Philosopher Richard Rorty Chillingly Predicts the Results of the 2016 Election … Back in 1998

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Twenty years ago a strong academic left in universities all over the world spoke to political culture the way that a globalized nationalist far-right seems to now. Among public intellectuals in the U.S., Richard Rorty’s name held particular sway. Yet in his contrarian 1998 book Achieving Our Country, Rorty argued against the participation of philosophy in politics. A member of the so-called “Old Left,” or what he called the “reformist left,” Rorty took on the “Cultural Left” in ways we now hear in (often bitter) debates between similar camps. In the course of his attacks, he made the uncanny prediction above.

The cultural left, wrote Rorty, had come “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.” He foresaw cultural politics on the left as contributing to a tidal wave of resentment that would one day result in a time when “all the sadism which the academic left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back.”



As democratic institutions fail, he writes in the quote above:

[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. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words [slur for an African-American that begins with “n”] and [slur for a Jewish person that begins with “k”] will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

He also then argues, however, that this sadism will not solely be the result of “economic inequality and insecurity,” and that such explanations would be “too simplistic.” Nor would the strongman who comes to power do anything but worsen economic conditions. He writes next, “after my imagined strongman takes charge, he will quickly make his peace with the international superrich.”

Rorty blamed the Marxist New Left for “retreating from pragmatism into theory,” wrote The New York Times in its review of Achieving Our Country. He felt the cultural left had abandoned the “American experiment as secular, anti-authoritarian and infinite in possibilities,” such as “Whitman idealized as loving relationships and Dewey as good citizenship.” The Times wrote then that Rorty’s predictions above were a form of “intellectual bullying.” We can take our dystopian futures from sci-fi novelists and filmmakers, but when philosophers “haruspicate or scry,” as T.S. Eliot wrote in “The Dry Salvages,” we tend to dismiss it as the “usual / Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press.”

The eminent Stanford professor exhorted his contemporaries to leave behind “semiconscious anti-Americanism” and embrace pragmatic civil engagement, and did so by offering up examples from American literature and philosophy that all had fierce activist strains. Excoriating one kind of life of the mind, Rorty can’t help but offer another. “What does Rorty offer as a solution?” asked the Times review, “Not really very much.” Perhaps not to politicians. But to the postmodern academics and writers he accused, he offers up as counter examples Walt Whitman, John Dewey, and—as Rorty noted in an interview—James Baldwin, whose “use of the phrase… achieving our country” inspired his book’s title, Achieving Our Country.

via Richard Rorty

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Huxley to Orwell: My Hellish Vision of the Future is Better Than Yours (1949)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.


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  • dave says:

    It’s sad the entire media complex seems to be against the newly elected president. Even here at openculture. Why are you advocating closed minds? You folks are demonizing against what you know nothing about. Give him a chance for God’s sake. He can’t do any worse than obama.

  • Debra Campbell says:

    As a teacher of Philosophy myself, I have always agreed with Richard Rorty’s claim that the goal of philosophy is “solidarity.” That is, the goal of philosophy is to find what binds human being together, so that humanity can progress while celebrating our cultural differences. I have long respected Richard Rorty and now I wish I had paid much more attention to this particular warning. It does not surprise me that he foresaw this phenomenon. Thank you for posting this.

  • Randy says:

    Interesting. I suspect he had in mind the 2000 election, not 2016… but it applies to both.

  • Randy says:

    “He can’t do any worse than obama.”

    Of course he can. Obama was a great sort of no-drama president. He certainly has left the country significantly better than he found it, even though nothing big really happened, particularly in the last 6 years. The failure of his presidency is mostly in terms of lost opportunity, than outright screw-up.

    Trump has shown every indication that he’ll steer the country into the ditch. But “steer” implies that someone is at the wheel, and knows how to operate the gas pedal. That credits him too much.

    You are right.. we should wait and see. But it’s pretty clear that he’s set an extremely low bar for success for himself.

  • Alexander says:

    No Dave, you have the closed mind and yes Trump can do worse.

  • J PETERSON says:

    Richard Rorty is so ever right In his views. His philosophy is spot on. My hero of what was and what will be. The real shame is that most of the blue collar America has fallen for the mindless bull of one man. Who knows only one thing, to feed his ego, which will ensure that we go back not forward on our thinking. A man who acceles at praying on the poor and weak. Richard Rorty is a must read real eye opener with poor vision.

  • Agent Commie says:

    I’ve been saying this for a long time now: the style of the social justice warriors would come back to haunt them. My leftism was about “an injury to one is an injury to all” – once the tumblristas started boasting of drinking “white male tears”, how long did they really think it would take before the reactionaries dusted off their own “feminist tears” mugs.

    United we stand, divided we fall. We are about to learn this the hard way.

  • Sollipsist says:

    Some of us unfortunately feel more schadenfreude than shock. 1998 was already about 5 years too late to stop the pendulum; emboldened by the Clinton victory and dot com bubble, it was already becoming impossible to convince otherwise good minds that maybe smug arrogance wasn’t the best approach. And this was before smartphones and social media supercharged the echo chamber syndrome…

  • Paul says:

    You reveal your bias by you closing comment. If you want to base your argument on facts, how can you posit that Obama was a bad president? Even if you disagree with the structure and deliverables of the ACA, it addressed a prob elm that has been in place for decades, that of Millions unable to afford health Insurance. As for his other policies number don’t lie, when he took office we were losing 800K job monthly, he created 18M new jobs, his police kept the US Auto Industry from going under, he made college more affordable for many, the Stock Market went from 6,500 to 18,000, Osama Bin Laden is dead, Al Quada is no more, and ISIS whir admittedly filed the vacuum is now back on their heals. Marriage Equality has made great strides, Enevironme,mental accords have been signed. Obama’s popularity is currently at 58%, very high for a two term incumbent late into his term.

