Reading Richard Rorty's "Achieving Our Country"
America’s last historically important philosopher on the American Left — and where it went disastrously wrong.
Richard Rorty (1931–2007) might be the last historically important American philosopher — if only because given the way American academia is presently going, there aren’t likely to be any more philosophers of historical importance.
A Yale PhD (1956), Rorty produced numerous well-received articles in the philosophy of mind, edited a useful volume of writings on The Linguistic Turn, then dented the universe, so to speak, with Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. In that challenging tract, Rorty argued at length that the mind-body problem was the result of misconceived efforts to hang onto an outdated vocabulary, outdated because it no longer solved any problems scientific or otherwise. All it did was leave us confused. If that vocabulary was gotten rid of, such problems vanished into puffs of linguistic smoke.
This discussion was just an intro to a larger Big Idea: that the mission of philosophy as foundational with the respect to science, culture, education, or civilization, was at an end. He cited three predecessors as having broken free of this illusion: Martin Heidegger, John Dewey, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. We should, he argued, give up the idea of privileged vocabularies that are privileged because they correctly “represent reality.” We should free ourselves of the illusion that philosophers have special tools for finding and articulating such vocabularies. We need to set representationalism aside as a late remnant of the hapless and hopeless Platonist-Cartesian-Kantian axis, against which American pragmatism revolted.
Ideas and propositions, Rorty held, are not helpful because they are “true” (i.e., correctly “represent reality”). They solve a problem and help us cope with our surroundings, or fail to do so, and in the last analysis that is all we can usefully say about them. Rorty was not saying (as some hostile readers were prone to assert) that there is no such thing as truth, or no causal structure to the world. No one has ever said anything so absurd. He was saying there was no Platonist essence that all true statements shared. His was more a comment on essentialism than it was on truth. His message was that the search for foundations with philosophical essences as their central components has gotten us nowhere.
Philosophy thus shifts from the search for such things to a mission of edification, which begins by acknowledging that the Platonist-Cartesian-Kantian foundationalist / representationalist project failed, and that the failures can be diagnosed. We don’t need “better” theories of truth and knowledge but to cure ourselves of the idea that we need theories about such things.
What results is an ironic stance, which Rorty cashed out in his next major project, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. We are all creatures of our cultures and their histories. These provide us with the assumptions that make sense of our lives and thought. They give us values to identify with. Intellectual problems are history-specific. That means that any philosophical project — even his own! — could come to be seen by future philosophers with quite different problems to solve as seeming to have no point whatever.
“Mind” as some kind of “mental stuff”? What on Earth did that even mean? Future historians of ideas for whom the Plato-Descartes-Kant axis was a distant memory could end up utterly baffled about why eliminating something called foundationalism was important.
The search for foundations and essences should be replaced, Rorty felt, with a search, within our civilization, for solidarity, based on a common history, common narratives, and above all social hope, based on common needs — such as the need to reduce suffering caused by cruelty. This last brings us to Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America, based on three lectures Rorty delivered in 1997.
This book got a flurry of attention a few years ago when several writers claimed it predicted Donald Trump’s rise. Reading the relevant passages, I’m not surprised. Let’s not jump ahead, though. We’ll get there in due course, I promise.
The Right: A “Rorty-esque” Perspective.
Start with Rorty’s view of Left versus Right. His way of putting this is one I’d not seen before, and is far more interesting than a claim about who sat on which side of an assembly back in French Revolution days.
Realize that Left and Right as Rorty sees them are not competing sets of truth-claims about anything. Neither has “accurate representations.” The debate is over “which hopes to allow ourselves and which to forego.” It will continue for as long as there exists both a politically active Right and a politically active Left.
Where Right and Left differ is in terms of what they see as problems to solve. For:
the Right never thinks that anything much needs to be changed: it thinks the country is basically in good shape, and may well have been in better shape in the past. It sees the Left’s struggle for social justice as mere troublemaking, as utopian foolishness.
Keep in mind that this is how things might have looked back in 1997. The point: there are things Rightists want to keep in place, anchor-points which if it’s not broken don’t try and fix it is an appropriate injunction.
