U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Why Richard Rorty Was Not a Prophet

hqdefaultPrescience is not a category historians should trust. That is a first principle you may not agree with, but it is a principle I hold and I feel I should set it out before anything else. On the other hand, I don’t think one needs to cleave to such a doctrine in order to consider or even accept the rest of what I have to say.

You have likely seen by now the paragraphs from Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America which many have touted as having predicted this year’s election, particularly in terms of its class dynamics and the “strongman” nature of its victor. You can read the paragraphs and a bit of the context for the original publication of Rorty’s book in this New York Times article, titled “Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Suggested Election 2016 Was Coming.”[1] (Or you can check out Cosmopolitan, which has also run a story, with the more click-baity title “A Book Written in 1998 Predicted Trump’s Election in a Scary-Accurate Way.”) But I want to make two arguments for why we ought not to take seriously this rapidly congealing story that Rorty’s anticipatory version of the events was accurate. First, Rorty’s story only makes sense by leaving out materially important developments that took place between 1998 and 2016, and the omission of these events from Rorty’s “prediction” fundamentally mars not only its accuracy but its explanatory power. Second—and somewhat less straightforwardly—Rorty’s particular hobby-horses and distinctive temperament (which are on ample display in the book, believe me) are almost uniquely antipathetic to the role of prophet: Rorty’s peculiar understanding of history and society, his models of cultural change and human character, are not only ill-suited to prophecy, but actively negate any kind of thinking which we might regard as prophetic. Putting him to such a use is a misreading of what he actually stood for and depends on a willful blindness to his (self-acknowledged) limitations.

Let me also get another throat-clearing gesture out of the way. For many years, I have thought I was one of the few people I knew who enjoyed reading Rorty and who thought he still merited our attention. I encountered him very briefly in a religious studies class my freshman year of college, and then again in an advanced seminar on pragmatism and religion my sophomore year taught by Nancy Frankenberry, whose guidance of that seminar probably turned me into an intellectual historian many years before I knew that it had done so. The most intellectually stimulating readings from that course (I thought at the time) were not by William James or John Dewey but by Richard Rorty. I’ve moderated a bit on that judgment, but have continued to believe that he deserved a serious second look from my generation of scholars, or the generation that is young enough to have thought of him largely as a grand old man/windbag.[2] So, first, please do not read the following as unsympathetic to Rorty; second, it is somewhat amusing to see him revived in this way, but please do not let Rorty become merely the “philosopher who predicted Trump!”rorty-achieving-our-country

All right, to business.

As I see it, Rorty’s argument for what was likely to happen consists of four elements:

  1. Globalization would be the most disruptive and transformative socioeconomic force for the indefinite future, and would mean a persistent leakage of well-paying jobs and social cohesion from those areas of the U.S. which had been heavily industrialized.
  2. All levels of government in the U.S. would increasingly cater to groups that reliably turned out to vote—principally tax-averse suburbanites—resulting in indifference to the fates of those laid off by the factories which had fled and a gutting of any social programs (including higher education) which might have permitted a recalibration and reignition of the motors of social mobility. As Rorty says (in a line reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s essay on the “Me Decade”), “It is as if, sometime around 1980, the children of the people who made it through the Great Depression and into the suburbs had decided to pull up the drawbridge behind them.”
  3. One of those groups which had already made it over the moat was the bloc that was the professoriate, or, more broadly, “knowledge workers” or the “creative class.” This class or class fraction was already and would remain a magnet for criticism and resentment because of their attempt to combat what Rorty aptly referred to as the everyday “sadism” of American life—the misogyny and homophobia, the violently casual and casually violent racism. Because that interaction—the conflict over manners or public behavior—was in essence the only contact between this class and the class whose jobs were disappearing, an inveterate antagonism would continue to grow.
  4. This antagonism and the hopelessness of help from the government in finding some economic solution to the jobs crisis and the deterioration of social cohesion in deindustrialized communities would create an opening for a “strongman” who would promise, first, to put an end to the p.c. police’s dictatorship over public behavior and, second, to curtail globalization, perhaps even to reverse it. The election of this strongman would resurrect the open sadism which the left had, with so much effort, mostly banished.

I think it is mostly that last part which jolts us most intensely, and which seems retrospectively most prophetic. The largely economic analysis which constitutes the bulk of Rorty’s analysis was not really so difficult to imagine, but many of us are still adjusting painfully to a world where, as Rorty said, “Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words ‘n—r’ and ‘kike’ will once again be heard in the workplace” (90).

