand it because it is really a structural, well-thought-out, sophisticated long game. And if we're not able to get ahead of it, it's going to be ugly.

Hunter: Yeah. I just think it's so interesting how your work combines all these elements of justice, like climate justice, social justice, racial justice, and how the libertarian movement is limiting all of that together.

MacLean: Yeah. And thank you for mentioning that, Ellen, because I think it's really important as I was writing this book and thinking about which parts of history to include. I almost wrote it to capture the history of the groups that I thought would be part of the kind of coalition necessary to stop this because it's a stunning thing. We have so many discussions on the progressive side in America about what unites us. What do we share in common? And it turns out what we share in common is that we all need to rely on a responsive, accountable, transparent democracy. It was like element A and then you go on from there, but if we don't have that we're all in trouble. So one of the things that's been really gratifying to me since the book came out is to have people across the progressive spectrum and also in the faith community at other places see that. So I'll be talking with folks from Greenpeace, but also labor unions, also civil rights groups, also women's groups, also democracy reform groups.

So I do think that there's a dawning awareness of how interconnected we all are in this fight. And we all know that this democracy, such as it is in America, was deeply flawed by the founding, the roots in slavery, the ways that skewed government at all levels thereafter. So there are all kinds of continuing problems obviously, but it's also a work in progress, and where citizens have power we've been able to organize to improve things. And to include people in more meaningful ways to address problems that people didn't even think of a hundred years ago, like environmental crises. And so we can adapt as long as the people have representation and channels through which to influence the system, but in the absence of that, it would be a catastrophe.

And I think that that's what we're seeing now with climate change, that's also going to disproportionately affect people around the planet of lesser means, and because of the history of slavery and colonialism, that is going to be disproportionately black and brown people. So we are all interconnected and in this in ways that we need to understand.

Hunter: Yeah, absolutely. You know, you've written a number of books tackling issues like the American women's movement, segregation, and human rights activism. What inspired you to write these books? And I would just add, if you could maybe talk about movements and how you see the role of movements, and how critical movements are in terms of sustaining democracy and also the transformation that you envision.

MacLean: Yeah. You know the old immigration historian Oscar Handlin used to say that you couldn't understand America without looking at immigration, because immigration history is American history in some ways. And I feel the same way about social movements. Literally it wouldn't be a country without the American Revolution, which was what? A very large, sustained, connected social movement that actually reached the point of becoming a revolution. And you go on from there to abolition, which is one of the most formative social movements in our country, and on and on through the years. And basically the things that most of us love and revere in our country, in our history — many of them have come about through organized, collective efforts on the part of at least some sections of the citizenry.

So at some point I realized, golly, all my work is about social movements in some way, including movements of the right as well as actually cross the spectrum. I just don't see another way of looking at our history without that. And also you always have to do it relationally, so I've never looked at the right without looking at the left or the left without looking at the right. And I think as we've seen in 2020, you have to have those bifocals to understand the way our country works.

Hunter: What lessons from modern American history do you think impact our world today? How do you think we can learn from the past to make progress in the future? 

MacLean: I think we must learn from the past to make progress for the future. When you look at the kinds of divisions that you were just talking about, Ellen, with white leaders using race to divide populations so that they can stay in power. This goes back to our formative history in the 18th century/ the 17th and 18th centuries. One of my favorite works of American history is American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund Morgan. And it really shows how much the liberty that the founders were advocating was only possible in their eyes because they had enslaved their workforce. And so if you go back to that, we begin to see how deep this is and why we cannot eradicate racism if we just think about it as a problem of attitudes, or a sin of the heart, or many of the things that we're led to believe.

And you can carry that all the way to the 20th century, to redlining and making it impossible for African-Americans to buy mortgages, or to get regular mortgages so that they weren't able to build up equity at the time of the creation of the mass middle-class in America after World War II in the 1950s and 60s. And that's just one area, but there's no area of our life, of anything that is contested or is important where history is not significant to the outcome. So there's actually some schools of public policy in the country that don't pay attention to history. And I can't believe it. How could you possibly think that you could make anything better in the future if you don't know how we got to where we are, and you don't know what has happened with like-minded or related efforts in the past? 

Hunter: Absolutely.

MacLean: One thing I like about being a historian is it's kind of an antidepressant. When an organized abolition movement came together in the 1830s it was fewer than a hundred people. And every single institution was against them — the churches, the schools, the press, everything was against that. Everything was either upholding slavery or enabling it. And yet the efforts of people...they set off this huge ripple phenomenon that eventually transformed understanding to the point where you can't explain to students now how some people thought it was okay to hold other people in bondage, and treat them as property and sell their children and all of the rest of it. And I think that marks the achievement, that transformation that's happened, that it is so hard to understand. But obviously, we need to understand that because there are people still treating people as things, as not fellow human beings endowed with dignity and the same rights to life and connection and achievement as others.

Hunter: Absolutely. So a good deal of your work has been focused on feminism and women's history. How has being a woman impacted your research?

MacLean: Huh. Interesting. I entered the first graduate program in women's history at the University of Wisconsin after graduating from Brown, where I had a phenomenal female mentor. And actually, I had gotten essentially a straight-A average at Brown, it was like 3.98, but no one had ever encouraged me to go to graduate school or do anything. I didn't even know what graduate school was, but my honors thesis advisor, Mari Jo Buhle said at one point during the year, "Well, of course, you're going to graduate school, right?" I actually had to say, "What's graduate school?" I don't know where I thought professors came from! Like the tooth fairy or something. [laughing] Anyway, I didn't have a sense of that because it wasn't my family background. And so I wouldn't have had an academic career had it not been for a female mentor at Brown.

And then going into this women's history program and kind of creating this new field along with others, we encountered tremendous resistance. But resistance, if it doesn't break you, it also makes you stronger right, so I guess that's part of it. So thinking about women as actors and thinking about gender as a category of analysis, and a way to understand the world has just become part of what I do since then.

Hunter: Yeah. You mentioned Mari Jo Buhle a couple of times. Can you talk a little bit more about that relationship?

MacLean: She was really extraordinary. She would read my thesis chapters and give me a couple of pages of single-spaced commentary and just the deepest engagement, and just supported me through my subsequent career. And she's now retired in Madison, Wisconsin, and we exchange communications every now and then, but she just is a really wonderful human being who really gave heart and soul to generations of students. I have no idea how many honors theses she ended up advising, but I know that she had at least 35 doctoral students receive their Ph.D.s from her.

Hunter: Oh, that's amazing. Are there any initiatives at Brown today that interests you?

MacLean: I really applaud what Brown did in terms of grappling with its history around slavery and investments of founders in slavery. It was one of the first-generation schools to undertake that examination. And so that made me very proud to be a Brown alum.

Hunter: Me too. I was there when Ruth Simmons started as president, I think when she first launched that effort. So great. Is there anything else that you want to say? 

MacLean: I guess one thing maybe I'd say is it is really fun when you get the Brown Alumni monthly, because there's so many interesting people who have gone to Brown and they are doing such interesting things out in the world. So it's kind of fun to see that, it's exciting. And actually, it was fun — I was invited back to Brown after Democracy in Chains came out by two current history professors. And that was really fun to come back after having a career to meet a new generation of students, and be in some of the same old buildings and everything. It was pretty great.

Hunter: Well, thank you so much for your time.

MacLean: You're welcome.

The views expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily represent those of Brown University.

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