Do we have a Political or Cultural Left?

Do we have a Political or Cultural Left?

Following Donald Trump's election in 2016, a collection of lectures written by Richard Rorty gained prominence. Of particular interest to the public was Rorty's prescient prediction that a demagogue would emerging in response to what he described as a "Cultural Left": a liberalism focused almost exclusively on issues of identity and social equality in lieu of political, pragmatic issues of government reform and workers' rights.

Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments...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 nonsuburban 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.

-"Achieving our Country," p. 89 - 90

With hindsight, the excerpt is indeed striking. The prediction that the working class, "non-suburban electorate" would shift course proved correct. But underlying those "bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors," is an even more persistent component of the cultural left: the rejection of national pride.

To Rorty, the "cultural left" not only fails in their capacity to engage pragmatically in issues of economic governance, it ultimately fails to craft a narrative of American idealism or a brighter future for our country.

In America, at the end of the twentieth century, few inspiring images and stories are being proffered. The only version of national pride encouraged by American popular culture is a simpleminded militaristic chauvinism. But such chauvinism is overshadowed by a widespread sense that national pride is no longer appropriate. In both popular and elite culture, most descriptions of what America will be like in the twenty-first century are written in tones either of self mockery or of self-disgust...

...When young intellectuals watch John Wayne war movies after reading Heidegger, Foucault, Stephenson, or Silko, they often become convinced that they live in a violent, inhuman, corrupt country. They begin to think of themselves as a saving remnant-as the happy few who have the insight to see through nationalist rhetoric to the ghastly reality of contemporary America. But this insight does not move them to formulate a legislative program, to join a political movement, or to share in a national hope.

- "Achieving our Country," p. 4, 7-8

These negative perspectives that Rorty laments were expressed at the end of the twentieth century, decades before Trump, COVID-19, or any of the other challenges we now face as a society. In the decades that would follow, the Internet would gain widespread adoption, social issues related to minority communities would make major strides, and the world would grow ever more connected.

So, perhaps this negativity and national shame has been muted. Yet if we now ask the question: "Does the dominant discourse of the American Left today offer a path to national pride?" our answer is unquestionably mixed.

The progressive movement no doubt embodies many of the elements of Rorty's "cultural Left," a fixation on minority identity, a lamentation of America as a flawed and perhaps morally unrecoverable empire. The progressive wing of the party increasingly calls on the institutions of America to be defunded or abolished on the basis of their past and current missteps.

Yet in Biden, we see an apparent last gasp of a more pragmatic, political Left. His speech at the Democratic National Convention last week spoke to the horrors of this political moment but simultaneously recalled a vision of the Left as the party of hope:

As God's children each of us have a purpose in our lives.  And we have a great purpose as a nation: To open the doors of opportunity to all Americans. To save our democracy. To be a light to the world once again. To finally live up to and make real the words written in the sacred documents that founded this nation that all men and women are created equal. Endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In these comments, Biden speaks to both the history of fundamental American goodness as well as the potential for a brighter American future that is more in keeping with our principles.

Biden was, in the primary election, considered one of the most centrist candidates for a reason. He has served in politics since 1973, both before and after Rorty's prophetic words were written. Perhaps because he served across these decades, he has internalized the need to inculcate a pragmatic, political Left without abandoning the fights for social justice driven by the progressive arms of the party.

Heading into the November election, I suspect the outcome will hinge in large part on whether the Republican party succeeds in framing Biden as an arm of a Cultural Left, an extension of cancel culture, abolitionism, and identity politics. Fortunately for Biden, he seems to be one of the few candidates capable of subverting this narrative and reclaiming the national pride that has, in recent years, appeared to exist primarily within the domain of conservatism.