As for Leftists:
The Left, by definition, is the party of hope. It insists that our nation remains unachieved. As the historian Nelson Lichtenstein has said, “All of America’s great reform movements, from the crusade against slavery to the labor upsurge in the 1930s, defined themselves as champions of a moral and patriotic nationalism, which they counterposed to the parochial and selfish elites, which stood athwart their vision of a virtuous society.”
Let’s frame this more clearly. Rorty’s distinction between Right and Left comes down to this:
The Right in general sees America’s greatest achievements as being in the past, made at the time of the country’s founding. It doesn’t need to see these achievements as perfect, just as having created “a more perfect Union.” The Right then struggles to hang onto the great achievement that was the American founding, warts and all. It is not and never has been Utopian (as Rightists might put it). Achievements, Rightists would argue, don’t have to be perfect; they just have to work better than alternatives. If the country has trended away from what seemed to work in favor of things that seem not to work (or not work as well), the Right agitates for preservation and restoration, even when accused of “trying to turn back the clock” (or these days, worse — much worse!).
The Right points to documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It observes that part of the latter’s uniqueness is its built-in means providing for its own adjustment over time, and that the difficulty of making adjustments was on purpose — so that change couldn’t be made frivolously and based on emotion-laden trends of a particular time or generation.
Right and Left have a deeper disagreement over human nature. The Right is pessimistic, because it sees human beings as inherently flawed and our societal prospects therefore limited. They will point to the authors of Constitution as having had no illusions about human nature, of explaining clearly the challenges in, e.g., Federalist 51. Concentrations of political power are inherently dangerous because they will be exploited. Divisions of powers are therefore necessary. They enabled adjustments of the document at the “edges,” accepting that limitations on human nature and knowledge apply to them as well. These aren’t points Rorty specifically makes as they fall outside his focus, but I think they are consistent with what he does say.
The Right, finally, tends to believe in meritocracy, at least as an ideal, in a world in which the best results are obtained if everybody can be encouraged and trained to pull their own economic weight. According to the Left, this is delusional, because we do not start in the same places. Claims to meritocracy are therefore deceptive and dishonest, because clearly, American has never been a meritocracy, never could be, never should be.
Why Rorty disdains the Right should be clear. By looking to the past the Right is inherently foundational. It sees our prospects as limited. The Left can acknowledge the importance of achievements made in the past as sources of national pride, without seeing them as closed repositories of absoluteness. The Left sees us as therefore able to experiment in the present in order to build a better future. History is open, not closed. Political actions taken in the present can and should be based on hope, not pessimism.
The Left thus sees our greatest achievements as in the future. We have not yet achieved our country, and the present is the scene of our struggles to do so. The Left tries to make progress. Thus the word progressive which many on the Left use as part of their self-identity. What are we progressing towards? A greatness we’ve yet to achieve, based on ideals of equality, peace, and social justice!
The past cannot provide us with a template for the future, because values change with increased enlightenment. Knowledge and know-how change. Leftists reject Rightist pessimism as nothing more than outmoded belief in Christian original sin. We have yet to discover what we can make of ourselves! The most important point is that the future is not a done deal. For this reason Rorty rejects classical Marxism no less than he does conservatism. Marxism was just another form of foundationalism. It posited rigid “laws” of history. Even if the Soviets and the Maoists hadn’t killed tens of millions of people in their pursuit of realizing those “laws” they would be unhelpful since they solve no situation-specific problems.
Rorty is far more interested in the different forms American Leftism has taken. He is severely critical of a Left that — he says — cannot achieve our country because it doesn’t find anything in America worth valuing. It has given up on national pride. A Cultural Left, as opposed to its predecessor the Reformist Left, has fallen into actual loathing of America. It mocks reform efforts as impossible even as it tries to “cancel” what the Right wants to preserve. America is too flawed to reform.
The Cultural Left, that is, sees “warts” no less than the Right — different ones. They are so serious that they force us to question the very legitimacy of America.
Progress, if it can be made at all, will be involve more canceling than achieving our country. (It is interesting that aspects of Rorty’s views also anticipate elements of what Rightists disdainfully call cancel culture.)
