February 2005
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Day February 9, 2005

50 Book Challenge #5: Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country

After finishing Philosophy and Social Hope, I went back and re-read Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (AoC). I’d read it prior to last year’s major spree reading liberal theory and moral philosophy, so I wanted to see how much more I picked up this time.

AoC improved upon re-reading, especially since pragmatism and anti-essentialism resonates with me strongly. After all, if we deny that there is a fixed "human nature," then it becomes difficult to articulate a single conception of the "good life" and thus to ground a universalist moral theory. In this sense, I agree with pragmatic (and "post-modern") critiques of Enlightenment rationalism. What I dislike about other critiques of rationalism — for example, Gray’s "modus vivendi" liberalism (about which more in a future post) — is that many appear to treat the incommensurability of ways of life as an unchangeable fact, to which all else must be accomodated. This seems to me to be essentialism, merely writ at the level of cultural groups rather than the entire species.

In the pragmatist vision, it’s true that different groups may favor incommensurable ways of life, or rival freedoms in incompatible mixes, but since we do not consider these to be "fixed" and permanent features of either individuals or groups, we are free to argue and discuss our way to compromises. Individuals and even groups are free to change and evolve their conception of the good, to include the compromises which are necessary to civil life. The pragmatist holds her views lightly, and thus can build political consensus or coalition much more easily than any view of liberalism which assumes a fixed human nature or an "optimal" way of life.

What Rorty accomplishes in AoC is to tie this pragmatic vision to an intelligent patriotism; this is attractive because what he calls the "cultural left" has spent twenty years deriding the goodness that does exist in American liberal democracy and civil society in favor of a vision of corruption and institutional evil. Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky are well-known products of such a left, and although each has made important points about the current political system, it’s also clear that neither is able to present a wholly balanced picture. Instead, Rorty calls upon progressives to keep the lessons of the cultural left with respect to cultural identity, but rebuild the practical bridges that the "old left" had created between leftist thinkers, the labor movement, and the economic middle-to-lower class population. That coalition, built so successfully by Progressives and New Deal Democrats, has eroded since the left turned away from economics in the 1960’s in favor of the politics of ethnic and sexual identity.

The argument in AoC resonates strongly now, not just because of the additional reading I’ve done but because we’ve been through the 2004 election. We’ve seen how Republicans have captured much of the left’s former lower and middle class constituency, through a combination of patriotism and what the pundits and pollsters are calling "values." There are many theories about how the left failed, but I am coming to prefer Rorty’s view that the left’s turn towards post-modern identity politics alienated them from their mass audience, who had little use for the over-theorizing of the academic left and the anti-Americanism of the "new Left" of the 1970’s. The country has not so much become authentically conservative as it has fallen into the conservative orbit as a result of lacking a liberal left to which most people can proudly identify. Rebuilding such a left could be highly successful (if time-consuming), because much of the population still appears to support New Deal-style liberal policies, as well as strong protections for civil liberties. If such a consensus can be rebuilt, we can also satisfy the needs of cultural leftists who demand progress on identity issues; sadly, the reverse has not proven true — cultural leftists have not been able to satisfy the needs of those who view their country patriotically but simply want more economic fairness and justice.

Naturally, this topic deserves a fuller exposition. At the moment, I highly recommend Achieving Our Country as a prelude to how a Deweyan pragmatism might be reborn within contemporary progressive politics.