In the weeks before the election and immediately after, a passage from the philosopher Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in 20th Century America went viral. The passage seemed to predict the circumstances of Donald Trump’s rise in eerie detail. You can check out the excerpt here, but it includes “At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for” and “One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion.” Rorty’s argument aligns with a narrative I’ve explored in several posts: that in the second half of the last century, the Democratic Party abandoned workers. I’m not going to re-litigate that argument in this particular post, though it’s striking to see, in Rorty’s case, this isn’t just an argument liberals make after we lose elections.
Rorty’s prescient prediction is the hook, but it was actually only the fourth or fifth most interesting section of this brilliant, very short book. I’d like to focus instead on his views on patriotism, civic religion, and the attitude of the American Left. As an academic, Rorty is known for reviving pragmatism, the distinctively American school of philosophy created by C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. I expect to write about pragmatism several times in the coming weeks and months, and in some sense this is a weird place to start: at the end. This book is basically Rorty’s take on what kind of patriotism pragmatism demands, so it’s many miles downstream from the foundational tenets of the philosophy. But I view it as sort of a teaser. This book gets me (and hopefully you) excited about the payoff of pragmatism, which I expect will make learning the old stuff more rewarding. For now, the main thing to know is that pragmatism denies the idea of objective truth or the idea that it is possible for your thoughts to mirror external ‘reality.’ Instead of mirroring the truth, then, thoughts are valuable for what they make possible.
Should people on the Left be proud or ashamed of America? That is the divide to which Rorty addresses Achieving Our Country. Part of the leftist mindset is our awareness of the plentiful material for shame. This is a country built on slave labor and stolen land, a nation of forgetful immigrants always ready to shut out the next round of arrivals. Rorty dates leftist pessimism to the Vietnam War, which seems about right, if only for white people. But there is more than one way to respond to a sober reckoning with our history. The title of the book comes from James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time. It comes soon after Baldwin considers Elijah Muhammad’s worldview: hateful and vengeful toward whites, convinced that black supremacy offers the only shot at redemption. Baldwin empathizes but disagrees. “In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation…we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” Rorty sides with Baldwin out of pragmatism. He says stories about a nation are not attempts at accurate identification or truth-telling; they are attempts to forge a moral identity. “National pride is like self-respect: a necessary condition for improvement.”
Rorty fears that modern Leftists have lost their national pride, but he has a suggestion for where to find it: in the writing of his two intellectual heroes, Walt Whitman and John Dewey. In both writers, Rorty sees a secularism that seeks to replace God with civic religion. Both wanted a struggle for social justice to be the country’s animating principle. He thinks both treated ‘America’ as shorthand for a new conception of the human condition “in which nothing save freely achieved consensus among human beings has any authority at all.” The word ‘nothing’ in this sentence is a rejection of the idea that political philosophy can provide us with a fixed goal to strive towards: not ‘liberty’ or ‘equality’ or ‘tradition’ except insofar as people decide those are good things to pursue. Whitman and Dewey draw on Hegel’s idea of historically situated progress, but they use it as inspiration for discovering new, unforeseen futures rather an as a prediction, as Marx used it, of one particular preordained future. Whitman said “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” Rorty emphasizes that this comment is about the act of creation: “Other nations thought of themselves as hymns to the glory of God. We redefine God as our future selves.”
This section helped clarify a nagging observation I’ve had for some while, namely that American conservatism is a more intellectual movement than American liberalism. And I think this is true: from William F. Buckley to the Chicago School economists to Bork and Scalia to the modern “reformocons” like Ross Douthat and Yuval Levin, conservatism has a firmer set of enduring intellectual principles about what kind of society they want. But reading Rorty, a lightbulb went off: of course progressives don’t have corresponding principles, because progressive political philosophy is fundamentally pragmatic. It’s about continually discovering new and better ways of living together. The difference goes all the way down to epistemology, if you want to trace it that far. In our huge diverse society, people have different experiences of reality and there can be no appeal to objective truth that will work for everyone. For a pragmatic progressive, the point of democratic institutions is to gain empathy about each other’s lives and widen the range of consensus about how things “really are.”