That is the nail that many people feel Rorty hit on the head. But there is so much that we cannot find in his account. First of all, the future that Rorty imagines is a smooth extrapolation from where he was: there is only a continuation of trends already present, no abrupt crises or bubbles. That Rorty did not think about a severe economic crisis as playing a role in this future is not a minor omission; many times in the book he ridicules Fredric Jameson and other marxists for their use of the term “late capitalism,” insisting tacitly that capitalism was, all in all, in the best of health, humming along like a Cadillac. So, 2008 is unimaginable to Rorty. Unless we want to begin making the argument that the 2007-8 financial crisis had no influence on the election of 2016, that is a serious fault in Rorty’s “prediction.”[3]

Similarly, the election of an African-American man to the Presidency is impossible to locate in Rorty’s forecast. It is not just that Rorty “failed” to foresee Obama, but that there is really no room in his analysis for something like Obama’s election. I find it difficult to accept any analysis of the 2016 election which does not look at two terms of a black man in the Oval Office as a significant factor, probably as an accelerant of narratives about white people having “lost control” of the country. As we can see with Trump, there are few things in American life more powerfully symbolic than either electing “one of us” or, conversely, “one of them” to the Presidency.[4]

But the larger problem with Rorty’s analysis—and anyone today who takes it to heart as an accurate prophesy—that is highlighted by its inability to imagine Obama’s election is that it has no room for the agency of people of color or other minorities. The story is entirely about how an unmarked but obviously white population feels and what it ultimately decides to do. It describes conflicts within a basically white country—conflicts between a white working class pitted against a mostly white professoriate that acts on behalf of minorities. Minorities don’t get to change history, they don’t get to do surprising things.

Well, obviously the election of an African-American to the Presidency is a surprising thing, but so is the #BlackLivesMatter movement and so are, on a more granular level, the protests of Colin Kaepernick and other athletes. The presence of a woman in the race as the opposing nominee only reinforced a sense of “minority” agency, even potency.

This absence of minority agency is significant because Rorty imagines the future revolt of the white working class as a response to largely faceless forces—globalization and bureaucracy. If, on the other hand, we acknowledge that an essential dimension of the revolt which elected Trump is instead the fact that there was a ready demonology for Trump to make use of consisting of readily recognizable faces, we can both understand better the essential historical question—why now?—and make room for an acknowledgment of the much broader class base of Trump voters. If we can only imagine the revolt as occurring against faceless top-down forces, it becomes difficult to understand how any movement could grow beyond the people being crushed by those forces: they lash out blindly not because they are ignorant, but because there would be nothing to see. If, however, there is a roster of faces to be condemned, anyone who is repelled for whatever reason by those faces can be added to the coalition; anyone who feels limited by or challenged by those faces can add their voice to the throng. Without minority agency, there would not be those faces.

The two final elements which we cannot find in Rorty are, in a sense, also about the agency of “others”: immigration and terrorism. Rorty imagines a United States that can only leak—jobs leave, factories flee for other nations. Its exterior seems to be impermeable; social conflicts arise within the nation because of tensions between already present groups. Everything is endogenous. But that is obviously not the America that Trump presented to his supporters: that imagined America is incredibly porous—the nation leaks jobs but takes on a “flood” of immigrants and refugees and is infected with terrorist cells (those damn Skittles). You really can’t find that in Rorty—anywhere in the book, in fact. Rorty’s America is like a strange kind of garden: new rows might be added, but they are added at the perimeter—the inner rows are always planted the same, and they never grow weeds or volunteers.

That limitation of Rorty’s imagination brings the first part of my critique to a close and, because this is already long enough, I’ll pause for now and pick up next week.

[1] The Times, if I may be permitted a grousing aside, has a penchant for atrocious headlines, but this one is egregious: “suggested” is such a weasel-word and clearly replaces something stronger that we are meant to impute to the headline—“predicted” or “prophesied.” For if one takes the title wholly out of context—if one does not transport the portentousness of what we know “Election 2016” to mean back to “suggested”—then the headline by itself is laughably trivial: of course an election “was coming” in 2016—it’s a year divisible by four! The headline only makes sense by intimation or imputation: word for word, it’s idiotic.

[2] Neil Gross’s biography is, of course, a wonderful book and the necessary first step in any future serious study of Rorty’s thought.

