In 1997, acclaimed philosopher Richard Rorty (1931-2007) published his book Achieving Our Country, in which he describes his vision on American Leftism (‘the Left’). In this book, he is deeply critical at a new Left that arose in the 1960’s, the ‘Cultural Left’, a movement that contradicts with what he identifies as the original, pragmatic ‘Reformist Left’ (1). At the time that Rorty’s book came out it received a mixed critical-reception, but it has earned much positive attention since 2016, when Donald Trump got elected to the White House (2). Rorty suddenly was praised for his ability to predict the rise of this ‘strongman’ and for many other forecasts he examined throughout the book. In the first part of this paper I will recount how Rorty explained the origins of the original, Reformist Left, including its emphasis on ‘social hope’ and pragmatism. Following on this, I will give a description of Rorty’s criticism of the Cultural Left. This will contain Rorty’s focus on the ‘self-disgust’ of this new Left and how it has influenced American universities. Next, I will accurately examine the predictions that Rorty made in his book, followed by his solutions to prevent these predictions from being realized. After this, I will describe how Rorty’s prediction, against his own hopes, has come true in contemporary America. To illustrate this, I will give some specific examples of recent failures of the Left. Lastly, I will be more optimistic and specify how Rorty’s recommendations for the leftist movement are still very valuable in today’s America. Here I will also examine which current leftist examples can be a blue-print for a new, strong and political Left.
The original Left
America as the country of the future
A considerable part of Achieving Our Country is about what Rorty calls the ‘Reformist Left’; the leftist movement before the 1960’s. According to Rorty, this movement is characterized by novels such as An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945), in which the main political goal is set on transforming America into ‘the first cooperative commonwealth and classless society’. In this society, income and wealth would be equitably distributed and equality of opportunity and individual liberty would be guaranteed (3).
In this rhetoric of the Progressive Movement (20th century) and the New Deal (1930’s), Rorty considered the members of leftist movements as active agents who were critical of America’s history and current discourse, but who would also propose valid political alternatives. Rorty identifies Walt Whitman (1819-1892), John Dewey (1859-1952) and William James (1842-1910) as representatives of this movement. All three men considered America as a place where ‘a religion of love’ could replace ‘a religion of fear’ and argued that ‘love and citizenship’ should characterize a nation because of its ‘absence of institutional and individual humiliation’. They hoped that Americans would feel proud of what America might make of itself, separated from her past sins, in order to prevent the greatest danger: a time of equilibrium in which everyone would simply accept how history has shaped the present, turning everyone into spectators rather than participating agents.
Just as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), Dewey and Whitman saw America as the country of the future; ‘the land of desire for all those who are weary of the historical arsenal of old Europe’. However, neither Dewey nor Whitman thought that this greatness was eternal. They kept into account that America might become the ‘most tremendous failure of time’, leading the human species into its own termination. Granting this, both denied the knowledge of which direction the future would take and urged that the focus should be on ‘pure, joyous hope’, replacing reflection about eternity and current knowledge. More specifically, as Rorty explains, they strived for an America where God was replaced by the utopian place that America would become, in which the new conception of what it is to be human would be democracy. In line with this, they argued that disgust of America’s past was useless without efforts to change this disgust into national pride. After all, as Rorty quotes Whitman, the history of democracy remains unwritten as it yet needs to be enacted.
The strength of pragmatism
Rorty considers the pragmatic approach to be the strength of this Reformist Left, as it denied knowledge of a fixed truth. To explain this, Rorty quotes essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), who claimed that ‘the only sin is limitation’. Rorty translates this thought into the statement that a belief in a fixed standard cannot contain hope for change or progress. While many philosophers have doubts whether they can discard such a standard, Rorty praises Dewey for his ‘intellectual courage’ to construct the idea that it is only possible to describe a certain truth ‘in order to meet some particular human need’. Dewey hereby is on a par with Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who considered objectivity a matter of a consensus between human beings and as something that will always be (inter)subjective, rather than an accurate representation of the truth. As human beings have different needs, there will always be disagreement about what objectivity is, and this is exactly the reason why democratic institutions and procedures are needed to asses these different needs. The ultimate goal is therefore to ‘widen the range of consensus about how things are’. According to Rorty, the strength of the Reformist Left is its success in widening this consensus. Therefore, Rorty argues, America needs exactly the type of Dewey’s pragmatism, as it would lead to an America where philosophy and poetry would be forms of self-expression instead of reassurances for the truth. In this America, the righteous truth is not a set value, but rather the expression of a solution to a problem. This expression is separated from the fact that the solution might one day seem misplaced. The underlying pragmatic approach of this reasoning explains why Rorty was so endorsing of the origins of the Reformist Left, as it relates to Rorty’s negative account of modern epistemology and his belief in small steps to establish economic justice and individual freedom over longer periods of time (4).
The rise of a Cultural Left
Self-disgust as the source of political renouncement
According to Rorty, national pride is equivalent to what self-respect is to individuals: ‘a necessary condition for self-improvement’. On the one hand, as too much self-respect can cause arrogance, an abundance of national pride can cause bellicosity and imperialism. On the other hand, a shortage of self-respect can cause a lack of moral courage, just as a shortage of national pride blocks good debates about national policy. Rorty considers history the indicator of a country’s national pride, as either shame or proud of national historic events can reduce or increase the strength of national pride.
