The Philosopher Who Saw It Coming

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Richard Rorty’s autobiographical essay “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids”, published in 1992, begins with the following observation:

If there is anything to the idea that the best intellectual position is one which is attacked with equal vigour from the political right and the political left, then I am in good shape. I am often cited by conservative culture warriors as one of the relativistic, irrationalist, deconstructing, sneering, smirking intellectuals whose writings are weakening the moral fibre of the young. . . Yet Sheldon Wolin, speaking from the left, sees a lot of similarity between me and [conservative] Allan Bloom: both of us, he says, are intellectual snobs who care only about the leisured, cultured élite to which we belong. Neither of us has anything to say to blacks, or to other groups who have been shunted aside by American society. . . Richard Bernstein says that my views are ‘little more than an ideological apologia for an old-fashioned version of Cold War liberalism dressed up in fashionable “post-modern” discourse’. The left’s favourite word for me is ‘complacent’, just as the right’s is ‘irresponsible’. (Philosophy and Social Hope. pp. 3–4).

Rorty has always exerted a profound and pervasive influence on my own work. I am broadly sympathetic to his program, and often think his most severe critics misunderstand, sometimes spectacularly, the aims of his philosophical program. But I sometimes think that in the matter of politics, both his right and his left wing critics might have a point — albeit not the point they think they are making.

For instance, Rorty responds to his conservative interlocutors by rejecting their demand for objectively establishing the superiority of the American political order:

[R]ightist thinkers don’t think that it is enough just to prefer democratic societies. One also has to believe that they are Objectively Good, that the institutions of such societies are grounded in Rational First Principles. Especially if one teaches philosophy, as I do, one is expected to tell the young that their society is not just one of the better ones so far contrived, but one which embodies Truth and Reason. . . thing. I do not have much use for notions like ‘objective value’ and ‘objective truth’. I think that the so-called postmodernists are right in most of their criticisms of traditional philosophical talk about ‘reason’. (pp. 4–5).

Much turns on what one means by “objective” and “good” here, not to mention “prefer.” When Rorty capitalizes philosophically loaded terms like “Objective”, “Good”, “Reason”, and especially “Truth”, he is dismissing the pretense to have arrived at an incorrigible, ahistorical, universal understanding of what our humdrum, everyday understanding of lower-case “objectivity”, “goodness”, “reason”, and “truth” amounts to. Rorty is not a nihilist rejecting these terms. He is rejecting philosophy as “speaking outside language games” or “the onto-theological tradition”, as articulating what objectivity, goodness, etc., really are, in themselves, forever and always. He is rejecting, as pragmatists do, the belief that these ordinary notions are exempt from fallibilism and subsequent revision. Conservatives habitually insist upon a “God’s eye view” of reality as the condition of knowing the “Objectively Good” in politics. For pragmatists this is a mark of hubris and dogmatism, cognitive and moral vices to which conservatives, whether libertarian descendants of Hayek or traditionalist descendants of Strauss and Oakeshott, are ineluctably drawn.

But then Rorty goes ahead to say things like “I do not have much use for ‘objective value’ and ‘objective truth’”. This quip equivocates between meaning something like “tacking the term ‘objective’ in front of ‘value’ and ‘truth’ adds nothing to them” and “there is nothing ‘objective’ about them: thus, they are matters of subjective preference.” Rorty’s arguments generally, though not consistently, point to the former, unproblematic assertion rather than the latter, fishy one, the one that suggests that he, along with “postmodernists”, is an irrationalist and radical relativist. He is not. But his rhetoric can easily lead one to think he is. And conservatives are right to sense that a reduction of political allegiance to mere taste and preference is indeed dangerous. Rorty was at times his own worst enemy.

Leftists critics of Rorty think he is complacent because his view of the United States of America is not one of a radical critic, but a Liberal, Social-Democratic reformer:

The left’s hostility is partially explained by the fact that . . . most of the people who either classify themselves as ‘postmodernist’ or (like me) find themselves thus classified willynilly — participate in what Jonathan Yardley has called the ‘America Sucks Sweepstakes’. Participants in this event compete to find better, bitterer ways of describing the United States. They see our country as embodying everything that is wrong with the rich post-Enlightenment West. They see ours as what Foucault called a ‘disciplinary society’, dominated by an odious ethos of ‘liberal individualism’, an ethos which produces racism, sexism, consumerism and Republican presidents. By contrast, I see America pretty much as Whitman and Dewey did, as opening a prospect on illimitable democratic vistas. I think that our country — despite its past and present atrocities and vices, and despite its continuing eagerness to elect fools and knaves to high office — is a good example of the best kind of society so far invented. (p. 4).

