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30 September 2022

Is America worth keeping?

Richard Rorty, the philosopher who predicted Trump, was scathing about the US’s failings but believed in the country’s capacity to fight injustice.

By Thomas Nagel

The American philosopher Richard Rorty died in 2007, but in 2016 he achieved a different kind of celebrity for having foreseen the election of Donald Trump. In a book called Achieving Our Country, published in 1998, he had written that increasing inequality and the immiseration of the working class as a result of globalisation would lead “the nonsuburban electorate” to “start looking for a strongman to vote for – someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots… All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

Rorty was always deeply interested in and informed about politics, though he was not a political philosopher (his academic writing was never about political theory, which he thought unimportant). Born in New York in 1931, he described his background and development in a wonderful essay-memoir, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” (1992). His parents were stalwarts of the anti-Stalinist left, and Rorty shared their values. “When I was 12,” he recalls, “the most salient books on my parents’ shelves were two red-bound volumes, The Case of Leon Trotsky and Not Guilty. These made up the report of the Dewey Commission of Inquiry into the Moscow Trials… I thought of them in the way in which other children thought of their family’s Bible: they were books that radiated redemptive truth and moral splendour.” John Dewey was his hero, both as a public intellectual and as a philosopher, and after many years as an analytic philosopher of mind and language Rorty became a significant public figure himself.

In addition to Achieving Our Country, he wrote many shorter pieces expressing his political beliefs, hopes and fears – realistic, insightful and constructive in spite of the pull of pessimism. Nineteen of them, some not previously published, are now collected in What Can We Hope For?: Essays on Politics (Princeton). All were written between 1995 and 2007, during the Bill Clinton and George W Bush administrations. It is an invaluable collection, expressing a traditional form of left liberalism that badly needs to be reasserted in the face of the identity politics and antipatriotic radicalism whose claim to represent the American left is such a gift to the right.

Rorty believed that the main goal of the left should be to fight against socio-economic inequality. The fight is about money and hereditary class, and the legislative weapons are taxation, redistribution and provision of a decent social safety net for everyone. Overcoming the oppression of racial and ethnic minorities, women and homosexuals is also important, and these were the areas of greatest success for the American left in the second half of the 20th century. But such advances were possible partly because those injustices were due to bigotry rather than economic factors and their mitigation cost the rich nothing. They should not take the place of economic injustice as the primary target of leftist politics – democratic electoral politics. In a system where campaign finance is a form of licensed bribery, that is a much harder fight.

Though some of its message may apply more widely, this is a very American book, addressed primarily to the American left, even in its discussion of international affairs. Rorty argues that a disaster befell the left in the 1960s and 1970s when the Vietnam War led protesters in the universities to a radical condemnation of the US as irredeemable – of “the system” as hopeless.

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“The Vietnam War saw the end of the traditional alliance between the academics and the unions – an alliance which had nudged the Democratic party steadily to the left during the previous twenty years. We are still living with the consequences of the anti-Vietnam War movement, and in particular with those of the rage of the increasingly manic student protesters of the late 1960s. These protesters were absolutely right that Vietnam was an unjust war, a massacre of which our country will always be ashamed. But when the students began to burn flags and to spit at returning soldiers, they did deeper and more long-lasting damage to the American left than they could ever have imagined. When they began to spell ‘America’ with a ‘k,’ they lost the respect and the sympathy of the union members. Until George McGovern’s defeat in 1972, the New Left did not realise that it had unthinkingly destroyed an alliance which had been central to American leftist politics.”

These radicals then retreated into academic politics, where their influence remains substantial and politically pernicious. Their “picture of America as pretty much irredeemable”, Rorty writes, “is just a way of evading questions about how to change our country for the better… We need to stop airing these doubts about our country and our culture and to replace them with proposals for legislative change. For our only chance of making either the country or the culture better is to do what our forebears did: keep trying, despite the lethargy and selfishness, for a classless and casteless society.”

One of the best essays, “Does Being an American Give One a Moral Identity?” is a call for unashamed patriotism as an essential condition for political effectiveness:

“If one lives under a dictatorship, it is a bad thing to let one’s citizenship contribute to forming one’s moral identity. If one lives in a functioning constitutional democracy, I would argue, it is an unequivocally good thing. It amounts to being idealistic about one’s country, something citizens of a democracy ought to be. To abandon such idealism amounts to opting out, to becoming an ironic spectator of the nation rather than a participant in its political life.”

Only nation-states have the power to improve people’s lives on a large scale, and mobilising this power in a democracy requires the appeal to national ideals and memories.

“There is no reason for us to deny that our country has been racist, sexist, homophobic, imperialist, and all the rest of it,” he continues. “But there is every reason to remember that it has also been capable of reforming itself, over and over again… The historical memories of those successes ought to be enough to make it possible for us to incorporate our American citizenship into our moral identities.”

