Richard Rorty, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders

by Peter Augustine Lawler

I thought I’d mention that I wrote an article last August that predicted that Trump and Sanders would be formidable candidates, and that a Trump–Sanders race was not absolutely inconceivable. This is, in fact, the perfect day to mention it, because that possibility seems more real than ever.

So I wish our various public intellectuals had done more to learn from Donald and Bernie. Yesterday afternoon, in my class “The Future of Liberty Is Confusing,” we were talking about Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country. Rorty, of course, was the most able and witty of the leftist professors of philosophy of his time. John Rawls, in my view, was, by comparison, pretty clueless. Rorty says that, for the Left, globalization is the challenge we face at the dawn of the 21st century, just as industrialization was the challenge at the dawn of the 20th century. 

Globalization means, for one thing, that the attempt of a country to protect the jobs and conditions of work of its citizens results in those jobs’ being exported. It also means the increased dominance of an apolitical cosmopolitan elite, without any sense of place that would ground personal responsibility. It also means the proletarianization of the bourgeoisie.

Meanwhile, the Left has become oriented around “cultural studies” (various programs and majors ending in “studies”) about victimized groups marked with an “ineradicable stigma,” such as gays and African Americans. There is, of course, much to admire in efforts to free these groups from the cruel suffering of “socially accepted sadism,” which can’t be explained, of course, as merely “economic selfishness.” For cultural studies, Freud more than Marx has been the guide.

That means, for one thing: “Nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies, or trailer-park studies, because the unemployed, the homeless, and residents of trailer parks are not ‘other’ in the relevant sense.”

Yet: “During  the same period in which socially accepted sadism has steadily diminished, economic inequality and economic insecurity have steadily increased.”

So: Someone should reasonably expect that strong candidates emerge who focus attention on the anxieties of people excluded from the reigning definition of “political correctness,” turn attention away from cultural to economic concerns, and insist that the leadership of our country act vigorously to protect the economic interests of American citizens. And that there would be a rebellion against the untethered oligarchic complacency of the cosmopolitan elite we associate with Wall Street (including the WSJ) and Silicon Valley.

Now Rorty actually predicts a Fascist strongman who would undo all the civilized gains that political correctness has achieved in ordinary language and human relations.(And these gains, I add, are, after all, quite real.) That’s not Trump, although his supporters embrace him as a strong leader. Well, it’s a bit a Trump, but he’s no Musssolini or anything like that. 

Rorty didn’t predict Bernie, but he would, I think, have welcomed (in the spirit of Cornel West) a somewhat more astute version of Sanders. I think Rorty would have been perfectly aware that the actual Bernie is an old leftist reactionary who has not adjusted his thinking or his message properly to the challenges of our time. 

One thing that came out in class discussion: To some extent, the reaction against political correctness is against having everything we say scripted by the mental labor of our cognitive elite driven by the twin imperatives of competency and diversity. That’s not to say that the classy Berry students don’t see the value in being careful not to degrade or stigmatize anyone in speech. They are repulsed by Trump.

Let me give you (way too late!) the trigger warning that the above is leftist analysis, and so I gave it a very mixed review for the benefit of the class. Good stuff to think about, though, in understanding why two vastly overrated men are so improbably doing so well.

Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.