Rorty is here accusing those who, in Achieving Our Country, he dubs the “academic left” or “cultural left”, of disengagement from concrete involvement in American politics. They are satisfied with merely describing and theorizing American evils rather than working to eliminate them. Rorty thinks this is a failure of nerve.

Rorty does not apologize for his piecemeal, New Deal-ish liberal reformism. He does not think “patriotism” is a dirty word: it is not a euphemism for blind allegiance to one’s country, right or wrong. Like Orwell, he is maintaining that an uncritical patriotism is not patriotism but nationalism and jingoism. Thus the wholesale rejection of patriotism by the theory-soaked academic left bespeaks an indifference to making things more just and less cruel in the real political world. Rorty’s position is akin to that of the democratic socialist Michael Walzer, who, in Spheres of Justice and Interpretation and Social Criticism endorses what he calls “connected social criticism”, where critique is an extension of common-sense moral judgment on a society to which, whether one likes it or not, one belongs.

Rorty believes that leftists, like conservatives, fall prey to contemplative abstraction, whereby society needs to fit a theory to be understood and legitimated. This cognitive requirement self-destructs into irrelevance.

I think Rorty is right about the dangers of abstraction, of making theory or contemplation both essential and primary. But he soft-pedals another side of the leftist critique that gives a partial rationale rationale for the “America Sucks Sweepstakes”, as inflated as this cynical political sport is. Is America truly the illimitable democratic vista of Whitman and Dewey (and Emerson and Thoreau), or is it something else? Is the democratic culture that formed their inspirational politics in the mainstream of American history, or is it marginal? Does it really run with rather than against the American grain?


Elsewhere in this publication I have argued that the vision of a genuinely liberal democratic culture, where citizens are bound together not only by bonds of respect but of affection and a common life, has competed with another vision of the polity, one of what the Canadian political theorist C.B. MacPherson called “possessive individualism” — a better categorization than “liberal individualism” since not all liberal individualisms are “possessive” in this way. Rather than the “democratic vistas” linking together the political visions of Whitman, Emerson, and Dewey, the ideology of possessive individual, and the political culture it generates, is a vastly different Weltanschauung from that of Whitman, Dewey, and Rorty. It is the idea that, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, “there is no such thing as society” because society is just an agglomeration of individuals doing what they can to get what they want. It is Hobbes’s “war of all against all”, but one nominally constrained by Marquis of Queensbury rules, where we all “play nice” in the absence of any awareness of a common good.

That the fortunes of both these worldviews have waxed and waned throughout American history is not something I would deny. The dispute between Rorty and myself concerns which political worldview has dominated, historically, American political culture, the public ethos: that of genuine liberal republican democracy, or that of possessive individualism. Rorty thinks the former, I strongly think the latter.

Rorty is an unapologetic, “wet” liberal. He thinks the American project and prospect is, if not a transcendentally justified novus ordo seclorum, something good and admirable. His leftist critics argue that this project had been faked from the start. It characteristically and consistently ranges against working class Americans, blacks, Native Americans, and other marginalized groups. The American project is a lie, and it can only be rescued by reconstituting it bottom to top. Like liberals, however, leftists generally believe that this project of radical transformation will grab the hearts of ordinary, non-1% Americans once it has a real prospect of success — and that when it does, it will resemble very closely the “democratic vistas” ideals that liberals such as Rorty, mistakenly, think have already been realized, however imperfectly.

I think something askew is with this judgment, shared by most American liberals and leftists. Both embrace a notion that at base the United States either is a land of sweeping Democratic Vistas, or it can be revolutionized into being so. Leftists and liberals alike are convinced that the hearts of America’s citizens are clearly on the Left.

I always thought this claim was debatable, at best. If Americans are so enamored of the visionary policies of left and/or liberal agendas — universal healthcare, affordable education, creating a society with a just distribution of wealth, and a commitment to racial and gender equality — why is it so rare that those who advance those policies are voted in?

Granted, the USA has had moments of true and fruitful commitment to Liberal Republican Democracy, to solidaristic democratic vistas: abolitionism, the Progressive Populism of the 1890s, the New Deal of the 1930s, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Black Lives Matter, and a few others. But between these bursts of non-psychopathic decency, you have the competing oligarchies of the Founding Fathers, the enslavement of black people, the genocide of the Native Americans, the ravages of Gilded Age capitalism, the KKK,Vietnam, Reagan, Iraq, etc. Actually-existing Whitmanesque vistas are few and far between.