[See also: Why we should celebrate British sentimentality]

By contrast, Rorty believed that the fragmentation of identities advocated by multiculturalism is politically harmful: “Teaching [both black and white children] that the two groups have separate cultural identities does no good at all. Whatever pride such teaching may inspire in black children is offset by the suggestion that their culture is not that of their white schoolmates: that they have no share in the mythic America imagined by the Founders and by Emerson and Whitman, the America partially realised by Lincoln and by King.

“That mythic America is a great country, and the insecure and divided actual America is a pretty good one… But, by proclaiming the myth a fraud, multiculturalism cuts the ground from under its own feet, quickly devolving into anti-Americanism, into the idea that ‘the dominant culture’ of America, that of the WASPs, is so inherently oppressive that it would be better for its victims to turn their backs on the country, rather than claiming a share in its history and future.”

Rorty didn’t live to see the election of Donald Trump, but nor did he live to see the election of Barack Obama, the passage of Obamacare, or the social democratic presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders – which he would probably have found heartening. Yet the situation of the American left has not changed much since he wrote. It has failed to reverse the flight from the Democratic Party of whites who never went to college – and who are now mesmerised by Trump – and it continues to arm the right by giving too much salience to the culture wars, and by amplifying the multiculturalist and anti-American fallout from the Black Lives Matter movement. Joe Biden displays the combination of patriotism and egalitarianism favoured by Rorty, but without larger congressional majorities he will continue to have difficulty passing legislation that seriously attacks economic inequality.

Rorty was a pessimist about justice at the global level. He suspected there are too many people in the world to hope to bring everyone up to the standard of living of the Western democracies, and that to give lip service to moral universalism in these circumstances is “the mouthing of a formula, a meaningless incantation… The only way the rich can think of themselves as part of the same moral community with the poor is through some scenario which gives hope to the children of the poor without threatening that of their own children of hope.” Absent such a scenario we can expect global inequality to persist.

And Rorty thought it was not wrong for rich countries to discount the rest of the world, since the scope of our moral community is entirely a matter of choice – choice of whom to join in solidarity and identification: one of his principles of “postmodern skepticism” reads: “There is no objective fact about human beings which dictates that our biological species should also be a moral community. The project of constructing such a community is one interpretation of the significance of the human existence among others.”

But he didn’t make predictions, noting that “technology has surprised us before, and so has the success of moral idealists in bringing about the seemingly impossible”.

Rorty was also pessimistic about race. “If racism ever ends in the United States, it will be as a result of enduring affluence.” He thought that the oppression of blacks was completely different from discrimination against other racial or ethnic minorities, and much more intractable: “The incredibly cruel caste system which was created by African slavery is quite likely to survive the creation, as a sequel to the civil rights movement, of a sizable African-American middle class.”

This is depressing but persuasive, as was his conviction that university programmes in African-American studies will not make a difference to the basic structural problem. Nor, I would add, will token appointments of non-white people to the boards of trustees of large corporations or cultural institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum or the Metropolitan Opera.

Rorty insisted that philosophy is no longer relevant to politics, even if (as with Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau) it played a role in the 18th century, and that his political views did not rest on a philosophical foundation. That is fortunate, because his philosophical position, to which he gives repeated expression in this book in spite of its irrelevance, was exceptionally implausible. He called it pragmatism, or sometimes postmodernism, and it was a radical and across-the-board denial of objective reality or mind-independent truth, applied to absolutely every subject matter from physics to biology to history to ethics. There is no independent reality to which our beliefs may or may not correspond: it’s just interpretations all the way down. This is not the place to criticise his view; the point, as Rorty noted, is that many people who share it disagree with him politically. Nietzsche and Heidegger, whom he cites as predecessors, were hostile to democracy, and many contemporary postmodernists are radical leftists who have given up on democratic politics.

But Rorty’s claim that all philosophical ideas are irrelevant to politics is silly. He even claimed that the disagreements between right and left are largely factual – about the economic consequences of different policies – rather than about principles. The truth is that they are both, and the principles of the left impose a collective responsibility for raising the condition of the poor that the right simply rejects. (He grossly misrepresents John Rawls, the 20th-century’s strongest philosophical defender of egalitarian liberalism, as holding platitudinous principles that no one on the right would dispute.)

But whether or not he was right that there is no more to moral or other kinds of truth than consensus, he was certainly right about the importance of feelings of sympathy, solidarity and identification in supporting the struggle of the weak against the strong. Even those who believe there are ethical foundations for the pursuit of equality can appreciate his strategic insights.

What Can We Hope For?: Essays on Politics
Richard Rorty (ed by Chris Voparil and WP Malecki)
Princeton University Press, 248pp, £20

[See also: Wittgenstein at war]

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!