On Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in 20th Century America (1998).
What makes for efficacious progressive politics? Rorty has been cited much recently as predicting the rise of Trump. In this book, he gives us a history of the political left, and draws a dividing line between old-time reformist leftist intellectuals like Upton Sinclair who worked for real change and post-’60s cultural critics like Slavoj Žižek who seem to believe that we are past hope. Rorty thinks we leftists need to reconnect with national pride, which he considers not a matter of jingoism or reverence for the government in power, but of hope in the American project, which is always being achieved. Our goal is a classless, casteless society: a society that produces less unnecessary suffering than any others and is the best means to the creation of a greater diversity of full, imaginative, daring individuals.
According to Rorty’s diagnosis, prior to the ’60s, leftists worked with groups like labor unions to achieve concrete reforms. But with the Vietnam War, a new generation condemned the Old Left as collaborators and erected a high bar for moral purity that labeled anyone not explicitly Marxist as part of the problem. The effect, ironically for the Marxists, has been to shift attention away from economic issues toward social issues, and while it’s been great that we’ve achieved such huge advances in cutting back on racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination, this focus on cultural issues has left a gaping void ripe for a right-wing demagogue to sweep in, claiming to represent the economic interests of the people.
One characteristic of this cultural Left that Rorty objects to is its moral absolutism, and here’s where the connection to Rorty’s epistemology comes in. For Rorty, thinking of racism and the like in absolutist terms is both false and counter-productive. It’s false because morality, like truth, is a matter of historically shifting consensus, and it’s counter-productive because it focuses on shaming violators, on humiliating them, and not on actually convincing them, on building a coalition based on a shared vision of a future free from both inequality and sadism.
This discussion features the full foursome, with Wes using Rorty to continue outlining his prescriptions for America and Seth taking Rorty’s diagnosis of the Left personally. Dylan is inspired, while Mark thinks that Rorty’s argument doesn’t really hang together: You don’t need all this relativism stuff to argue for hope in America (it may actually be counter-productive), and while many Leftists are politically disengaged, it’s certainly not a fair characterization of the many demonstrators we’ve just seen (note that this was recorded earlier in January, before the demonstrations).
Rorty picture by Olle Halvars.