[3] Let me say again that Rorty did not offer this plausible future as some kind of prophecy: he was forthrightly extrapolating from where he stood, trying to draw attention to already present problems in society. That he followed them to a point he believed they could lead to—the election of a “strongman” and the erasure of the gains made by identity politics—was less an attempt to forecast the future than an effort to diagnose the latent maladies of his present.

[4] Two possible objections to this can be quickly dispatched: the presumption that because Clinton lost a number of blue-collar counties which Obama won twice, race should be discounted; and the idea that Obama represented less the ascendancy of a racial other than the continued domination (exacerbated by the nomination of Clinton) of a technocratic elite—the professoriate now dictating directly from D.C. (rather than the Ivory Tower) what was permissible public behavior.

The first objection presupposes a remarkably static idea of racism, as if past “non-racist” actions (like voting for Obama in 2008 and 2012) were predictive of future anti-racism. It would be nice if that were true, but I sincerely doubt it is. It also understates the degree to which an accumulated eight years of attacks from Republicans may have had a greater effect on voters in 2016 than the four years of attacks had by 2012.

The second objection is contradicted by the first—if there is evidence that a number of voters preferred Obama to Clinton, then they cannot really be thought of as equally part of the same technocratic elite. So either Obama should have lost because people wanted someone not from the elite, or Clinton should have won the Electoral College because voters were willing to accept Obama’s technocratic elitism. Or, just possibly, many voters were more willing to accept someone from the elite as long as he wasn’t a woman…

10 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Interesting and thought-provoking. I’ll add only that to me, just Rorty’s understanding of the first point — that globalization has been a shattering experience for many white Americans akin to a natural disaster or a major war — makes this a prescient piece. Rorty wasn’t the only analyst who figured that out, but he was certainly in a minority. Those who thought the globalization of the American economy could be assimilated into the collective American psyche without staggering upheavals missed the boat on this one. Americans haven’t even yet recovered from the advent of industrial capitalism; here we are in another, equally traumatic economic shift, and we should have expected some dramatic reactions to it. Rorty did so, and should get credit for that — a point which doesn’t undermine your argument, but which still, in my view, needs to be emphasized.

  2. Great post. I agree with you on many of the details but disagree with your first premise. I think looking at which figures were prescient about what and which were way off is one of the fun tasks of being a historian, and does not unduly aggrandize or diminish those figures. To be prescient doesn’t mean you need to be right about everything. Richard Rorty anticipating a “strong man” and a rise is racism and sexism and homophobia, even as the society in which he lived seemed to be making progress is reducing those forces, seems pretty prophetic to me. He didn’t anticipate Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or 9/11 or the Iraq War or War on Terror or so many other things. But perhaps his pragmatism, which I believe he understood to be basically amoral, was what allowed him to understand that progress was not inevitable.

    One brief comparison regarding historical prescience. Moses Hess (1812-1875), a German Jewish philosopher, socialist and proto-Zionist and friend of Karl Marx, was remarkably prescient in his book “Rome and Jerusalem” written in 1862 (!): “Even an act of conversion cannot relieve the Jew of the enormous pressure of German anti-Semitism. The Germans hate the religion of the Jews less than they hate their race – they hate the peculiar faith of the Jews less than their peculiar noses.” Part of the broader context was that Hess was relying on ideas of German and Jewish racialism essentialism which we today would reject. His proposed solution, a Jewish return to Palestine, does not necessarily follow and is of course highly controversial. And he was probably wrong about many other things. But I don’t think that changes the (horrifying) prophetic power of Hess’ statement.

  3. Andy, I love this post, and I agree with you. I would just make one note about the pervasive thinking that you’re so aptly responding to: the widespread insistence that someone was “prophetic” because he/she “saw into the future.” It’s unfortunate that this is the common understanding of the term, a very thinned-out conception of what a prophet is or does. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, of course: Prophets were the spokesmen for God, proclaiming God’s message to the rulers and the people; predicting the future was not the main gig. Sometimes it wasn’t a gig at all. But how most people seem to use the term “prophet” or “prophetic” is “someone who saw and warned us about the future.” So Richard Rorty was, in some estimations, “a prophet” because he warned us of a strongman riding a tide of resentment against political correctness, or something. I suppose it makes sense in the secularization of the term and the times that “prophetic” would be reduced to “accurately predictive.” But what the times desperately need are “prophets” in the round — in the roundness and fulness of the term. Secular pluralism and the prophetic mode are perhaps strange bedfellows, but I think Crosby Stills & Nash (and Ado Annie) have it right on this one: we’ve gotta love the ones we’re with.

