Twenty years ago, in a series of lectures on the history of American civilization, the philosopher Richard Rorty offered a prediction. His words languished in relative obscurity until the unexpected rise of Donald Trump made them seem prescient.
Labor unions and unskilled workers will sooner or later realize that “their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported,” he posited. And they will further realize that “suburban white-collar workers, themselves desperately afraid of being downsized, are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.” At that point, “something will crack,” he warned. “The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.”
That passage, considered from the vantage of November 9, 2016, caused a spike of interest in Achieving Our Country, the compilation of Rorty’s lectures. The full book contains criticism for the political left as earnestly constructive and thoughtfully formulated as any I have encountered in my recent roundups—and I say that despite disagreeing with Rorty’s uncharitable assessments of the American right, among other things.
His book is worth revisiting as the Democratic Party smarts from losses in recent special elections and considers how it might win back the House in the 2018 midterms.
What is wrong with its current incarnation?
Rorty argued that an ascendant strain of postmodern Leftism with its roots in the academy has tended “to give cultural politics preference over real politics, and to mock the very idea that democratic institutions might once again be made to serve social justice.”
This Left is more likely to participate in a public shaming than to lobby for a new law; it is more likely to mobilize to occupy a park or shut down a freeway than to register voters. It “exaggerates the importance of philosophy for politics, and wastes its energy on sophisticated theoretical analyses of the significance of current events.” Its adherents “have permitted cultural politics to supplant real politics, and have collaborated with the Right in making cultural issues central to the public debate.”
Yet framing the public debate in that manner plays to the strengths of the political right.
Rorty sympathizes with the reasons that an ascendant Leftist faction lost faith in American institutions. He is as horrified as they are by the historic treatment of indigenous people and African Americans, and by America’s behavior in the Vietnam War.
But like John Dewey, he rejects self-loathing as “a luxury which agents—either individuals or nations—cannot afford,” and finds other aspects of American history and national character to celebrate. Today’s Left would more effectively advance social justice if its adherents possessed a historical memory that extended farther back than the 1960s, he argued, to a movement more than a century old “that has served human liberty well.” It would help, for example, “if students became as familiar with the Pullman Strike, the Great Coalfield War, and the passage of the Wagner Act as with the march from Selma, Berkeley free-speech demonstrations, and Stonewall.”
If more Leftists saw themselves as part of that history, with all its achievements, they might continue to lament that “America is not a morally pure country,” but might better understand that “no country ever has been or ever will be,” and that no country will ever have “a morally pure, homogeneous Left” to bring about social justice.
He urges the Left to be more realist at length:
In democratic countries you get things done by compromising your principles in order to form alliances with groups about whom you have grave doubts. The Left in America has made a lot of progress by doing just that. The closest the Left ever came to taking over the government was in 1912, when a Whitman enthusiast, Eugene Debs, ran for president and got almost a million votes. These votes were cast by, as Daniel Bell puts it, “as unstable a compound as was ever mixed in the modern history of political chemistry.” This compound mingled rage at low wages and miserable working conditions with, as Bell says, “the puritan conscience of millionaire socialists, the boyish romanticism of a Jack London, the pale Christian piety of a George Herron … the reckless braggadocio of a ‘Wild Bill’ Haywood … the tepid social-work impulse of do-gooders, inarticulate and amorphous desire to ‘belong’ of the immigrant workers, the iconoclastic idol-breaking of the literary radicals … and more.”
Those dispossessed farmers were often racist, nativist, and sadistic. The millionaire socialists, ruthless robber barons though they were, nevertheless set up the foundations which sponsored the research which helped get leftist legislation passed. We need to get rid of the Marxist idea that only bottom-up initiatives, conducted by workers and peasants who have somehow been so freed from resentment as to show no trace of prejudice, can achieve our country. The history of leftist politics in America is a story of how top-down initiatives and bottom-up initiatives have interlocked.
Rorty wasn’t dismissing bigotry as unimportant. He was quick to praise the post-’60s Left for being attentive to racial injustice and recognizing that sadism against minority groups would have persisted even apart from economic inequality. Still, he criticizes the identity politics of the left for developing a politics “more about stigma than about money, more about deep and hidden psychosexual motivations than about shallow and evident greed,” because many of the dispossessed are thereby ignored.