Rorty claims that, until 1960, the Left had been held together by the idea that vast inequalities should be corrected by the democratic institutions, which could be selected by the right politicians and the right laws. This belief offered the Left accurate reasons to always be politically active and keep American national pride alive. However, the Cold War (approx. 1947-1991) and the Vietnam War (1955-1975) changed the attitude of a substantial part of the leftist movement. Together with the other historical ‘sins’ of America, illustrated by the slaughter of the Native Americans, the rape of ancient forests, the importation of African slaves and the suppression of Black Americans, many young leftists started to feel deeply ashamed of their country, as such an history would make American pride intolerable. In this thinking, Rory argued, there is no room for forgiveness of the sins of the past. Because of this, the Left became convinced that they live in an inhuman and corrupt country, where they are part of the ‘happy few’ who have this realistic and profound insight into America’s history. However, Rorty criticizes, this insight does not motivate them to be part of politics or create a political program of their own to propose change. Simultaneously, the original alliance between the leftist intellectuals and labour unions broke down, which caused leftist movements to distance themselves even further from real politics by arguing for topics that were too far removed from America’s real needs.
According to Rorty, the failure of abandoning the idea of a fixed standard was what characterized the non-pragmatic approach of the Cultural Left. He typifies their approach as part of a ‘principled, theorized, philosophical hopelessness’ view on America. This made them focus on the obsolete state of American politics, enforcing the belief that it is useless to be politically active. This ‘Cultural Left’ became a self-disgusted and mocking Left rather than a Left that thinks of practical solutions that can improve America. This Left failed to be pragmatic in the way James, Dewey and Whitman had argued for, or, in Rorty’s words: ‘it led them to prefer knowledge to hope’. By taking this ‘long view’, the Cultural Left allowed the active government to abandon fighting against ‘political selfishness and sadism’ . Eventually this would benefit right-wing populists, as they will take advantage of the resentment against this pessimistic grumbling of the Cultural Left.
The influence of the Cultural Left in universities
Rorty does not only object the new direction of the political Left but is also very critical of the academic Left. He argues that before the 1960’s, the state universities had always been the basis of social initiatives and great strikes, grounded in political, economic theory. However, due to the influence of the Cultural Left, they started to believe in Christopher Lasch’s (1932-1994) claim that it is not possible to change political discourse in America, as criticism of existing policy is hopeless. This made them give up the ideas of their parents that reformist politics could change the injustice that has always been present in America. Instead of fighting the ‘evil empire’ of America, they accepted that change was simply impossible, allowing them to abandon their civic responsibilities in the American community. They started to look for moral and intellectual support in the wrong places, for instance in Mao’s China, as they did not believe that a leftist movement could also be anti-Communist . As a result of this, the universities shifted their academic focus to apocalyptic French and German philosophy.
While Rorty argues that universities should think about creating and improving specific social justice laws and welfare programs, this new angle of approach introduced such a high level of abstract thinking that it only discouraged students and academics to participate in politics. In line with this, the Cultural, academic Left failed to follow Dewey in his claim that not a scientific view is the most important one, but rather the analysis of historical events as ‘protocols of social experiments whose outcomes are unpredictable’. The lack of interest in the creation of new social experiments is exactly what makes the thoughts of the academic Cultural Left useless.
According to Rorty, the leftist ‘retreat from practice to theory’ managed to swipe away Dewey’s hope of ‘Americans sharing a civic religion that substituted utopian striving for claims to theological knowledge’. Within this retreat, the theorizing of power relations had become the new flagship of the academic Cultural Left, instead of striving for a world in which people join forces to resist political sadism and selfishness. Within this new focus, they stopped thinking about an alternative system to the market economy, how to decrease poverty in America or about America’s participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement. They rather talked about America’s wrong mind-set and about what America needs in order to make itself a better place without political sadism. However, Rorty considers it to be impossible to transform this abstract theorizing into a real political strategy. Philosophising yourself into politics cannot be as successful as activism was before.
Rorty claims that the new focus of the universities has led to the development of what Rorty calls ‘cultural studies’ or ‘victim studies’, such as Women’s History, Black History, Gay Studies, Migrant Studies and many more. The focus of these studies is not directed at deprivation caused by economic status, but rather on people who have an ‘ineradicable stigma’ which ‘makes them a victim of socially accepted sadism rather than merely of economic selfishness’. In doing so, the Left replaced their focus on economics by a focus on identity, and started, as Rorty calls it, ‘politics of identity’. Therefore, there are no programs in unemployed studies, homeless studies or trailer-park studies, as these people are not considered ‘other’ in this sense of victimized sadism.
Marxism and the dark side of leftist successes
According to Rorty, Karl Marx had been a brilliant political economist ‘who foresaw how the rich would use industrialization to immiserate the poor’. In addition, Rorty acknowledges the heroic activities by members of the American communist party. After all, Rorty states, they made painful sacrifices trying to achieve America’s promises.