  • Jake says:

    With no due respect to the above, I am going to reduce his predictions to a new reality.

    The black and the brown people –especially the black people– are dying by the dozens each weekend in my city, Chicago, black youth unemployment is over 50% and the schools where the “brown” people live are overloaded with illegal aliens who take but do not give.

    The “strongman” i.e., Trump has done the liberal sin of talking about women “like a guy”, which, believe me, liberla men who haven’t lost their balls, do too. And the liberal women and the objectivication of men? Well, I hear it. A lot.

    Trump the strongman should be judged by his actions, and he has put women in positions of great power in his building empire, and paid them the same or more than their male counterparts. If you want to see this you will. If you don’t, you won’t.

    The people who expound on the dangers of Trump are mostly living in lily white gated enclaves and the only people of color they see are on television or as bellmen here on Michigan Ave.

  • Johnny says:

    We have to take care of eachother now.

  • Peter Kurts says:

    Get over yourselves America. If you had compulsory voting, and 50% of the population had actually bothered to vote, you wouldn’t now be about to experience hell toupee!

  • trixie says:

    I wish people would quit calling educated Americans elitists. our funded public school system allows EVERYONE in the United States the ability to learn, if they actually wanted to and felt like it. But many don’t. So after deciding to act purposefully ignorant, they they want to blame other intelligent citizens for being arrogant.

  • Colin Wills says:

    Know nothing about?? The man has been telling us all about what he’s about for months now. And the “can’t do any worse than Obama” part say’s quite a lot about the openness of your mind.

  • Bill W. says:

    This educated American stands by his ‘elitist’ comment. Your post suggests that ANYONE who voted for Trump (though I voted Johnson) is ‘purposefully ignorant’, which smacks of the smugness and intellectual superiority of those whom I referred to in my now-deleted (how tolerant!) post. Middle America [the ‘Silent Majority’], the Working-class, came out in force to tell snotty academia-types with no common sense, and that looks-down-their-noses at them that THEY have a voice, and don’t care what they say or think about anything in NYC/SF/Hollywood…those outside the symbolic Ivy Tower and without useless Liberal Arts degrees are the REAL America, and have more in-common with the Trump family than Hillary (though we largely liked Bill from Arkansas)…who has likely never gotten dirt under her fingernails, or broke a sweat from hard work a day in her life. My point? This election was a mandate, not only did a Republican get elected POTUS, but BOTH houses of Congress were taken by the Republican party; in short, the Common Man (including a record number of women and minorities who voted that way) has rejected the Democratic Party, and it’s decades of failed Big Government policies. Maybe next time.

  • Catherine says:

    FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION is the key here. Time to understand that when slapped in the face of their convictions, people do not tend to turn the other cheek but start expressing their beliefs louder to be heard. Being a Trump voter, you are the living proof of that. Well, it goes both ways. SURPRISE!

  • Cindy says:

    Right on and well said, Dave, Jake and Bill!!!

  • Rod S says:

    Bill,

    At the risk of sounding smug, let’s introduce some factual information into the debate. You’re saying Trump’s election was rejecting “academia-types with no common sense” and “liberal arts degrees.” You seem to forget these “academia-types” are also the men and women who designed cars, who save lives with surgery and health discoveries, who put a man on the moon, who invented the internet by which we’re communicating. It’s outrageous to attempt to ostracize such a group. They are the keys to mankind’s survival and prosperity – people of vision and intelligence – by some distance our most powerful weapon.

    Another point I’d like to address is this ridiculous use of the word liberal in a pejorative sense. Nonsensical. Either people don’t understand what the word means or they are rejecting the principles of liberty. Educating yourself as to the meaning of a word is in the power of anyone with a dictionary or an internet connection. If you want to attack your opponents, doing so by calling them liberal is a very poor tactic.

    Next the painting of Trump as an anti-capitalist working-class hero. I think I see this vision.

    Yes, the downtrodden rich boy born into the cripplingly wealthy family, beating the odds by being given a huge starting fund of seed money which he bravely parlayed into a fortune by benevolently exploiting cheap, illegal labor. The working-class hero. Does anyone have the film rights for this heart-rending tale?

    Really? No one is this gullible surely?

    Finally, not sure how long you think the Democrats have been in power, but it certainly isn’t decades.

    One of the problems in this election has been its rejection of rationalism, of fact, of informed debate. Shouting mollifying, catchy but vacuous slogans is no replacement for solid policy and even if you somehow like Trump and what he represents, you should still be an adamant critic of his campaign as these things have been left to one side. If we continue to reject fact and reason and this becomes the basis for politics, the future is likely to be a bleak one.

    Bill, you’re a fellow human being and I respect you but I disagree with almost everything you said. I hope you can see why.

  • Huhster says:

    So you are expecting him no to do worse than Obama on what information, everyone else is judging based on the unbeleivably stupid things Trump has been saying, if you are missing that it might be because you are also stupid ;-)

  • Alan B says:

    Thank you, Rod S for some sensible points that everyone else seems to be overlooking/avoiding

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