Surveying academia, for example, he observes that “nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies, or trailer-park studies, because the unemployed, the homeless, and residents of trailer parks are not the ‘other’ in the relative sense. To be other in this sense you must bear an ineradicable stigma, one which makes you a victim of socially accepted sadism rather than merely of economic selfishness.”
For Rorty, a Left that neglects victims of economic selfishness will not only fail; its neglect of class will trigger a terrible backlash that ultimately ill-serve the very groups that Leftist identity politics are intended to help. “The gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will very likely be wiped out,” he worried. “Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words ‘nigger’ and ‘kike’ will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”
Thankfully, the backlash hasn’t gone that far. Yet.
To avoid that future, to compete in national politics, Rorty believed that the Left would have to find a way to better address the consequences of globalization, and that it could only do so by “opening relations with the residue of the old reformist Left, and in particular with the labor unions.” What’s more, the Left “would have to talk much more about money, even at the cost of talking less about stigma.” In service of that transition, he advised the Left to “put a moratorium on theory … to kick its philosophy habit” and to “try to mobilize what remains of our pride in being Americans.”
What exactly did he mean by “kicking the philosophy habit”?
The contemporary academic Left seems to think that the higher your level of abstraction, the more subversive of the established order you can be. The more sweeping and novel your conceptual apparatus, the more radical your critique…
Recent attempts to subvert social institutions by problematizing concepts have produced a few very good books. They have also produced many thousands of books which represent scholastic philosophizing at its worst. The authors of these purportedly “subversive” books honestly believe that they are serving human liberty. But it is almost impossible to clamber back down from their books to a level of abstraction on which one might discuss the merits of a law, a treaty, a candidate, or a political strategy.
Even though what these authors “theorize” is often something very concrete and near at hand—a current TV show, a media celebrity, a recent scandal—they offer the most abstract and barren explanations imaginable. These futile attempts to philosophize one’s way into political relevance are a symptom of what happens when a Left retreats from activism and adopts a spectatorial approach to the problems of its country.
This disengagement from practical politics “produces theoretical hallucinations,” he added. “The cultural Left is haunted by ubiquitous specters, the most frightening of which is called ‘power.’” This obsession with power elicited scathing words:
In its Foucauldian usage, the term “power” denotes an agency which has left an indelible stain on every word in our language and on every institution. It is always already there, and cannot be spotted coming or going … Only interminable individual and social self-analysis, and perhaps not even that, can help us escape from the infinitely fine meshes of its invisible web.
The Ubiquity of Foucaldian power is reminiscent of the ubiquity of Satan, and thus of the ubiquity of original sin—that diabolical stain on every human soul … in committing itself to what it calls “theory,” this Left has gotten something which is entirely too much like religion. For the cultural Left has come to believe that we must place our country within a theoretical frame of reference, situate it within a vast quasi-cosmological perspective.
What stories about blue-eyed devils are to Black Muslims, stories about hegemony and power are to many cultural Leftists … To step into the intellectual world which some of these Leftists inhabit is to move out of a world in which the citizens of a democracy can join forces to resist sadism and selfishness into a Gothic world in which democratic politics has become a farce … in which all the daylight cheerfulness of Whitmanesque hyper-secularism has been lost, and “liberalism” and “humanism” are synonyms for naiveté—for an inability to grasp the full horror of our situation.
In his estimation, however, the Foucauldian Left and its focus on cosmopolitan identity politics, enforced through stigma, is easily the more naive approach to advancing justice.
It is naively internationalist, he posited all those years before Brexit:
The cultural Left often seems convinced that the nation-state is obsolete, and that there is therefore no point in attempting to revive national politics. The trouble with this claim is that the government of our nation-state will be, for the foreseeable future, the only agent capable of making any real difference in the amount of selfishness and sadism inflicted on Americans.
It is too abstract:
This Left will have to stop thinking up ever more abstract and abusive names for “the system” and start trying to construct inspiring images of the country.