The second section of Achieving Our Country is about the history of the Left. Rorty’s main goal is to convince us to abandon the distinction between ideologically pure leftists and conciliatory liberals. This is something I’ve been pondering for several months whenever I go on Twitter. Instigated in part by the Clinton-Sanders primary, there is a subsection of political Twitter that is an ongoing war between these two camps. The leftists argue for socialism and accuse the liberals of being corporate shills; the liberals defend Obama and Hillary Clinton’s policies and accuse the leftists of being immature Bernie bros. I am wary of false equivalences and get the sense that more of the animosity comes from the leftists, but this could well be an artifact of the specific people I follow. My stance as an observer is that while I tend to side closer to the leftist policy analysis, I see nothing but goodwill and reasonable ideas on the liberal side and am totally unsympathetic to the internecine fighting. So naturally I appreciate Rorty’s view. He thinks Marxism has been very damaging to the American Left because it, like many ideologies, demands purity tests and the condemnation of the “reactionary.” Assuming that nationalizing the means of production is the only way to social justice is the antithesis of pragmatism.
Instead, Rorty sees common ground in what you might call “reform liberalism,” or continuous tinkering and experimentation to expand economic justice. He thinks we could tell a more coherent story of American history that takes pride in such moments of reform: adding the Pullman strike, Eugene Debs, and the Wagner Act to the pantheon with Selma and Stonewall. Young people should learn labor history and leftist history and see their own lives as the next chapter in an ongoing fight for justice. You might recognize Barack Obama’s rhetoric in these ideas, and I think Rorty would have approved of the lack of determinism in Obama’s recurring line: “Progress isn’t guaranteed. It’s not inevitable. It’s something that has to be fought for.” Some leftists (and I) have criticized Obama’s view of American history as unjustifiably rosy and hopeful, but for the pragmatist, as I’ve discussed, national stories are not attempts at retrospective truth but efforts to shape the future.
After concluding his diagnosis of the Left’s failure to put economic justice front and center with the spooky Trump prediction, Rorty turns to some slightly more theoretical matters regarding the role of philosophy and literature in politics. This is foremost a warning about the dangers of reading Foucault and other post-structuralist philosophers. Writing in the 1990s when French theory was at the height of its popularity in American academia, Rorty was understandably more concerned than we should be now. He sees, in Foucault, a justification for the pessimism that haunts the Left, the spectre of capitalism, patriarchy, and other forms of power around every corner. The way Foucault writes about power (it’s everywhere, and resistance only legitimizes it) reminds Rorty of Satan and original sin. “The Foucauldian academic Left in contemporary America is exactly the sort of Left that the oligarchy dreams of: a Left whose members are so busy unmasking the present that they have no time to discuss what laws need to be passed in order to create a better future.” I think Foucault has tremendous insights, but I agree that he is useless for political activism. And from what I’ve observed of the “academic Left,” I’m not worried that my colleagues are paralyzed by pessimism either.
What I found most useful in this section was Rorty’s argument for using literature instead of philosophy to motivate our politics. Philosophy provides grand frameworks in which we can contextualize our lives; it is, in a sense, “monotheistic.” Literature is polytheistic in that it requires us to internalize and tolerate oppositions; it recontextualizes what we previously thought we knew rather than being contextualized by our frameworks. Here Rorty provides a compelling justification for a literary canon: literature deserves to be called great, says a pragmatist, if and only if it inspires many readers. The point of a canon is to suggest to younger readers where they can find hope and inspiration. He says literature can only resist the colonizing efforts of philosophy if literary critics think of it as Harold Bloom does: “as having nothing to do with eternity, knowledge, or stability, and everything to do with futurity and hope.”
Perhaps the idea that most stuck with me from Achieving Our Country was Walt Whitman’s conclusion on the requirements for national greatness, which he reached after reading Mill’s On Liberty. First, a nation needs “a large variety of character,” or a diverse populace. This is the equivalent of a vast artistic palette in Whitman’s conception of a nation as the simultaneous process and product of creation. Second, it needs “full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions.” This is what you do with the palette. “Full play” requires the careful cultivation of laws and norms to encourage experimentation in art, business, and political institutions. This conception of the core activity of a nation strikes me as directly related to the conception of the meaning of life found in Finite and Infinite Games, which I wrote about a little while ago. Infinite games are not goal-oriented; they seek no particular end; they are about the joy of play. But don’t mistake infinitude for anarchy; the idea is that you need constraints to encourage creativity (examples include cell membranes and neighborhood boundaries a la Pattern Language, as this essay discusses). I think the infinite games idea deserves to be added to the pragmatism canon alongside Dewey, Whitman, and Rorty. I am very interested in writing that explores the rules and institutions that encourage “full play” in a society. In some sense this is the foundation of my interest in law.