The Constitution, the Cultural Left contends, presumes a world in which slavery was accepted (the infamous three-fifths compromise). It presumed a society owned and operated by white male landowners whose elitism and privileges were unquestioned givens, which placed all other groups at a structural (or systemic) disadvantage even after slavery was gotten rid of, and which in some cases did not hesitate to “cancel” other groups if they got in the way of expansion.
Thus in addition to the plight of black slaves, indigenous peoples faced campaigns of terror and genocide. Then there were women, relegated to second-class status. Sexual minorities were shoved into the closet and kept there — literally!
America began, that is, with a world based on cruelty. The cruelty is structural, not simply the result of this or that policy decision. This can’t be fixed with mere reforms. Thus there’s nothing capable of being achieved, working within the system!
Rorty rejects this. We are Americans! Leftists, too, are Americans! This is how we self-identify! The real problem is that this Left can’t really solve any practical problems at the political level! Out of sheer frustration it would raze everything to the ground instead! This would plainly be disastrous for everyone, including the people Cultural Leftists claim to want to help!
The Fading of the Reformist Left and the Rise of a Cultural Left.
So Rorty distinguishes two Lefts within the American Left more broadly.
The first was the Reformist Left (note the past tense) that originally fought against slavery and then came even further into its own during the Progressive Era.
The latter is the Cultural Left of the present. The first was optimistic and hopeful. The second had turned retrospective and pessimist about America when Rorty was writing. As we’ll see, it is a far angrier Left than its predecessor, and this bodes ill for the future of America as it is confronted by an equally angry Right.
The Reformist Left engaged political economy with great effectiveness. It enjoyed rousing successes, the first and greatest being getting rid of slavery.
It then looked for ways to check the growing power of corporations during the first Gilded Age and gave us, e.g., the Sherman Antitrust Act. Then it won voting rights for women. Finally, it democratized the economy, at least somewhat, with the New Deal.
Collectively these transformed America. Social safety nets, for example, reduced capitalism’s potential for the cruelty of economic indifference. But there were still battles to fight if we were to achieve our country.
The Reformist Left only partly saw them. Having focused on issues of politics and poverty, assuming that the alleviation of poverty was the most important remaining battle, it dropped the ball regarding what could not be attributed to poverty.
Thus it had never been much interested in the plight of African-Americans, even as post-war prosperity rose for whites but not for blacks. Working through, e.g., unions, the Reformist Left looked the other way when unions excluded blacks. Black American authors and leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. finally had to force the issue.
Having won for women the right to vote, it basically forgot about them for the next several decades until equity feminists forced the issue.
It had no interest in the gay community. This led to the Stonewall riots. Another forcing of the issue.
The Cultural Left emerged from the sense of collective injustices and cruelties not resulting from poverty. This new Left emphasized not poverty but stigma. African-Americans, indigenous peoples, women, gays and lesbians, eventually trans persons, were all stigmatized by virtue of their identity, not their economic status. Hence the development of the politics of identity as central to the Cultural Left.
The challenge again: these stigmas were not matters of mere discrimination in the “old” sense of cruel actions taken by straight white men. As we saw, they were built into the American system. They were “systemic,” that is. Hence the systemic racism claims of critical race theory when it began to emerge in the 1990s.
But this was placing the Cultural Left in a bind. By finding systemic racism built into the very fabric of America and its institutions, it effectively ceased to identify with America. As Rorty puts it, the Cultural Left gave up on national pride, in favor of group-derived pride (e.g., gay pride). It was no longer motivated to achieve our country as had been the Reformist Left. It fragmented, and while it may have been extremely effective in commandeering the somewhat closed universe of academia, it lost its political effectiveness because it left too many political constituents alienated.
As an exemplar of what he wanted to promote, Rorty quotes James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time:
… we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation — if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women…. If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.
Those words, penned in the early 1960s, represented the spirit that those Reformists of the era inspired by Dr. King’s speeches and in the Civil Rights legislation that followed.
But would anyone, of any ethnicity, pen anything like them today? Has anyone, over the past of the past three decades, made the kinds of speeches Dr. King made? If your answer is an emphatic No!, you see what was troubling Rorty back in the late 1990s when it was just starting to become clear to thoughtful philosophers that the Left was off course.