However, at the same time, Rorty considers Marxism to be more of a religion than a political concept because of its focus on purity, obedience and complete freedom from sin. Rorty goes further by claiming that Marxism has not only been a disaster in countries where Marxists (i.e. communists) took power, but also in the countries in which they did not, hereby harming the Left. He claims that if Marxism-Leninism had never been invented, social democracy and economic justice would have made much further progress.
Rorty also blames Marxism for creating a wrong distinction in the leftist movement, in which people such as Irving Howe (1920-1993) and Michael Harington (1928-1989) were counted as the old Left, and people like John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) and Arthur Schlesinger (1917-2007) were not. The latter two were set apart as ‘the Liberals’, and not, as the first two, opponents of capitalism, even though, according to Rorty, all four men shared the same view on the future of America. This unnecessary distinction within the Left has increased the lack of pragmatism and prevents the Left from ‘throwing itself into the struggle to give the masses what they wanted and deserved’ by fighting the harmful side of capitalism .
Besides criticising Marxism, Rorty also acknowledges one important failure of the Reformist Left, which was the fact that this old Left was too tired to start a leftist revolution in America. On the contrary, the new Cultural Left succeeded in ending the Vietnam War, arranged the forty-hour working week for American workers and managed to decrease anti-black, anti-woman and anti-homosexual sentiment. According to Rorty, these accomplishments of the Cultural Left has made America a more civilized society in the end. By teaching scholars about the historical humiliation of minorities, the Cultural Left have made it more difficult to be sadistic towards these minorities. Rorty goes further by claiming that this political correctness of the Cultural Left has made America a ‘far better place’.
However, there is a dark side to these successes, and this is where Rorty’s prediction of contemporary politics begins. While the Cultural Left successfully diminished sadism, income and wealth distribution have become less important within American politics. Rorty argues that it seems that the Left was not able to handle two social initiatives at the same time, although both were similarly important. Consequently, this would result in the disappearance of middle-class idealism, which would lead the (white) middle-class to be proletarianized. This proletarianization would make it impossible for the average hardworking American to have a live with adequate resources, as without public transportation and national health insurance their income would simply not be sufficient. Their economic deprivation and constant anxiety of wage rollbacks and illness could cause a need for a ‘bottom-up populist revolt’.
Rorty argues that the process of globalization will increase the chances of this revolt, as it creates a high level of job insecurity. After all, within this process, any attempt by any country to improve worker’s conditions will only result in more unemployment risks. At the same time, this will create a new ‘cosmopolitan upper-class’ in the world. This upper-class will consist of young entrepreneurs and academics who have taken the benefits of globalization, while the other 75% of Americans will see their living standard go down every day.
An Orwellian world
Rorty thinks that the processes of proletarianization and globalisation might cause the emergence of an ‘Orwellian World’. An Orwellian state, as George Orwell put forward in 1984, is a totalitarian apparatus characterized by war, police state terror, surveillance, the suppression of civil liberties and media domination (5). According to Rorty, the political choice that Americans would be presented in an Orwellian America is between ‘cynical lies and terrified silence’. The only thing that the rich must do to maintain their dominance and make the important economic decisions in this America is distract the minds of the common laborers with ethnic and religious hostilities.
A preferred response by the academic, left-wing upper-class to prevent the creation of this Orwellian world would be to insist that inequalities between nations should be diminished, which leads them to suggest open borders. Because of this, more and more factories in America shall be closed and reopened in Slovenia, Thailand, Mexico or other foreign countries. At the same time, the upper-class would reap the fruits of this further globalization and is often more interested in the workers of other, third world countries, rather than in its fellow citizens, who will suffer from sinking wages or jobs being exported.
As a result of this, the Left would lose the trust of labour unions members and unorganized unskilled workers. This could even create a counter-response, in which the working-class will not accept that they are being taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else, as they themselves are suffering from poverty and other deprivation. Because of their own economic situation and the political ignorance about this, they will start to regard the system as a failure. Now, people will start looking for a ‘strongman’, who can function as an outlet for the growing resentment of poorly educated Americans towards the elite; a strongman who can curtail the influence of these ‘smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors’. After all, this elite has failed to fight for the rights of ‘the people’.
Although Rorty emphasises the unpredictability of the emergence of this strongman, he already warns that it will erase all the gains made by Black Americans, homosexuals and women, and that it would bring back the sadism that the Left has been fighting against for such a long time. Rorty mentions also that even though this strongman will be preferred because of his anti-attitude towards the proponents of globalization, this strongman himself will also be part of the international super-rich. Rorty comments that this contradiction will make people wonder why there is so little resistance to his tremendous rise.
Rorty’s solution to his own prediction
Erasing the line between the Left and Liberalism
As explained before, Rorty blames Marxism for creating a wrong distinction within the leftist movement, setting the ‘Liberals’ apart from the Left. However, according to Rorty, both sides think alike on how America should progress. Rorty therefore argues that the distinction between the Left and the Liberals should be abandoned, and that at the same time, the Left should break ties with Marxism. The Left should stop wasting their time on Marxist scholasticism, as the Left does not need Marx to develop a ‘constructive national purpose’. They should be much more pragmatic in preventing the economic impoverishment of the proletariat and the Left should therefore focus on fighting the harmful side of capitalism . According to Rorty, this the best way to make American Leftism a movement with a ‘long and glorious history’, which is needed to have the struggle for social justice central to their moral identity.
