Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard Rorty

This short book from 1998 by the philosopher Richard Rorty gained attention recently because of this passage:

… members 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 non-suburban 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. …

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet [89-90].

Given our recent election, that sounds right in some respects. I’d make a few points, however. Democratic politicians have tried to increase wages for the working class and keep more jobs at home but have run into strong Republican opposition; it’s unlikely that 40 years of gains for various minorities (and for women) are unlikely to be wiped out any time soon; and the “strong man” we currently have isn’t actually strong, was rejected by most voters and is already highly unpopular. 

But the real focus of Rorty’s book is leftist thought in the 20th century. He draws a distinction between the “reformist” left and the “cultural” left. America’s left wing was dedicated to reform from the 19th century up until the 1960s.  Left-wing politicians, labor leaders, activists and intellectuals saw the United States as a land of promise. Rorty cites Walt Whitman and John Dewey as two proponents of this basically pro-American point of view. They were aware of many problems but believed those problems could be addressed through incremental reforms, eventually resulting in a country that lived up to its ideals. In Rorty’s words, they were dedicated to “achieving our country”. 

Rorty argues that the left lost its faith in America’s promise in reaction to the Vietnam War. Incremental reform was no longer enough. It was wasted effort, because America was too far gone. American culture needed to be remade. “The people” needed to take control in revolutionary fashion. Rorty says left-wing intellectuals began to focus on “the system” instead of fighting for specific reforms. In addition, too much emphasis was put on what’s now called “identity” politics:

To take pride in being black or gay is an entirely reasonable response to the sadistic humiliation to which one has been subjected. But insofar as this pride prevents someone from also taking pride in being an American citizen, from thinking of his or her country as capable of reform, or from being able to join with straights or whites in reformist initiatives, it is a political disaster. 

Rorty concludes that we should admit America’s faults but see ourselves as agents rather than spectators:

Our national character is still in the making. Few in 1897 would have predicted the Progressive Movement, the forty-hour work week, Women’s Suffrage, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement…. Nobody in 1997 can know that America will not, in the course of the next century, witness even greater moral progress.

Whitman and Dewey … wanted to put shared utopian dreams – dreams of an ideally decent and civilized society – in the place of knowledge of God’s Will, Moral Law, the Laws of History, or the Facts of Science. Their party, the party of hope, made twentieth-century America more than just an economic and military giant. Without the American Left, we might still be strong and brave, but nobody would have suggested that we were good. As long as we have a functioning political left, we still have a chance to achieve our country, to make it the country of Whitman’s and Dewey’s dreams.

I think that Rorty, spending his days in academia, over-emphasized the intellectual left-wing at the expense of the politicians and activists who continued to fight for reform in the late 20th century and continue fighting today. But the book was still worth reading for its analysis of Whitman’s and Dewey’s political ideals and the distinction Rorty draws between the reformist and the cultural left.

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 by Joseph J. Ellis

The “Second American Revolution” in the title refers to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Before that, during most of the Revolutionary War, America was governed by the Articles of Confederation, a loose arrangement that Ellis compares to the European Union. Under the Articles of Confederation, the thirteen colonies operated as separate nations. They cooperated in order to defeat the British, but few of the colonists expected to become one nation after the British left.

Ellis focuses on the four men he thinks did the most to convince their fellow colonists that the United States needed a real central government. They were Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay and George Washington. Ellis writes well and tells a fast-moving, almost suspenseful story, which is divided about equally between describing the histories and psychologies of his four Founding Fathers (and a few others) and the issues that confronted them.

From his conclusion:

Perhaps the best way to describe their achievement … is to argued that they maximized the historical possibilities of their transitory moment. They were comfortable and unembarrassed in their role as a political elite, in part because their leadership role depended on their revolutionary credentials… They were unapologetic in their skepticism about unfettered democracy, because that skepticism was rooted in their recent experiences ass soldiers and statesmen…

They straddled an aristocratic world that was dying and a democratic world that was just emerging… The Constitution they created and bequeathed to us was necessarily a product of that bimodal moment and mentality, and most of the men featured in this story would be astonished to learn that it abides, with amendments, over two centuries later…

Their genius was to answer the political challenges of their own moment decisively, meaning that the confederation must be replaced by the nation, but also to provide a political platform wide enough to allow for considerable latitude within which future generations could make their own decisions. 

Ellis concludes with the words of Thomas Jefferson, written decades later, not because Jefferson played much of a role in creating the Constitution (he was Ambassador to France at the time) but because he wrote so well:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it. It deserved well of its country…. But I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered … institutions must advance also and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regime of their barbarous ancestors.

PS: Anyone who reads this book will understand that the Founders would have expected the Electoral College to reject a demagogue like the current President; and that they intended the 2nd Amendment to make sure we would be protected by a well-regulated militia, not a standing army, and not to guarantee everyone the right to own the weapon(s) of their choice.

The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter

The historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) is known outside academic circles for having written a particular book and a particular essay. The book was Anti-intellectualism in American Life from 1963. The essay was “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” from 1964.

This is a book of Hofstadter’s collected essays. His famous essay gives the book its title; there are three other essays on the same topic. “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt” was written in response to McCarthyism. “Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited” and “Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics” were written in response to Senator Barry Goldwater’s successful effort to win the Republican nomination for President.

These essays may have been written more than 50 years ago, but they are highly relevant today, given America’s disastrous election two months ago. Our next President ran a classic pseudo-conservative campaign, claiming to be a “conservative” but appealing to the same right-wing extremism that characterized the likes of Sen. Joe McCarthy, the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater. (The President-elect owes his greater success in 2016 to the fact that “normal” Republicans are much more extreme than they used to be.)

Hofstadter explores the history of right-wing extremism through the 20th century, but concentrates on developments since World War 2. He explains that as more people did well in economic terms, a reactionary minority grew angrier and angrier about changes in society. Conservatism became a form of radicalism, with seething hatred toward moderate politicians and deep resentment of the progress made by women and African-Americans. Anyone who wants to understand how we got to the current low point in American history will benefit from reading Richard Hofstadter.