Who predicted the rise of the populists? Part 2 – Richard Rorty

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Democracy / Economics / Globalisation / Party System / Philosophy / Politics / Populism / Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty predicted the rise of populism

Looking at who predicted the victory of the populists before 2016 helps us sift through the deluge of ex post facto rationalisations.Second in this series is the philosopher Richard Rorty. His 1998 book “Achieving our country” contains a wealth of predictions about the future of American politics. Many  now appear uncannily accurate.

Rorty was a self-declared member of the “Old Left”. Its principle concern was economic equality. He contrasted it with the new “Cultural Left” that he believed would progressively undermine US politics. Eventually it would generate a far right populist demagogue or “strongman”. The parallels between President Trump and Rorty’s hypothetical strongman are difficult to deny.

One surprising aspect of Rorty’s analysis is its striking resemblance to that of the contemporary right. Both blame the rise of populism on the Left’s reflex multi-culturalism and internationalism. Both claim it pits the Left against the interests of its traditional constituency. Both believe the Left’s divisive rhetoric to be slowly undermining its links to its grassroots. They agree that attempts to assemble an electoral majority from fractured minorities are hopeless, and that the future of the Left depends the adoption of moderate nationalism.

Rorty’s analysis is summarised below and then evaluated for accuracy.

1998 : Richard Rorty – Achieving Our Country

Rorty believed there were two Lefts in 1998. The Old Left thought that economic equality was the key to social progress. Inequality underlay all other injustices. The mistreatment of black people, gays and women in the USA would end if inequality was eliminated. The Cultural Left disagreed. In Rorty’s view it correctly identified flaws in this thinking. In reality the hatred of minorities had an independent life. Economic reform might not, for instance, end the stigma against homosexuality. It could anyway be addressed without economic reform. Experience has proved the Cultural Left to be right here. Hatred of gays has fallen while economic inequality has risen.

The principle enemy of the Cultural Left was a mind-set, not a set of economic arrangements. The initiatives of the Old Left tried to help people humiliated by poverty. The initiatives of the Cultural Left targeted those humiliated by anything other than economic status. The Cultural Left was (and is) notably uninterested in creating academic programmes for “homelessness studies”, or “trailer park studies”. Trailer parks weren’t “other” in the required sense.

Despite his criticisms, Rorty believed the  Cultural Left to have made some important wins. Gays have won additional rights. The casual public humiliation of minorities is far less common than it once was. Even “politically correctness” had made the USA a better place. But the problem lay in the fact that the Left wasn’t able to handle more than one initiative at a time. It could ignore cultural issues and focus on money – or vice versa – but it could never focus on both. Over the longer term the focus of the Left on minority rights would leave the agenda of inequality to the populist right and open a chasm between the Left and the working class.

Like Luttwak, Rorty believed globalisation was removing the tools nations had once used to protect the poor. This was eliminating any remaining sense of responsibility the elites felt for the domestic poor. Rorty said the future “world economy will be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class with no more sense of community than the capitalists of the year 1900”. Globalisation had radically different effects on each social stratum. Economic cosmopolitanism brought agreeable cultural cosmopolitanism for the top 25%. They got access to exotic cuisines and travelled to exciting destinations. But the other 75% found their standard of living steadily shrinking. The US was slowly dividing into hereditary castes, divided by their fates as winners and losers from globalisation.

Mainstream politics failed to recognise this political reality. It didn’t offer any approaches that might address it. “The choice between the two major parties has come down to a choice between cynical lies and terrified silence.”

In the face of globalisation the Left had two options. They could either try to reduce the inequalities between nations, or insist that the primary responsibility of each democratic nation is to its least advantaged citizens. But the two responses conflicted with each other. The first suggested opening the borders. The second suggested closing them. As the elite is generally insulated from globalisation it could be expected to plump for the former. The elite would sacrifice the interests of their own nationals for those of the global poor.

But the inevitable consequence is workers eventual realisation that neither their government, nor their governing elites, nor the Left are trying either to prevent their wages from sinking, or their jobs from being exported. That’s when they would resolve that they aren’t going to allow themselves to be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

The 75% will conclude that the system has failed and “start looking for a strongman to vote for – someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers,” bankers and lefty academics won’t call the shots anymore.