I am sure that had Rorty lived to see the present situation, he’d be beyond depressed!
Maybe it’s worth revisiting — and evaluating — where he thinks the Cultural Left went disastrously wrong: how its neglect of the economic forces that largely destroyed the ladder of upward mobility for all ethnicities, converging with an Internet able to bring the world into our home offices, and how its tendency to alienate instead of reach for solidarity, all led to Trumpism.
Where the Cultural Left Went Wrong.
Unlike the Reformist Left, the Cultural Left was far more academic than political (its slogan the personal is political notwithstanding). It argued, Rorty contended, at too high a level of abstraction to generate any realistic political initiatives, realistic in that they would find able defenders within the political system who understood them and could act on them to solve problems. Most of its achievements were either the result of cultural infiltration from academia to law, journalism, and Hollywood; or Supreme Court decisions, as opposed to bills passed by Congress and signed into law by presidents. The former, as we know, received mixed results from a public already starting to divide. The latter changed with Court composition, and often contained ambiguities leading to more lawsuits from which lawyers were the primary beneficiaries.
Rorty, writing about where things stood in the late 1990s, praises the (Academic) Cultural Left for having achieved a society in which casual racism was no longer accepted, nor was the sexual harassment of women in the workplace tolerated. It was moving rapidly toward liberating homosexuals from the humiliation of the closet. Rorty writes:
The American academy has done as much to overcome sadism during the last thirty years as it did to overcome selfishness in the previous seventy. Encouraging students to be what mocking neoconservatives call “politically correct” has made our country a far better place. American leftist academics have a lot to be proud of. Their conservative critics, who have no remedies to propose either for American sadism or for American selfishness, have a great deal to be ashamed of.
But by this period, processes were in motion about which the Cultural Left was as silent as Rorty charges the Right with being about selfishness and stigma. Rorty acknowledges this one page later, that
there is a dark side to the success story I have been telling about the post-Sixties Cultural Left. During the same period in which socially accepted sadism has steadily diminished, economic inequality and economic insecurity have steadily increased. It is as if the American Left could not handle more than one initiative at a time — as if it either had to ignore stigma in order to concentrate on money, or vice versa.
Rorty laments that the Reformist Left and the Cultural Left were unable to coalesce into a single movement after the 1960s, since in his view, they needed each other.
What caused rising inequality and economic insecurity?
As a process, globalization was nothing new, but with rapidly advancing telecommunications technologies, and with the newfound capability of corporations to move jobs to where labor is cheapest and environmental regulations are lax — and in particular with bilateral and multilateral trade deals that sanctioned and incentivized such movements — globalization became much more of a force to be reckoned with. The process began during the “neoliberal” Reagan-Thatcher years and only accelerated. Some might argue that as the cultural shifted Leftward, the political economy moved Right: a “Right” (“Reich”?) of superrich oligarchs who cared less about preserving anything past and far more about amassing wealth for themselves.
Let’s remember something Rorty forgot to mention: Reagan’s breaking the air traffic controllers strike in 1981. This was a blow from which organized labor never recovered. Workers across industries were increasingly defenseless against the predation to come. The “Right” (“Reich”?) of the superrich (which increasingly controlled both political parties) resurrected the selfishness the Reformist Left had thought conquered!
Rorty does note:
What industrialization was to America at the end of the nineteenth century, globalization is at the end of the twentieth. The problem which Dewey and Croly faced — how to prevent wage-slavery from destroying the hope of equality — was partly solved by the leftist initiatives of 1910–1965. But a problem Dewey and Croly never envisioned has taken its place, and measures which might cope with this new problem have hardly even been sketched. The problem is that the wage levels, and the social benefits, enjoyed by workers in Europe, Japan, and North America no longer bear any relation to the newly fluid global labor market.
By the time Rorty was writing Achieving Our Country, the West’s predicament was that workers in multiple industries were seeing their jobs outsourced. They also feared replacement by automation (“technological unemployment”). As the business press often put this, industrial production was being replaced by domestic services. The former had paid fairly well. The latter paid peanuts.
“Protectionism” was an economic sin, of course, and did not seem practical anyway, because attempts to protect workers and industries resulted in the owners of capital moving operations out of the reach of the protectors even faster.
