Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Book That Predicted Trump’s Rise Offers the Left a Roadmap for Defeating Him

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Conor Friedersdorf writes in the Atlantic:

Twenty years ago, in a series of lectures on the history of American civilization, the philosopher Richard Rorty offered a prediction. His words languished in relative obscurity until the unexpected rise of Donald Trump made them seem prescient.Labor unions and 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,” he posited. And they will further 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,”  he warned. “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.”

That passage, considered from the vantage of November 9, 2016, caused a spike of interest in Achieving Our Country, the compilation of Rorty’s lectures. The full book contains criticism for the political left as earnestly constructive and thoughtfully formulated as any I have encountered in my recent roundups––and I say that despite disagreeing with Rorty’s  uncharitable assessments of the American right, among other things.

His book is worth revisiting as the Democratic Party smarts from losses in recent special elections and considers how it might win back the House in the 2018 midterms.

What is wrong with its current incarnation?

Rorty argued that an ascendant strain of postmodern Leftism with its roots in the academy has tended “to give cultural politics preference over real politics, and to mock the very idea that democratic institutions might once again be made to serve social justice.”

This Left is more likely to participate in a public shaming than to lobby for a new law; it is more likely to mobilize to occupy a park or shut down a freeway than to register voters. It “exaggerates the importance of philosophy for politics, and wastes its energy on sophisticated theoretical analyses of the significance of current events.” Its adherents “have permitted cultural politics to supplant real politics, and have collaborated with the Right in making cultural issues central to the public debate.”

Yet framing the public debate in that manner plays to the strengths of the political Right.

Rorty sympathizes with the reasons that an ascendant Leftist faction lost faith in American institutions. He is as horrified as they are by the historic treatment of indigenous people and African Americans, and by America’s behavior in the Vietnam War.

But like John Dewey, he rejects self-loathing as “a luxury which agents––either individuals or nations––cannot afford,” and finds other aspects of American history and national character to celebrate. Today’s Left would more effectively advance social justice if its adherents possessed a historical memory that extended farther back than the 1960s, he argued, to a movement more than a century old “that has served human liberty well.” It would help, for example, “if students became as familiar with the Pullman Strike, the Great Coalfield War, and the passage of the Wagner Act as with the march from Selma, Berkeley free-speech demonstrations, and Stonewall.”

If more Leftists saw themselves as part of that history, with all its achievements, they might continue to lament that “America is not a morally pure country,” but might better understand that “no country ever has been or ever will be,” and that no country will ever have “a morally pure, homogeneous Left” to bring about social justice.

He urges the Left to be more realist at length:

In democratic countries you get things done by compromising your principles in order to form alliances with groups about whom you have grave doubts. The Left in America has made a lot of progress by doing just that. The closest the Left ever came to taking over the government was in 1912, when a Whitman enthusiast, Eugene Debs, ran for president and got almost a million votes. These votes were cast by, as Daniel Bell puts it, “as unstable a compound as was ever mixed in the modern history of political chemistry.” This compound mingled rage at low wages and miserable working conditions with, as Bell says, “the puritan conscience of millionaire socialists, the boyish romanticism of a Jack London, the pale Christian piety of a George Herron … the reckless braggadocio of a ‘Wild Bill’ Haywood … the tepid social-work impulse of do-gooders, inarticulate and amorphous desire to ‘belong’ of the immigrant workers, the iconoclastic idol-breaking of the literary radicals … and more.”

Those dispossessed farmers were often racist, nativist, and sadistic. The millionaire socialists, ruthless robber barons though they were, nevertheless set up the foundations which sponsored the research which helped get leftist legislation passed. We need to get rid of the Marxist idea that only bottom-up initiatives, conducted by workers and peasants who have somehow been so freed from resentment as to show no trace of prejudice, can achieve our country. The history of leftist politics in America is a story of how top-down initiatives and bottom-up initiatives have interlocked.

Rorty wasn’t dismissing bigotry as unimportant. He was quick to praise the post-’60s Left for being attentive to racial injustice and recognizing that sadism against minority groups would have persisted even apart from economic inequality. Still, he criticizes the identity politics of the left for developing a politics “more about stigma than about money, more about deep and hidden psychosexual motivations than about shallow and evident greed,” because many of the dispossessed are thereby ignored.

Surveying academia, for example, he observes that “nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies, or trailer-park studies, because the unemployed, the homeless, and residents of trailer parks are not the ‘other’ in the relative sense. To be other in this sense you must bear an ineradicable stigma, one which makes you a victim of socially accepted sadism rather than merely of economic selfishness.”

For Rorty, a Left that neglects victims of economic selfishness will not only fail; its neglect of class will trigger a terrible backlash that ultimately ill-serve the very groups that Leftist identity politics are intended to help.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 July 2017 at 4:44 pm

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