Rorty uses Herbert Croly’s book The Promise of American life (1909) as the example of how the Left could have progressed without Marxism. Croly (1869-1930), just as Marx, recognized the danger of capitalists having a reserve army of unemployed, which allows these capitalists to pay ‘starvation wages’ for those they hire, resulting in an unequal distribution of wealth. However, where Marx criticises private ownership of the means of production for this undesirable distribution (6), Croly blames the typical American hunger for individual freedom. He claims that a highly socialized democracy is necessary to develop the constructive national purpose that is responsible for a morally and socially desirable distribution of wealth. Therefore, Rorty, following Croly, urges to let go of the ‘individualistic rhetoric’ of America.
Regaining national pride and pragmatism
Rorty explains that it is important that both the Left and Right of a country try to forge a moral identity, by arguing which historical hopes are allowed and which are not. This requires a Left and Right that are both active and where both are responsible for keeping their arguments alive. However, where the Right entertains a view that the country is in good shape, yet it may have been in better shape in the past; the Left struggles for ‘utopian foolishness’, making the Left ‘the party of hope’. The Left insists that America remains unachieved, while the Right sees America’s moral identity as one that needs to be preserved, rather than achieved. Therefore, according to Rorty, the Right ‘fears economic and political change’, which explains why the rich and powerful are in favour of this discourse. After all, they already achieved their own hopes.
However, the cultural Left has now lost its hope because of their disgust of America. Rorty therefore argues that the Left should stop with the anti-American sentiment they have promoted from the 1960’s onwards and need to regain their national pride. Their resentment against ‘the system’ should be a motivation to start concrete action in the form of a program of their own that allows them to reconstruct their country afresh. This is the only way in which the Cultural Left can reconnect with people and the labour unions. Specific reforms are necessary to put the academics and the professional workers on the same level with the people who ‘clean the academics’ and professionals’ toilets’. Rorty warns, that if this initiative stays absent, the Left will not have any influence on American laws and will likewise lose their grip on American society.
But how can America’s difficult past be compatible with national pride? To explain this, Rorty returns to his comparison of national pride to a person’s self-respect. If you yourself have acted as has been acted in the difficult American past, and you have contemporary knowledge of the cruelty of these acts, you would have three choices: suicide, a life of bottomless self-disgust or ‘an attempt to live so as never to do such a thing again’. According to Rorty, in order to remain an agent in control of your own future, you should opt for the third option. To transform this to how America should deal with its past, Rorty states that the country should stop terminating its own future by endless self-disgust. Instead, America’s main goal should be to make the future a better place by striving never to act in the same way as it has acted in the past.
In line with this, Rorty argues that pride of American citizenship should take the upper hand of differences such as race and sexual preferences, just as the ‘Platoon movies’ asked: ‘What do our differences matter, compared with out commonality as fellow Americans?’ The goal should be to focus on hope, not on presenting differences. It should rather cease noticing these differences, in order to let go of ‘politics of identity’. Loyalty to a dream of what America might become is much more important than focussing on the bad state it is in at this moment. Without this loyalty, it is pointless to expect actual change.
However, Rorty argues, the loyalty to this dream must also be transformed into a manual construction. Only dreaming of America being rescued by ‘the people’ is not enough, just as only theorizing about power does not suffice. The Cultural Left has adopted ideals that are too unrealistic to be realized, such as the complete demolition of capitalism. How this should be brought about and with what capitalism should be replaced, remains unknown. The hope that ‘the people’ would know how to compete in an open world is hopeless if the people do not have the knowledge to do so. We cannot simply wait for capitalism to collapse; it should be figured out in advance how to regulate prices and distribute products without markets. The Left should therefore produce a specific program in which it makes clear how their ideals should work in practice. Without this, Rorty states, it is impossible to become a political Left. After all, who would be interested in the demolition of capitalism if there is no alternative? Ideas about a completely different system should not stand in the way of thinking about step-by-step reform of the current system.
Rorty argues that the world around us is to a large extent a ‘replaceable social construction’, which, again, puts emphasis on his pragmatic way of thinking. When transferring this reasoning to the American universities, Rorty argues that they should follow Dewey in using moral and scientific beliefs as ‘tools for achieving greater human happiness’. This would make them able to reinvent traditional humanism and liberalism and reclaim pragmatism. To finish this section, I can only simply quote Rorty, as in two paragraphs he specifies what he thinks the academic Left should do to save itself from the isolation it has put itself in:
“For purposes of thinking about how to achieve our country, we do not need to worry about the correspondence theory of truth, the grounds of normativity. The impossibility of justice, or the infinite distance which separates us from the other. For those purposes, we can give both religion and philosophy a pass. We can just get on with trying to solve what Dewey called the problems of men.”
