A Review of Richard Rorty’s “Achieving Our Country”

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century AmericaAchieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard M. Rorty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For having been written many years ago (published in 1998) the Richard Rorty book “Achieving Our Country” has drawn plenty of attention lately. The Rorty book has been republished, with new stories in the New York Times, Vox and other media highlighting some of the very prescient observations made by Rorty in this book.

This attention to Rorty has been driven by the results of the 2016 Presidential election, and Rorty’s analysis of the “split” in the left that he posits would lead to a divorce between a “cosmopolitan elite” and the working class whites who had been a mainstay of the New Deal Democratic coalition. Rorty identifies the mid-sixties as the time in which the “reformist left” split from the “new left,” with the so called “new left” becoming ascendant, and focusing more on “identity politics” than on bread and butter issues that had traditionally driven the “reformist left.” Rorty is self identified as a member of the “reformist, anti-communist left,” but has strong words of support for the “new left” efforts to address the major social injustices (sadism) that existed for so many in the United States. But this effort, in Rorty’s telling, took the left away from the traditional connection to union households, and away from the issue of growing economic inequality in the United States. 

“During the same period in which socially accepted sadism has steadily diminished, economic inequality and economic insecurity have steadily increased. It is as if the American Left could not handle more than one initiative at a time- as if either had to ignore stigma in order to concentrate on money, or vice versa.”

Rorty believed that increasing economic inequality, and the preoccupation of the left with “identity politics” would open the door for a right wing demagogue to use populist rhetoric to seize political power. Rorty passed away long before 2016, but he did identify a major trend line that was coming, and that many just did not see. He even identifies Patrick Buchanan, the godfather, in my opinion, of Trumpism, as a right wing populist seeking to exploit the growing economic inequality being felt in the United States. Rorty, in discussing the economic pain of many American families, brings issues forward that are currently exploding on the political landscape. 

“Unless something unexpected happens, economic insecurity will continue to grow in America. Indeed, it is easy to imagine things getting much worse much faster. This is because a good deal of the insecurity is due to the globalization of the labor market- a trend which can reasonably be expected to accelerate indefinitely.”

He focuses on the impacts of globalization, and writes the following: 

“Globalization is producing a world economy in which an attempt by any one country to prevent the immiseration of its workers may result in only depriving them of employment. This world economy will soon be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class which has no more sense of community with any workers anywhere than the great American capitalists of the year 1900 had with the immigrants who manned their enterprises. The increasing dependence of American universities on gifts from abroad, of American political parties on bribes from abroad, and of the economy on foreign sales of Treasury bonds are examples of the tendencies which are at work.”

The “cosmopolitan elite” are further defined by Rorty: 

“This frightening economic cosmopolitanism has, as a by-product, an agreeable cultural cosmopolitanism. Platoons of vital young entrepreneurs fill the front cabins of transoceanic jets, while the back cabins are weighted down with paunchy professors like myself, zipping off to interdisciplinary conferences held in pleasant places. Bit this newly-acquired cultural cosmopolitanism is limited to the richest twenty- five percent of Americans. The new economic cosmopolitanism presages a future in which the other 75 percent of Americans will find their standard of living steadily shrinking. We are likely to wind up with an America divided into hereditary social castes. This America will be run by what Michael Lind (in The Next American Nation) has called the “overclass,” the highly educated and expensively groomed top 2.5 percent. One of the scariest social trends is illustrated by the fact that in 1979 kids from the top socioeconomic quarter of American families were four times more likely to get a college degree than those from the bottom quarter; now they are ten times more likely.”

Sound familiar? There is much more that sounds like it was written in 2016. Rorty looks at two alternatives to dealing with world-wide economic inequality. The first would be a globalist solution, while the second is a “take care of our own citizens” solution. The difference?
“The first solution suggests that the old democracies should open their borders, whereas the second suggests that they should close them.” The political divide on immigration may be the very largest gulf in an extremely polarized society in 2017, and played a major role in the ascent of Donald Trump to the Presidency. Rorty appears to have seen this one coming many years ago. 

Beyond immigration Rorty saw the great big wedge that free trade would be for right wing populism. With economic security slipping away for so many free trade has come into the crosshairs: 

“Union members in the United States have watched factory after factory close, only to reopen in Slovenia, Thailand, or Mexico. It is no wonder that they see the result of international free trade as prosperity for managers and stockholders, a better standard of living for workers in developing countries, and a very much worse standard of living for American workers. It would be no wonder if they saw the American leftist intelligentsia as on the side of the managers and stockholders-as sharing the same class interests. For we intellectuals, who are mostly academics, are ourselves quite well insulated, at least in the short run, from the effects of globalization. To make things worse , we often seem more interested in the workers of the developing world than in the fate of our own citizens.”

Sounds like it could have been written by Steve Bannon, and it certainly was the linchpin of the assault on the Hillary Clinton candidacy by Donald Trump. It also provided to us a hint of the divide to come in Democratic politics, with Bernie Sanders decrying Democratic support for free trade, and condemning the “corporatists” in the Party who he believes have sold out working people. Clinton, at heart a free trader, could never truly give a cogent answer on the trade question, tripping badly in the primaries and in the general election in the face of the anti-trade groundswell. She lost Michigan in both.

Rorty accurately predicts the coming “crack” that will rupture traditional politics. 

“…is that members 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 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.”

And the Trump era begins. Rorty even manages to hit on a theme you hear, ad nauseam, from the right, about rejecting politically correct speech: 

“All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.” 

Rorty speculates that this “backlash” has the potential to roll back gains made by minority groups over the past forty years, and we can see some of that prophecy coming to pass with efforts to disenfranchise minority voters, and in so many other areas.

For a book published in 1998 the analysis is fairly well thought out, and accurate. Rorty certainly, in my opinion, oversimplifies some concepts, including the dichotomy between “reformist” and “new” left. His prescription for curing the “sadism” suffered by so many in American society in the run up to 1964 is unclear to me. Despite those criticisms it is a book worth reading, especially for Democrats. His discernment of how the forces he identified would change American politics was and is truly amazing.

View all my reviews

A link to the VOX story on the Rorty book.

The New York Times story on the Rorty book.

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