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


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 Slate

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Octavia Butler’s 1998 Dystopi­an Nov­el Fea­tures a Fascis­tic Pres­i­den­tial Can­di­date Who Promis­es to “Make Amer­i­ca Great Again”

John Sear­le on Fou­cault and the Obscu­ran­tism in French Phi­los­o­phy

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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Comments (28)
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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:


    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

  • Nurglitch says:

    At first I was wor­ried, then I real­ized if Richard Rorty is the guy mak­ing the pre­dic­tion I can rest assured know­ing that he’s not even wrong.

  • Hackles says:

    Attempt­ing to frame Oba­ma as a “strong­man” who would stand up to “smug bureau­crats, tricky lawyers, over­paid bond sales­men, and post­mod­ernist pro­fes­sors,” then stun the world with his wild capri­cious­ness requires a breath­tak­ing lev­el of denial.

  • Hackles says:

    It’s not clear, but that last com­ment was meant to be a response to Randy’s “Inter­est­ing. I sus­pect he had in mind the 2000 elec­tion, not 2016… but it applies to both.”

  • PermReader says:

    Left are dead,despite their shel­low mul­ti­cul­tur­al trans­for­ma­tions. The prob­lem of their oppo­nents is the main prob­lem of the 21 century,as the their right flank is indef­i­nite, and their depen­dence on the religion,is against them.

  • Jo says:

    He can’t do worse than Oba­ma? I just don’t under­stand the hatred for Oba­ma.

  • Garreth Byrne says:

    The US two-par­ty sys­tem offered Amer­i­can vot­ers a choice between a woman who spoke plat­i­tudes that meant noth­ing to those try­ing to make ends meet, and a mil­lion­aire who promised the pre­cari­at a bet­ter deal by bring­ing back all the indus­tri­al jobs lost to glob­al­i­sa­tion. Much Amer­i­can pol­i­tics is about the expen­sive cul­ti­va­tion of pub­lic image. More sub­stance is need­ed.

  • Noel Hedemark says:

    is a shin­ing exam­ple of what has hap­pened to the intel­lec­tu­al lev­el of soci­ety over the last few decades

  • quintediese says:

    Wow, you sure had your head way up in it…

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