“To bring this about, it would help if American leftists stopped asking whether or not Walter Reuther’s attempt to bourgeoisify the auto workers was objectively reactionary. It would also help if they emphasized the similarities rather than the diﬀerences between Malcolm X and Bayard Rustin, between Susan B. Anthony and Emma Goldman, between Catharine MacKinnon and Judith Butler.”
In other words, the Left should stop arguing about academic, abstract questions and instead should focus much more on economics, on the similarities between the different leftist movements and on being pragmatic again. According to Rorty, a new Progressive Left should think of how Lincoln and Whitman should have wanted America to be achieved.
Rorty’s book: an underestimation?
Looking at what Rorty wrote in 1997, it is almost as if Donald Trump has read Rorty and used it for his own political agenda. Mirroring Rorty’s analysis of the attractive power of the ‘strongman’, Trump made use of the working-class Americans to win the 2016 elections, by promising to close the borders and by making anti-elite statements. The ‘great, great wall’ between America and the US was not only aimed at keeping Mexican migrants out, but also at the non-physical wall of keeping America’s economy close to home, i.e. ‘America First’ (7). This enhanced Trump’s anti-globalisation stance, which also connects to Rorty’s earlier warning of the negative influence of globalisation .
Rorty might have underestimated his own prediction, as Trump’s war against the elites was not only aimed at the academia, but also against the government’s intelligence agencies, the media, foreign allies, the Department of Justice, establishment politicians and the Congressional Budget Office. Furthermore, he did not only attack the specific position of academia, but he also questioned their complete research field and expertise (8).
Also, against his own hopes, Rorty would have seen his prediction on the vanishing leftist accomplishments come true. ‘Grab them by the pussy’ was just the beginning of an administration that does not fight racist, anti-woman and anti-LGBT statements and groups, but rather promotes and defends them. Calling white supremacists ‘very fine people’, pardoning a sheriff who has been found guilty of racially profiling Latinos, referring to an Hispanic Miss Universe as ‘Miss Housekeeping’ and calling Mexican immigrants ‘criminals and rapists’ is just a short summary of last year in political America (9).
With his ‘choice between cynical lies and terrified silence’ Rorty has also given us a foretaste of what we now know as ‘fake news’ and the long list of lies that Donald Trump has mentioned since he became president, as Pulitzer Prize-winner website PolitiFact has pointed out that more than 40% of his statements were simply not true (10). This has many political consequences, especially since many political commentators have argued that Trump intentionally uses these statements in order to distract people from more important matters. For example, at the same time that Trump was in a heavy discussion about a Black American sportsman who refused to kneel during the American anthem, it became clear that America failed to give Puerto Rico adequate support after the hurricane that struck this American unincorporated territory. However, it seemed that more attention was put on the first issue, while from a political and humanitarian perspective the latter was much more important (11). It seems that the Left is successfully being tricked into ignoring policies that go straight against liberal and leftist’s values. ‘Cynical lies and terrified silence’ has become a disturbed reality, and it is hard to believe how Rorty has managed to predict the rise of Donald Trump in full-detail.
Examples of the current Cultural Left
I will now offer specific examples of recent proceedings by the academic and political Left which will illustrate how the current Left can still be regarded as the Cultural Left. Simultaneously, these cases will show how the current Left has failed to consider the solutions that Rorty offered in his book.
Abandoning economics and adopting politics of identity
Now while I myself would agree with Rorty, Croly and Dewey that individualism has its drawbacks on society and its politics, the opposite has been argued by political scientist and libertarian Charles Murray (1943). According to him, not individualism, but rather the release of individualism is one of the factors that reinforced the rise of Donald Trump. Even though this contrasts with the negative view on individualism, it does connect to Rorty’s observation of how the Cultural Left has focussed on identities rather than on economic deprivation. It might even explain in more detail why this indeed has been such a disaster for the leftist movement, also in the current Left. Let me explain this more clearly.
Individualism and personal liberty are deeply rooted in American society. They go back to the American Declaration of Independence (1776), which was grounded in the ideas of John Locke:
“Individual rights precede government; they are not given or bestowed by government. They are unalienable, that is, they belong to each and every individual as a human being, and no political power or authority may claim the legitimacy to abridge or abolish them (12).”
Just as Rorty, Murray considers the 1960’s as a breaking point in American liberal/leftist politics. Until then, all political candidates embraced individualism. However, when the civil and feminist movements rightfully demanded change, they consequently produced policies that would be in contrast with America’s individualism. These policies caused ‘large-scale ideological defection’, where citizens were now treated as groups, rather than individual members of society. Democratic elites thereby gained popularity with many minorities, as they could finally and rightfully demand change for Black Americans and women.
However, by ignoring the American thirst for individual liberty and freedom, the Democrats alienated themselves from another important group of voters: the white working-class. This group started to feel ignored and looked down upon by Democratic elites, as they suddenly did not receive the validation they previously got for being good providers within their community. The continuous process of de-individualization, set in progress by the Left, has therefore created a breeding ground for Trumpism (13). Looking at the Left in the twenty-first century, it seems that it has failed to adhere to Rorty’s plea for regaining focus on economic circumstances instead of fixating on ‘politics of identity’.