“Globalization is producing a world economy,” Rorty followed up, “in which an attempt by any one country to prevent the immiseration of its workers may result only in depriving them of employment.” Because American workers were now too expensive!
It is not as if the Left had nothing to say about this. Barbara Ehrenreich penned Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Hers was an early exemplar of an emerging literature of worker immiseration in the new globalist era. But such stories were more descriptive than suggestive of practical solutions.
As the 1990s had progressed, the Cultural Left had offered courses, academic treatises, and increasingly hyperspecialized verbiage about, e.g., gender, but said nothing about what the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which went into effect in 1994 (with the endorsement of both major parties) was doing to the American worker of whatever ethnicity.
NAFTA was quickly followed by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) II which created the World Trade Organization. China was industrializing rapidly and becoming a new haven for former U.S. employers who had first gone to Mexico. Other transnational trade deals and partnerships were consolidating the process that would not just continue to de-industrialize the U.S in a “race to the bottom” but threaten its middle class as well.
Another way of saying all this, as Paul Craig Roberts put it in an important article written with Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in 2004, was that due to changed technology, the comparative advantage that had been the conceptual bulwark of free trade thought in economics was obsolete. It has been replaced by the absolute advantage of corporations that could relocate operations to cheap-labor countries, thus driving down wages everywhere.
The bottom line was the corporate bottom line, and if your job could be done from anywhere in the world, or by a machine, you were toast!
Where was the Cultural Left? Where, for that matter, was the Reformist Left?
The Route to Trumpism.
While lambasting Patrick J. Buchanan as a “scurrilous demagogue,” Rorty surely realized that someone able to articulate matters for the general public was going to pick up this ball and run with it — and that a new Team Right representing common people, not superrich oligarchs, would probably run the ball in a very different direction from Team Left.
With the Reformist Left limited to the work of a few journalists and renegade economists, and the Cultural Left promoting the politics of identity at the expense of economic security, common people who wanted problems solved would await someone whom they thought might have them. What were they supposed to do? Buchanan had written a number of books with titles like A Republic, Not an Empire which reflected the Right’s basic conviction that America’s great achievements were in the past: Constitutional republicanism, not the greed-focused globalism of the present.
Rorty seemed to have mixed feelings describing the “cosmopolitanism” of a culture of tech-savvy entrepreneurs and start-ups, day traders, motivational speakers, designers, other creatives, who, as the saying goes, are “economically conservative and socially liberal.” That is, they accumulate capital and so are good capitalists, but would never dream of discriminating against women or any minority group and would immediately ostracize anyone who did.
The “cosmopolitans” are fully urbanized, well-educated in the formal sense, highly diverse in the Cultural Left sense, secular in their overall worldview, adaptable and able to consume all the latest gadgets, and highly mobile. All are acclimated to big city life, but it could be any big city in the world. Many are single, moreover — often by choice — and might have few qualms about picking up and moving from New York City to, say, Singapore, or Dubai, if the economic climate for their niche seems better there (and the niches were getting narrower and narrower).
Such people might be allied with the Left in a very broad sense, but will have no interest in achieving our country if only because they no longer have a country, or any sense of what one is. They implicitly view the nation-state as dying and themselves as citizens of the world. This is part of what it means to be cosmopolitan. This globalist spirit was something Rorty praised at the outset, but simultaneously and perhaps with a sense of cognitive dissonance, also lamented as part of the overall loss of national pride:
The need for this sort of involvement remains even for those who, like myself, hope that the United States of America will someday yield up sovereignty to what Tennyson called “the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World.” For such a federation will never come into existence unless the governments of the individual nation-states cooperate in setting it up, and unless the citizens of those nation-states take a certain amount of pride (even rueful and hesitant pride) in their governments’ efforts to do so.
The problem appears to be — was even then, in the late 1990s — that less than twenty percent of those citizens can expect to benefit from such a system.
As the years have ticked by, that percentage has dropped.