Whitman’s and Dewey’s images of “democratic vistas” are visible in American history, yes. But they are figured against a vastly different ground of oligarchy, plutocracy, racism, acquisitiveness, imperialism, cruelty, and violence. They are obscured by the fog of history and the dark glasses of our disposition to historical amnesia.

American political culture is thus split between a minority current of honest liberal-democratic fealty to Freedom, Equality, and Solidarity, a culture Rorty takes to be the neglected heart of the American narrative, and a majority current of acquisitive, possessive individualism. In exhibiting a cultural duality, we resemble all nations, with their different dominant/recessive political worldviews. But Americans are also “exceptionalists” who are habitually averse to admitting that we are not of one, integral and admirable soul. As a result, we are not inclined to judge and determine whether “possessive individualism” has been permanently baked into our practices and institutions since 1787 (or 1619), or, as Rorty seemd to think, an unfortunate fluke.

Because they are trained to seem “nice” and cheery at all times, Americans will champion the “Good Enlightenment” values of liberté, egalité, fraternité (et sororité!) when asked. But when confronted with the fact that embracing the Good Enlightenment entails rejecting the Bad Enlightenment — radical acquisitiveness, possessive and atomistic individualism, the drive to dominate others and instrumentalize the natural world — they seem historically inclined to go with the latter. And this I think, is why the “America Sucks Sweepstakes” gets some traction, however relentlessly bitter and exaggerated that rhetorical sport might be.


Times have changed since Rorty’s death in 2007. Rorty’s stock has gone up with both progressive liberals and ideologically flexible leftists since the 2016 Presidential election, for good reason. The meme “Rorty predicted Trump” surfaced shortly after Donald Trump won the presidency, referring to this paragraph from Achieving Our Country as evidence of Rorty’s prescience. It is worth quoting the passages that went viral at length:

[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. 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. …

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. … All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding bask. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

But such a renewal of sadism will not alter the effects of selfishness, For after my imagined strongman takes charge, he will quickly make his peace with the international super-rich,, just as Hitler made his with the German industrialists. . .He will be a disaster for the country and the world. People will wonder why there was so little resistance to his evitable rise. Where, they will ask, was the American Left? ( Achieving Our Country, pp. 89–91).

Rorty did indeed make a good call with the rise of Trump and Trumpism — and for all the right reasons. He anticipated the votes of alienated, rust-belt working class white men that pushed Trump over the Electoral College edge in 2016, as well as the selfishness of suburban whites — who are urbane, well-off Republicans as well as socially-liberal/economically-libertarian “New Democrats”, both of whom think more about their 401k accounts than the common good. He also foresaw the Trump administration’s fealty and generosity toward the super-rich, donor capitalist class — a class to which Trump and his cronies were always reflexively loyal because they were themselves charter members. Rorty saw the demagogic power of the American Strongman flowing from giving resentful, badly-educated Americans permission to “punch down” rather than punch-up. Populist sadism can belligerently co-exist with plutocratic selfishness.

My only cavil with Rorty here is that both the sadism and the selfishness exist across class divides. Many American populists wistfully envy and admire the rich because they epitomize those who have grasped the brass ring. They vicariously celebrate every move Trump makes to “speak his mind” in his Tweets, actions they would like to be able to perform themselves. And American plutocrats are just as resentful of and bigoted toward those “others” — the minorities, the migrants, and the poor — as their middle- and working-class allies, and are just as willing to punch-down themselves. But this is a minor quibble.

Rorty’s tirade also forecasted a change in the weather for the American left. The academic Left has, in fact, given way to a more pragmatic, activist left — the left of Black Lives Matter, of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and “The Squad”, of grassroots organizers like Stacey Abrams. This is a left that, while committed to the “democratic vistas” vision of America, is not complacent but committed to root-and-branch change in American institutions and policies. While they are willing to deal with centrist liberals in good faith, they always hold on to their aspirational vision. They helped elect Joseph Biden, they will work with him, but they will also hold his feet to the fires of progressive, democratic values. They show, pace both Rorty and his critics, that left politics can be both reformist and radical at the same time, working within the system to transform the system thoroughly. They admit that while things have become every bit as bad as Rorty’s left-wing critics say they are, the visionary America of Whitman, Emerson, and Dewey is not beyond the pale and still worth achieving.