Exemplary of this lost focus on economic circumstances is the presidency of Barack Obama. According to economics writer Jeffrey A. Tucker (1963), Obama’s presidency failed because he ignored ‘the driving concern of all American life’: the economic quality of people’s lives. Even though Obama devoted his presidency to economic recovery and therefore focused on the financial sector, he never made wage stagnation and growing inequality central to his mission. At the time that Obama finally did start focussing on those who were ‘left behind’ by the recovery, he wanted to ‘build ladders of opportunity’. This meant going back to Rorty’s ‘politics of identity’, rather than using an economic angle of approach, hereby leaving a majority of Americans still struggling economically (14). Obama himself has later stated the following when he analysed the Democratic loss of the 2016 presidential election, which connects to the consequence of this incorrect focus on identity:
“While he denied that there was anything wrong with the “core argument” of the Democratic message around issues like raising the minimum wage, he admitted that there were “failures on our part to give people in rural areas or in exurban areas, a sense day-to-day that we’re fighting for them or connected to them (15).”
Big corporations and their relationship with politics
As explained before, Rorty argues that the leftist elite, but also popular culture, has only portrayed America in a tone of ‘self-disgust’. To give a specific example of this claim, Rorty discusses the novels Almanac of the Dead and Snow Crash, as both books mention the lack of citizenship and unity. Rorty links these books to Michel Foucault (1928-1984) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), as these philosophers also looked upon America’s history as filled with hypocrisy and self-deception. Where the first book negatively focusses on America’s history in slavery, the second one confirms the widespread belief that the big corporations call the shots in America, not the government, feeding the conviction that the government has become a farce. When Rorty summarizes the content of Snow Crash, it is almost as if he is describing the current condition of America:
“Snow Crash tells of a twenty-first-century America in which the needs of the entrepreneurs have won out over hopes of a fee ad egalitarian society. The county has been divided into small franchised enclaves, within each of which a single corporation – IBM, the Mafia, GenTech – holds the rights of high and low justice. The U.S. government has gone into business for itself and is one more corporate entity, running its own little enclaves.”
According to Rorty, the Cultural Left considers this world outlined in Snow Crash as the predetermined direction of America, which increases their self-disgust and consequently prevents them for participating in political discourse.
Unfortunately, it seems that exactly this non-participation has made the world of Snow Crash come true in the twenty-first century . The influence of big corporations on politics has become widespread and lobbying has become a huge power within political discourse. While this process only started in the mid-1970’s, after new safety and environmental regulations awoke American businesses to actively participate in politics, the power of these corporations has become evident in twenty-first century politics. Currently, out of the 100 organizations that spend the most on political lobbying, 95 of them represent business corporations. Vice versa, politics have become more corporate itself. Research shows that the American Congress is on increasingly friendly terms with the financial world and that many policy experts reside in the private sector (16).
Recently, this has especially harmed the Left. Probably the most stunning example of this is the relationship that 2016 democratic candidate Hilary Clinton has with the financial world. Wall Street has been a donor to her (and her husband’s) Clinton Foundation and political party for years, and between 1999 and 2016 they received millions of dollars from donors such as Goldman Sachs, Citibank and JP Morgan. Making matters worse, it turned out that Hilary Clinton personally received millions of dollars for giving speeches at big banks (17). This let democratic candidate Bernie Sanders ask the obvious question to Hilary Clinton: “Can you really reform Wall Street when they are spending millions and millions of dollars on campaign contributions, and when they are providing speaker fees to individuals?” (18). Some commentators claimed that her intense relationship with the financial world has resulted in a big loss of votes (19), allowing Trump to win the 2016 elections. Rorty’s warning against the influence of big corporations has turned out to be directly aimed at the Left itself.
Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, i.e. Obamacare)
Even though the intention was to insure all Americans, the costs of Obamacare for the middle- and low-class American people were often too high, and some have claimed that it caused them to become even more economically deprived. American people without a college-degree rather wanted to go back to the time that they had steady, stable, full-time jobs that provided a solid, middle-class life for their families, instead of being obliged to pay for a health insurance (20). Still, the Obama administration ignored public opinion on the matter and pushed Obamacare through, in the hope that it would ‘grow’ on people over time (21). But if the working-class Americans simply do not want to pay for their insurance, especially not when it is forced upon them, how can they not feel deeply ignored by the ‘smug’ elite? This links back to Murray’s claims on American individualism and Rorty’s warning on the danger of politics of identity, and it is exactly this kind of ignorance that causes the need for a populist revolt for people to reclaim their individual liberty.
‘Basket of Deplorables’
Considering Rorty’s explanation of the leftist retreat from middle-class idealism, Hilary Clinton’s ‘Basket of Deplorables’ may well have become the greatest example in recent history that shows the ignorance and arrogance of the Left that Rorty already felt in the 90’s. These deplorables, i.e. Trump voters, are, according to Clinton, the “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and Islamophobic” (22). We can link this back to Rorty’s remarks regarding the leftist focus on ‘the others’ who do not have an ‘ineradicable stigma’ which ‘makes them a victim of socially accepted sadism rather than merely of economic selfishness’, i.e. politics of identity. Even though Trump has received votes from a much wider group of people than commonly believed (23), a large group of them are working-class people who simply want their job back and have their basic human needs fulfilled (20). Rorty would have known as no other how Clinton’s remarks must have been perceived by these groups and how they must have intensified their resentment against the elite.