The nonbeneficiaries — outsourced, downsized, replaced by robots, their once thriving communities turned to economic wastelands as Wal-Mart came in and drove all the mom-and-pop stores out of business, and then left when profits fell because no one had money to spend, not even on cheap Chinese-made junk. These people were left, effectively, with nothing. Social hope? They had none. Many turned to alcohol and other forms of substance abuse to dull the pain. The suicide rate rose steadily.
But as far as the Cultural Left was concerned, these populations were too white and too male (and too straight), so not only did it have no interest in them, its spokespersons sometimes openly disdained them with the same casual cruelties it would condemn instantly if directed against any politically protected group.
We saw a good example of this open disdain when 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton referred to them as a “basket of deplorables.”
She then wondered why she lost those midwestern swing states.
The Cultural Left avoided engaging seriously the cognitive dissonance involved in speaking of white people who are either marginally employed at best or out of work completely, do not have a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out of, who might be struggling with substance abuse and depression, but nevertheless have “white privilege.”
The superrich oligarchs, on the other hand, have been buying political classes since the days of the first Gilded Age. This gives rise to an environment in which political classes — of whichever party — cease to take much interest in or even notice constituents who are not well-to-do unless the latter are able, again, somehow, to force the issue.
What happens when the non-well-to-do awaken to the idea that “the system” has thrown them to the wolves?
Might they not turn to a Donald Trump, should he appear? For (p. 90):
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around 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. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.
This, of course, is the paragraph usually cited as predicting Trumpism’s rise.
I have been of the view, for some time now, that what “cracked” very gradually during 1994–2016 were a number of narratives: not just about the promises made by the globalizers, that given sufficient time globalization would make us all richer and not just a wealthy few with real privileges, but whether we could trust our leaders and those behind them to tell us the truth (not using that word in Rorty’s technical sense), and about democracy itself and whether America was a democracy simply because Americans could vote every two and four years.
What did it mean to say we lived in a democracy?
Were we living in a democracy, or a plutocratic oligarchy in which all the important decisions were carefully kept out of the hands of voters? An oft-cited study by two political scientists published in 2014 seemed to confirm the latter, however circumspect they were about their own findings.
Common people of intelligence did receive one huge and very obvious benefit from new technology during this period: the Internet. Some of us saw the Internet of 1994–2016 as our era’s Gutenberg Press. The original invention allowed ordinary yokels to read the Bible for themselves for the first time. The Protestant Reformation happened.
Was something equally revolutionary in the offing, and likely to happen much faster?
One way of seeing our era’s Gutenberg Press was as enabling any number of intrepid researchers and writers to puncture a substantial range of narratives about democracy, history, politics, science, culture, and current events — when more and more people realized they could go online and not just investigate any subject they wanted, on their own, from any perspective they wanted. If such writers were so inclined, they could put up a blog and express their newfound “expertise.” When YouTube appeared, they could make videos. This was desirable because more people will watch a video than read a book or an in-depth article.
The rest, of course, is history. What resulted ran the gamut from sheerest, batshit-crazed insanity to powerful independent results that undermined the credibility of those narratives.
The challenge was to figure out which was which!
After all, this was happening during a period in which courses in, e.g., critical thinking were being curtailed. Logic was one of those “white, male, Eurocentric constructs.”
Add to all this the frustration of economic precarity, up against the disdain of those regarded as out-of-touch, unaccountable elites … and stir.
You get a Donald Trump …
He spoke the language of the precariat and addressed its frustrations. He had plenty of his own money to spend in order to circumvent the collective will of “Establishment Republicans.”
His command of all forms of media vastly exceeded that of his opponents and his critics, who were trapped by the fact that he was ratings!
So mass media reported every Trumpian outrage! And as 2015 became 2016, Trumpism only grew stronger!
A fed-up population loved it! Trump won states’ delegates, then the Republican nomination. He got away with things that would have destroyed any other nominee, such as the “locker room talk” revealed by the infamous Hollywood Access tape.
Perhaps Rorty had thought about such possibilities, as well as his weathering Stormy Daniels, for his discussion continues:
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “n — — -” and “k — -” 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.
Even given Trump’s surviving the Hollywood Access flap and the Stormy Daniels mess, we did not see these reversals.
If anything, the Cultural Left became stronger during the period 2016–2020.
