The Atlantic

The Book That Predicted Trump’s Rise Offers the Left a Roadmap for Defeating Him

Twenty years ago, Richard Rorty warned that “a spectatorial, disgusted, mocking Left” would give rise to a populist demagogue. Is it ready now to take his advice?
Source: Eric Thayer / Reuters

Twenty years ago, in a series of lectures on the history of American civilization, the philosopher Richard Rorty offered a prediction. His words languished in relative obscurity until the unexpected rise of Donald Trump made them seem prescient.

Labor unions and 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,” he posited. And they will further 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,”  he warned. “The nonsuburban electorate will decide 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, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.”

That passage, considered from the vantage of November 9, 2016, caused a spike of interest in Achieving Our Country, the compilation of Rorty’s lectures. The full book contains criticism for the political left as earnestly constructive and thoughtfully formulated as any I have encountered in my recent roundups––and I say that despite disagreeing with Rorty’s  uncharitable assessments of the American right, among other things.

His book is worth revisiting as the Democratic Party smarts from losses in recent special elections and considers how it might win back the House in the 2018 midterms.

What is wrong with its current incarnation?

Rorty argued that an ascendant strain of postmodern Leftism with its roots in the academy has tended “to give cultural politics preference over real politics, and to mock the very idea that democratic institutions might once again be made

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