The perseverance of self-disgust
Concerning the self-disgust that Rorty considers as a critical issue within the Cultural Left, this phenomenon has not disappeared from current leftist movements. Although it might have been temporarily tempered by Obama’s election, it can currently be found in both contemporary leftist movements and among American people in general. After the election of Donald Trump, many people could not stop with feeling disgusted by their country and its people. Characteristic of this are recent polls which show that 51 percent of Americans are feeling ashamed that Trump is the president of their country (24). Also peculiar is what Colbert I. King, opinion writer at the Washington Post, asks himself a year after Trump’s election: ‘What does his presidency say about us and our country?’ (25). It seems that the mocking continued without reclaiming national pride, and so the Left has continued its ‘useless’ discourse in contemporary politics.
The liberal influence on universities
In line with Rorty’s analysis that the Cultural Left turned universities into a ‘national Church’, it is interesting to consider contemporary liberal and leftist influences on universities. Research shows that universities employ a high percentage of liberals, more than any other profession (26). Only 14% of professors in America are identified as Republican, and professors often prefer a liberal political opinion on social issues such as gender equality and gay rights. It is said that this lack of diversity risks the drowning of different viewpoints, where students are informed about only one side of the argument. However, the same research also shows that only a small number of republican students are concerned about their freedom of speech and that they consider professors to be quite neutral (27). Still, even though there might be room for other viewpoints, the liberal domination may lead to the further isolation of the Left and their growing gap with real issues in society. Does this relate to and maybe even support Rorty’s claim? It might, as the consensus about issues that need to be addressed can cause ignorance about other issues, such as poverty within trailer-parks.
The prevention of a second ‘populist-revolt’
Donald Trump: a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Rorty has been very clear on how he thought the Left should progress. And even where Obama might have been part of the hope that Rorty focussed on, it now seems that Obama’s legacy has brought us to a situation that Rorty warned us for: a world where the accomplishments of the Left are starting to vanish, and a world in which the media are dominated by the government, big corporations are taking over and the elite is being looked down upon.
I even want to argue that the self-disgust and mockery that Rorty already noticed in 1997 has caused a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, explaining the rise of Donald Trump, and that this rise could cause a second self-fulfilling prophecy in the future, which would drive the process detailed above even further. Let me clarify this by using a psychological example of the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If my worst nightmare as a student is to fail an exam because of insufficient capabilities, this fear will put a lot of pressure on me to actually pass the exam. Logically, this pressure will affect my nerves while making the exam, and even though I might have the capabilities to pass the exam, my nerves will now cause me to fail. Thus, the fact that I was so afraid to fail the exam has rather fulfilled this fear as the fear itself influenced my capabilities to pass the exam. This would be the first self-fulfilling prophecy.
Now that I have failed the exam, my fear that I do not have the capabilities to pass a next exam will be intensified. After all, I did not pass the first exam, so why should I be able to pass the next one? My efforts to prepare for the next exam will therefore be less intensive, as my belief in actually passing the exam has been lowered. As a consequence of this, I will fail the second exam as well. The second self-fulfilling prophecy has occurred.
Assuming that Rorty was correct that the 1960’s’ Left started to be filled with self-disgust about America and her past, I will now show that the exam example has the same self-fulfilling aspect as this self-disgust. If it is true that the Left constantly assumed their country to be rotten from the inside, it would explain what Rorty meant with the feeling of incapability to make a change in the country’s discourse. Instead of fighting its own self-disgust in order to make America a better place, the Left continued to be focussed on what is wrong with the country, rather than proposing a program of its own. After all, it felt pointless for them to do so. Obama might have given the leftist movement new hope, but this hope was shattered once Obama was not able to fulfil the expectations and got replaced by the ‘strongman’ that Rorty so accurately had predicted. Thus, the passivity that was caused by the self-disgust and the related belief in a lost America, now caused this belief to come true. The Orwellian world had been created and the first self-fulfilling prophecy of the Left had come true.
This fulfilment of the leftist fears and the hereon following confirmation of America as a lost country could create the danger of a second self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, the 2016 election fulfilled the leftist’s fears of living in an Orwellian World, and this might decrease their hope in achieving America more intensively than before, since Donald Trump stands for all the things that the Left had always fought against. This could discourage them even further to change current political discourse in America’s politics, making room for a second (or continuous) populist revolt. Considering the extent to which this shows that the Left should not become a passive spectator again is precisely what makes Rorty’s prediction relevant today, and maybe even more so now than in 1997.
The obstruction of a second self-fulfilling prophecy
Assuming the goal is to prevent this second (or continuous) revolt from happening, I will list three contemporary leftist’s examples, not specifically America-based, that might meet Rorty’s wishes and that could inspire the American Left to prevent this second self-fulfilling prophecy.