It was buoyed by events ranging from the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting (2012), to the Ferguson, Mo. police shooting of Michael Brown (2014), as just two of several such highly visible events that culminated in George Floyd’s death and the ensuing upheaval of the long hot summer of 2020.
Whether African-Americans had gone forward might be in grave doubt, but they were not going back!
Nor did “jocular contempt for women” return. And it was during this past decade that gay marriage received Supreme Court validation (Obergefell v Hodges, 2015).
So the Cultural Left is very much alive! But can it help achieve our country? Is it even trying?
Rorty on Where We Go Next. And — Where Do We Go Next, Post-Trump?
After a brief account of what a disaster his envisioned “strongman” would be for the country and the world, Rorty offers this diagnosis and suggested remedy:
It is often said that we Americans, at the end of the twentieth century, no longer have a Left. Since nobody denies the existence of what I have called the Cultural Left, this amounts to an admission that that Left is unable to engage in national politics. It is not the sort of Left which can be asked to deal with the consequences of globalization. To get the country to deal with those consequences, the present Cultural Left would have to transform itself by opening relations with the residue of the old Reformist Left, and in particular with the labor unions. It would have to talk much more about money, even at the cost of talking less about stigma.
Rorty recommends a “moratorium on theory.” The Cultural Left “should try to kick its philosophy habit.” Then it should “try to mobilize what remains of our pride in being American. It should ask the public how the country of Lincoln and Whitman could be achieved.”
This didn’t happen, of course.
If anything, the Cultural Left’s disdain for America as entrapped in inherent “systemic racism” reached such a fever pitch as to provoke major backlash. Tens of thousands of red-blooded Americans have reacted against “critical race theory,” or whatever it is they take this phrase to mean.
I look at this in light of the fact, for fact it is, that Trump’s agenda mostly failed.
Trump wanted to build a wall on our border with Mexico to curb illegal immigration. Is there a wall there?
Trump wanted to rebuild America’s industrial base. Did he succeed?
Trump, who called American foreign policy “a complete and total disaster” during his campaign, ended up bombing Syria and continuing the war in Afghanistan.
Trump said he would “drain the swamp.” Did he?
Trump had said “we do not have time to be politically correct” in the first debate. As president he showed almost no interest in cultural or educational matters (the fact that he put the DOE under Betsy DeVos probably indicated his level of interest in the subject).
He could not “run Washington” the way he ran the Trump Towers, because Washington isn’t a private business and can’t work that way.
There are more examples, but those will do.
With all that as background, the problem I see is just this:
The states of affairs Trumpism was a widespread revolt against have not gone anywhere!
Although weakened a bit during the Trump years, at least in our corner of the planet, globalization is still very much around and still has wealthy, powerful defenders the world over.
Technological unemployment remains very much a concern for millions of Americans as (for example) driverless cars loom.
Concerns about the status of American democracy are hardly alleviated with the inauguration of a president surrounded by 75,000 troops in a militarized Washington following what happened on January 6.
And whatever one thinks of the election of November 3, 2020, spokespersons for the idea that it would be necessary to “shore up democracy” through covert interference broadcast an acutely conspiratorial message themselves without any help from any “conspiracy theorists.”
Anyone familiar with the study I linked earlier, on America as a plutocratic oligarchy, and able to put two and two together and get four might just view this Time article as a kind of confession by our narcissistic elites, including some Cultural Leftists who cooperated with the effort, all wanting credit among their own for what they did.
It got Joe Biden into the Oval Office. But did it making progress toward achieving our country?
And where are we today — 23 years after Rorty’s Achieving Our Country?
In a nation so polarized that there is unlikely to be any agreement on what to achieve.
Small wonder many are talking, quite seriously, about the nation breaking up in the near future.
Obviously, that wouldn’t achieve our country.
At this point I suppose I’m supposed to say something about how we need to work harder to talk to each another, to try to bridge the gaps dividing Left and Right, or perhaps try, in the light of thoughtful critiques such as Rorty’s, bringing about a Left that can handle both sets of preoccupations, those of the Reformist Left and those of the Cultural Left.
As far as I can tell (and this is from reading countless tracts), the Cultural Left’s view is: our way or the highway.