“All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet”. Once the strongman “takes charge, he will quickly make his peace with the super-rich. He will generate short term prosperity but the strongman will be a disaster for the USA and for the world. The gains made blacks and homosexuals are likely to be lost.

After the disaster people will ask who resisted his rise. Where was the Left ? Why didn’t it channel the anger of those dispossessed by globalisation ? To answer this, the Left must stop its abstracts theorising, and mobilise what remains of American national pride to generate a new wave of reform.

National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals. An individual without self-respect has no moral courage. Only countries with national pride ever embark on an ambitious project of reform. Without national pride we instead drift into the path of least resistance.

The Cultural Left is convinced that the nation state is obsolete, but this conviction is self-harming. The nation-state is, for the foreseeable future, the only agent capable of changing American lives. Abstract internationalist aspirations are no comfort to those immiserated by globalisation. The nation-state is the entity that makes decisions about social benefits. The nation-state is the sole guardian of social justice.

Outside the Cultural Left “Americans still want to feel patriotic. They still want to feel part of a nation which can take control of its destiny and make itself a better place.” The Old Left wanted to help minorities by proclaiming that all of us are Americans, and are all owed mutual respect. The Cultural Left urges that America should not be a melting pot – we need to respect one another in our differences. It wants to preserve otherness rather than ignore it.

Pride at being a member of a minority has some positive effects, but it is a political disaster when it prevents us from taking pride in being Americans. It prevents us from thinking our country capable of reform. If the Cultural Left continues to ask us to respect each others differences rather than ignore them, it will lose power. Only a “rhetoric of commonality” can forge an electoral majority.

This isn’t to propose chauvinism or jingoism. We need to be loyal to a dream country rather than to the one that we wake up to each morning. But without that loyalty, the dream has no chance of becoming a reality.

Commentary : Richard Rorty believed the ‘Cultural Left’ would generate the conditions for the rule of a strongman on the model of Trump. Multi-culturalism, internationalism and a focus on minority rights would drive a wedge between the left and working class voters. This would create huge opportunities for the far right.

Many elements of this did in fact come to pass :

 – the ‘Cultural Left’ distracted the mainstream Left away from its old focus on economic inequality towards minority rights. It failed to speak to the economic insecurity of globalisation’s losers. As predicted, this opened up huge political opportunities for the populist right.

 – the interests of the elites who ran the mainstream Left did diverge from those of traditional left wing voters. The elite benefitted from ‘cultural cosmopolitanism’. It enjoyed exotic holidays and cuisine. It benefitted financially from globalisation while the poor lost out. The Left’s internationalism blinded it to the interests of the working class.

 – as predicted, mainstream political parties ignored the plight of globalisation’s losers. Neither traditional left or right made serious attempts to address the problem.

 – as predicted, multi-culturalism has proved pernicious in undermining social solidarity. Symbols associated with the nation state are met with suspicion. National history and culture is believed by the Cultural Left to be contaminated by colonialism or slavery. This has weakened society’s centripetal forces.

 – as predicted, adopting the rhetoric of identity politics condemned the Left to electoral failure. No rhetoric can mobilise a majority composed out of fractured minorities. To succeed the Left must celebrate our commonalities not our differences. Hilary Clinton’s wrote off 25% of the US population as ‘deplorable’ and lost. Obama emphasised the forces that unify Americans (‘E pluribus unum’)  and would have won if the law had allowed him to stand again. In the words of Prof. Mark Lilla 

Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions.

 – as predicted, the Left’s internationalism is self-harming, and for two reasons. First, the nation state is the only entity capable of delivering the Left’s aspirations. Second, working class voters feel patriotic. Internationalism hands the power of national feeling to the Far Right. Support for moderate nationalism still provides the only route out of this trap for the Left

Twenty years after it was written, Rorty’s piece still contains important messages for the British Left. The growing division in the UK’s Labour party between the urban middle classes and post-industrial working class, its tortured response to Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s flip flopping on the issue of immigration are all contained within Rorty’s essay.

Part 1 – Edward Luttwak – Globalisation will create new fascist parties

Part 3 – Dani Rodrik – Globalisation undermines democracy

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