In a less-cited essay, “Looking Backwards from the Year 2096”, also collected in Philosophy and Social Hope, Rorty tells an imaginary tale of American collapse into autocracy, and its slow but ultimately successful move back to being a liberal democratic republic. Rorty also foresaw a new New Left playing a key role in this national renewal, congealing around an engaged, solidaristic political movement:

Here, in the late twenty-first century, as talk of fraternity and unselfishness has replaced talk of rights, American political discourse has come to be dominated by quotations from Scripture and literature, rather than from political theorists or social scientists. Fraternity, like friendship, was not a concept that either philosophers or lawyers knew how to handle. They could formulate principles of justice, equality, and liberty, and invoke these principles when weighing hard moral or legal issues. But how to formulate a ‘principle of fraternity’? Fraternity is an inclination of the heart, one that produces a sense of shame at having much when others have little. It is not the sort of thing that anybody can have a theory about or that people can be argued into having. . .

The Democratic Vistas Party, the coalition of trade unions and churches that toppled the military dictatorship in 2044, has retained control of Congress by successfully convincing the voters that its opponents constitute ‘the parties of selfishness’. The traditional use of ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ in union locals and religious congregations is the principal reason why ‘fraternity’ (or, among purists, ‘siblinghood’) is now the name of our most cherished ideal. . .

In the first two centuries of American history Jefferson’s use of rights had set the tone for political discourse, but now political argument is not about who has the right to what but about what can best prevent the re-emergence of hereditary castes. either racial or economic. The old union slogan ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’ is now the catch phrase of American politics. ‘Solidarity is Forever’ and ‘This Land is Your Land’ are sung at least as often as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. (Philosophy and Social Hope, pp. 248–249).

In closing, let me record an observation about “Looking Backward”: it marks a major (if unacknowledged) shift in Rorty’s own prior political viewpoint, expressed in books like Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and essays such as “Postmodernist Liberalism” and “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy”. It is a movement toward radical, rather than piecemeal reform.

In the book and essays cited above, Rorty presented a brief for liberal democracy like that of John Rawls in Political Liberalism. The right has priority over the good, the public is distinct from the private, and the business of politics is not to articulate a “comprehensive view” but to provide the space and the means for individuals to have the freedom to work out fashioning a comprehensive view for themselves, consistent with a like freedom for all. The keywords are “freedom” and “equality”, and the sensibility in these works broadly Jeffersonian.

But this changes in “Looking Backward”. After the imagined fall of the 21st century American despots, what prompted a new political vision was “fraternity” and solidarity. These are less concepts than they are sentiments and dispositions.

Here Rorty surprisingly evokes a theme common in 1980s communitarianism, the inadequacy of merely instrumental political associations and the need for sentimental and constitutive communities with which one identifies. Communitarianism, in particular the views of Michael Sandel, was a position about which Rorty himself could be quite critical. (In retrospect, this is not all that significant. Rawlsian liberalism and communitarianism were not really at war with each other, as much as they were differences of emphasis while working the same side of the democratic street. 1980s communitarianism seems, looking backward, to be a reform movement within theories of liberal democracy, rather than an alternative to those theories.) But the communitarian overtones of “Looking Backwards” shows that Rorty’s critiques of the New left and the Cultural left were immanent critiques made within shared assumptions, despite Rorty’s qualified dissatisfaction.

This is a new slant on things for Rorty. The New Left’s dismissal of American democracy as a total sham and a broken promise, and the academic left’s transmutation of its mission into the production of high theory, were not rejected by Rorty but rather subject to his plea to tone it down, and make the aspirations of the left more practical, more political, more in line with the focus of the Old Left circa 1930 to 1950. That left wanted to change the nation and the world, rather than to preach to the choir or take over the Comp-Lit department. Each of these lefts was anything but complacent — or irresponsible. Rorty’s point was, however, that unless the left wades into the thick mud of real-world politics, of building coalitions and devising concrete programs, of knowing when to compromise and knowing when to stand fast, its radical-ness will remain flimsy, and easily dismissed.

Rorty, it turns out, did think that there was something drastically wrong with the United States of America after all, something not captured in the edifying prose of Whitman and Emerson: a lack of fertile ground in which democratic sentiments and sensibilities could take room. He wanted to ensure that these sensibilities and sentiments eventually take root in the country he critically loved. Rorty was thus more of a radical reformer than most of his interlocutors, and he himself, took him to be.

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