If you disagree with us, you’re a racist, or a white supremacist, or a white nationalist, or a fascist, or a neo-nazi; or a misogynist; a homophobe; a transphobe; etc. And we’ll cancel you.
Small wonder a new Right is emerging in the early 2020s. It may continue to follow Trump or cast about for someone more articulate. It has learned to use the two-party system and is entrenching itself in the Republican Party. It views the Left it sees (primarily Democrats) as not merely wrong but as an enemy of the America it would achieve! Commentators are clearly terrified of this new Right, and they should be!
A Summing Up: Human Nature and Philosophy.
One of the things Rorty was dead set against, as one component of his overall anti-representational philosophy, was an idea of which Christian original sin is a species: there is something inherent in human nature which limits us.
A flaw, if you will.
Rightists all appear to believe some variation on this, even those who are atheists.
It could be the egocentric predicament, which we can try to correct for but never truly and completely eradicate.
It could be our tribalist tendencies, which the best of Enlightenment thinking — and free market capitalism, in a very different way — sought to transcend.
The Reformist Left tried to correct for egocentrism but paled in the face of tribalism.
The Cultural Left didn’t transcend either. It took whatever tribalist tendences were already there and magnified them! It was open to flaws, but made them tribe-specific.
The Right just calls things as it sees them, whatever one thinks of the messy results. The Right is not trying to achieve our country because — as we noted near the outset — it sees the great achievements as having been made in the past, not the future.
Like the U.S. Constitution, whatever is weaknesses which no serious person denies.
Rorty’s project was one of embracing certain ways of seeing the world, while repudiating others. Not because the former were true but because they were helpful as narratives, because they enabled us to cope. Are we coping? What’s left?
Here’s what’s left: my nose tells me that we really ought to try not to hurt people, or disrespect them, or the things they care about or the rituals they honor, and that such a value is ideology-neutral. We ought to encourage certain traits, first in ourselves and then in others, like critical thinking as a means to solving problems, and a respect for matters of learning generally. We ought to acknowledge (with the Stoics) that there are things we can control and that there are things we cannot control, focusing our attention on the former. We should respect basic freedoms, including to disagree. We can acknowledge that others will invariably differ from us on some things, frequently because their upbringings, experiences, educations, etc., are different from ours, and that this is normal. We can talk to them if they will talk to us. And if we can talk openly without fearing reprisals of various sorts. We should try to form collaborative associations and work with others when they are willing to work with us on common problems. If this cannot happen, we should be prepared, and willing, to go our separate ways in peace. All of this is my nose speaking. I trust my nose. I don’t know what to say to people who feel otherwise. (Some philosophers would call this a species of intuitionism.)
As we move further into the 2020s we have massive problems. Most of us (not all) would agree on what the problems are, even if not how to fix them.
Achieving our country, sadly for Rorty, is almost certainly not going to be one of them at this point. Rorty’s idea was interesting and worth engaging. I think his book makes a valuable contribution to the literature on the Left. Maybe, at some point in the future, a Left will emerge that can handle both the problems of inequality and economic precarity, which will mean valuing white people (even white men!), and the problems of stigma that arise from longstanding failures to respect others and their collective cultural experiences. Then we can talk about what country it aims to achieve.
I don’t think any such Left exists today.
 Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.
 Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.
 Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
 Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.
 Ibid., 14.
 Quoted in ibid., 12-13.
 Ibid., 82.
 Ibid., 83.
 Ibid., 84-85.
 Ibid., 85.
 New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001.
 Charles Schumer and Paul Craig Roberts, “Second Thoughts on Free Trade,” The New York Times, January 6, 2004.
 Rorty, n. 4, 83.
 Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1999.
 Rorty, n. 4, 3.
 Ibid., 90.
 Martin Giles and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives in Politics 12(3), 2014: 564-81.
 Rorty, n. 4, 90.
 Ibid., 91.
 Molly Ball, “The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election, “ TIME Magazine, February 4, 2021.
 David Brooks, “The Terrifying Future of the American Right, The Atlantic Monthly, November 18, 2021. Cf. also Barton Gellman, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun,” The Atlantic Monthly, December 6, 2021.