Only by doing so can it begin to form alliances with people outside the academy—and, specifically, with the labor unions. Outside the academy, Americans still want to feel patriotic. They still want to feel part of a nation which can take control of its destiny and make itself a better place … Nothing would do more to resurrect the American Left than agreement on a concrete political platform, a People’s Charter, a list of specific reforms.
Instead, “the cultural Left has a preference for talking about ‘the system’ rather than specific social practices and specific changes. The rhetoric of this Left remains revolutionary rather than reformist and pragmatic. Its insouciant use of terms like ‘late capitalism’ suggests that we can just wait for capitalism to collapse, rather than figuring out what, in the absence of markets, will set prices and regulate distribution.”
And its abandonment of the melting-pot approach to racial justice, its substitution of multiculturalism, has destroyed the solidarity needed to advance justice in any manner, he argued:
The pre-Sixties reformist Left, insofar as it concerned itself with oppressed minorities, did so by proclaiming that all of us—black, white, and brown—are Americans, and that we should respect one another as such. This strategy gave rise to the “platoon” movies, which showed Americans of various ethnic backgrounds fighting and dying side by side.
By contrast, the contemporary cultural Left urges that America should not be a melting-pot, because we need to respect one another in our differences. This Left wants to preserve otherness rather than to ignore it … If the cultural Left insists on continuing its present strategy—on asking us to respect one another in our differences rather than asking us to cease noting those differences—then it will have to find a new way of creating a sense of commonality at the level of national politics. For only a rhetoric of commonality can forge a winning majority in national elections.
On this last matter, Rorty’s critique is not only that the present form of identity politics cannot win, but that even if it did win, the result would not in fact be social justice.
Thus the core of his advice:
The cultural Left has a vision of an America in which the white patriarchs have stopped voting and have left all the voting to be done by members of previously victimized groups, people who have somehow come into possession of more foresight and imagination than the selfish suburbanites.
These formerly oppressed and newly powerful people are expected to be as angelic as the straight white males were diabolical. If I shared this expectation, I too would want to live under this new dispensation. Since I see no reason to share it. I think that the Left should get back into the business of piecemeal reform within the framework of a market economy.
This was the business the American Left was in during the first two-thirds of the century. We Americans should not take the point of view of a detached cosmopolitan spectator. We should face up to unpleasant truths about ourselves, but we should not take those truths to be the last word about our chances for happiness, or about our national character. Our national character is still in the making. Few in 1897 would have predicted the Progressive Movement, the forty-hour week, Women’s Suffrage, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, the successes of second-wave feminism, or the Gay Rights Movement. Nobody in 1997 can know that America will not, in the course of the next century, witness even greater moral progress.
What strikes me now about Achieving Our Country is not only that the features of the Left that it critiqued are ascendant, but that they are ascendant despite the intervening example of Barack Obama, who handily won successive presidential elections for the Democratic Party as if he was heeding much of Richard Rorty’s advice.
The theme struck Ross Douthat way back in 2009, when he remarked on the left-wing patriotism that the Obama coalition assimilated into its presidential campaign.
The 2008 campaign stressed real politics from the start: Obama was masterful at stoking in his supporters a feeling that to get out and vote was the way to affirm his political movement. He was insistent about what could be achieved by reforming and working within the existing system. And he stressed a willingness to reach across the aisle and compromise for the greater good, casting conservatives and folks in Red States as good people, and winning over a great many independent voters.
As for bridging divisions, Obama didn’t merely embrace melting-pot themes. He cast himself as a personification of the American melting pot who would help bridge racial divisions. He didn’t merely reconcile America’s bygone sins with pride in its achievements. He pridefully cast his own story as proof of what could be achieved in this country. Little wonder that he spent the last year of his presidency expressing frustration at the style of cultural politics gaining traction on elite campuses: He saw how it contradicted the blueprint that he had created for a Left that can win.
Would the cultural Leftists in the Democratic Party ever support candidates who heed Rorty’s advice as much as did Obama, but who aren’t vying to be the first black president?
The 2018 midterms may turn on the answer.