Thomas Piketty, France
Thomas Piketty (1971) is a French economic who is known for his thoughts on equality and wealth, and he argues in his controversial book Capital in the Twenty-First Century that wealth and income inequality should be decreased. The book is a strong critique on the high concentration of wealth by a small number of people, and he proposes useful and practical solutions to this problem, such as high taxes for the super-rich. Even though the core message of the book is that capitalism suffers from a dangerous flaw that can lead to unjustified power for the ‘lucky-few’, Piketty states that his economic ideas are not a matter of left or right ideology or intended as a complete reform of the current economic system, but rather meant as a way of fixing the capitalist market economy (28).
As explained earlier in this paper, Rorty pleaded for small steps over longer periods of time to establish economic justice and individual freedom, and also argued for a renewed, leftist focus on economics. With his progressive, reasonable and pragmatic ideas, Piketty has proven to be one of the contemporary agents who tries to make this happen in exactly the way Rorty argued for, keeping Rorty’s arguments alive.
Bernie Sanders, United States
I consider US Senator and 2016 democratic candidate Bernie Sanders to also be part of the pragmatic and hopeful Left that Rorty argued for. Sanders has been a strong proponent of eliminating poverty, increasing life expectancy and tackling climate change, mostly by ‘taking the power back from the billionaires’ (29). His program does not stop at wishful thinking, as Sanders strongly defended these arguments and tried to make them the main message of the Democratic party. His ‘Medicare for All’ proposal for a national American health insurance is the perfect practical example of how his ideas fit with Rorty and Rorty’s own inspirers. Let me quote from Sanders’ website to illustrate this:
“It has been the goal of Democrats since Franklin D. Roosevelt to create a universal health care system guaranteeing health care to all people. Every other major industrialized nation has done so. It is time for this country to join them and fulfil the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and other great Democrats (30).”
Not only does Sanders try to keep American social hope alive, but by proposing his medical health care program he also presents a satisfying alternative to the current program, serving Rorty’s emphasis on ‘valid political alternatives’. In order to create an affordable and sustainable health care system, Sanders avoids Obama’s mistake by preventing forced fees for the obligated insurance, as the system, if put in place, will be financed through tax raises. Following on this, he specifically focusses on the influence of the pharmaceutical industry, insurance companies, Wall Street and the Republican Party on health care, making it a real leftist program (31). What makes Sanders even more important is his strong consistency in defending his own programs and ideas, even after he lost the Democratic election to Hilary Clinton. With his organisation Brand New Congress he continued his political course and organised campaigns for reform-minded senate candidates, with an end-goal to mobilise new voters for the American midterm elections of 2018 (32). With Sanders, there is no self-disgust, or at least not without concrete and pragmatic action to change current political discourse. This is the kind of pragmatic thinking that can fulfil Rorty’s own hopes.
Podemos is Spain’s most recent political party and even though their results during the last Spanish elections were not what they expected, they still received 21% of Spanish votes (33). I consider Podemos to also be very relevant to Rorty’s ideas. Even though the party has anti-capitalist roots, they do not specifically argue against a market-based economy, as they acknowledge that this would be a limited and partly unrealistic option, at least in the short term. They rather fight for higher taxes for the richest in order to stimulate the economy, and thereby redistribute money to the poor and also to add more judges, tax inspectors and social-service workers (34). This adoption of an “anti-austerity” agenda (35) matches perfectly with Rorty’s claim that the Left should focus on people’s economic circumstances, rather than on identity politics. It also connects to the plea of Rorty to be pragmatic, perfectly described by the Guardian journalist Giles Tremblett:
“It is tempting to see Podemos as a well-planned operation by a group of talented academics, following a populist script written by a line of radical thinkers, but that would be too simple. It is really the result of an open-ended effort by unorthodox idealists to effect change, combining youthful conviction with a desire to test out their ideas in the real world (34).”
At the same time, Pablo Iglesias, the 29-year-old leader of Podemos, refuses to be part of the political elite; characterized by his preference to not be driven around in official cars and to fly in economic class (34). By doing so, he avoids having himself seen as part of the maligned ‘elite’ that his own party fights against. This, and the pragmatic aspect of Podemos, makes them an excellent example of a New, Progressive Left that Rorty would have wanted to see.
I will now finish this paper in the same manner as Rorty finished Achieving Our Country, as his summary of how the Left should join forces and progress is even more applicable in contemporary times.
Even though America’s past and present might have many aspects to feel ashamed of, it should not lead to passive observation on what has gone wrong or what is going wrong. The negative side of America’s history should be remembered, but it should not overshadow the national character of America, as this character is still in the making. Moral progress has been made, such as the Women’s Suffrage, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, Feminism, the Gay Rights Movement and the election of the first black man as American president. In 1997, nobody could have known whether America will make greater moral progress or not, and this is still and will never be possible. Even though many of Obama’s accomplishments may vanish over the next years, the Left should prevent from being an ‘detached cosmopolitan spectator’ and should rather continue to strive for social justice and equality. After all, the history of democracy remains unwritten as it yet needs to be enacted. America continues to need a strong and functioning political Left if it wants to continue developing the moral progress that has already been made, or, in Rorty’s words, if it wants to ‘Achieve Its Country’.
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