    • Also, to further enrich your point about the variances of “prophetic” that are away from seer-like endeavors, a portion of the Catholic Church uses the term theologically as a kind of synonym for progressive (i.e. prophetic about emerging ideals and virtues). I’ve also noticed that prophetic is often used today in a negative register—that prophecy is all about destruction and apocalyptic happenings. I see that as a remnant of eschatological thinking among fundamentalist Protestant sects. – TL

  4. Thank you for this Andy. I think you effectively highlight a larger interpretive problem–the tendency to read the past backwards from the present through a series of elisions. And this is a challenge that all historians face, and that is unavoidable. We _do_ want to know how to link the present to the past, how to order events and make sense of them in terms of their results. But, as familiar as Rorty’s words seem to be, in order for us to understand them historically, we need to ask what Rorty didn’t know, what could not have been available to him. Which I think is the point that Quentin Skinner and others have tried to insist on so forcefully in terms of laying out a method for historical understanding. Rorty was not alone in his concerns about the consequences of post-industrial society and globalization in rending the social fabric–see, for instance, Christopher Lasch’s Revolt of the Elites and going back to Daniel Bell’s Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, among others. But, would Rorty have been able to imagine, in his terms, a president whose signature policies were the New Deal liberal dream of expanding health care to millions, the regulation of financial capitalism through Dodd-Frank, and the post-2008 stimulus plan as the focal point of reaction and the rise of Trump? In other words, didn’t Obama embody the “hope” and “American exceptionalism” that Rorty advocated? If we imagine Rorty (or any other thinker) as a fore-teller of the future, don’t we have to elide all the things he didn’t see–9/11, the rise of global anti-terrorism, etc.–and reconstruct a narrative that says that the important issue was always solely economic process–globalization and neoliberalism? It’s always nice to think that somebody saw it coming, that we can make sense of the present by seeing that it was available to someone in the past. For people seeking reassurance in the face of their failure to see it coming, this is surely a balm. But if Rorty saw something coming, it could only have been through a glass darkly.

  5. Andy,

    I loved the post and agree with Dan that it points to a problem of reading the past backward. One point I think relevant, however, is the context through which Rorty came to be read as prophetic. Trump had just won a shocking election. Data-knowledgable pollsters (our heroes from 2012) had almost entirely whiffed on predicting the election’s outcome. Out of this epistemic shock came a viral blurb from a nearly two-decades old book written, not by a computer scientist or social scientist, but by a philosopher appearing to predict a Trump-like rise. Collective shock at Trump’s victory demanded an explanation and when traditional outlets failed to deliver, Rorty stepped into the breach.

    I think in the coming weeks the ‘Rorty-as-prophet’ narrative will fade and face appropriate criticism (perhaps your piece will be the first of such), but I think the interest in Rorty was more about the context of the immediate post-election moment than the content of Rorty’s book.

    Loved the piece and hope you have a relaxing Thanksgiving!


  6. These are all tremendous comments highlighting many things I wish I had thought of or that I had been able to work into the post, and I’m so glad I could elicit these responses.

    I certainly ought to have done a better job of spelling out how I intended to use the term “prophet,” and if I can be a bit self-exculpatory, that was meant to be (and I hope still will be) part II. L.D. and Tim, you’re absolutely right that the term is often misused to mean something like “fortune-teller,” which is a terrible reduction of the rich history of prophecy. I hope I can address that in my next post.

    And I hope I can address the point that Dan and Matt and, in a way, David make about the felt need for prophecy–why we want to believe that someone in the past might have “seen it coming.”

    But I guess, more in response to David and Jeremy, I wasn’t really trying to say that because Rorty got some things wrong, he didn’t deserve the title of prophet, or that the things he got right were not important. I absolutely agree with you both that his insights into the limits of the liberal victory against sadism and the magnitude of globalization were both rare (though, as Dan points out, not unique) and impressive.

    What I meant by my initial sentence, though, was something like this (and this very much echoes what Dan wrote):
    Bestowing the title of “prescient” or “prophetic” on someone from the past validates their analysis en bloc: we come to see it not as an insight into a few hidden developments that would flower later but as a clear-eyed representation of the full internal dynamics of some future conjuncture. We learn to trust that their version of that conjuncture is right, and we trust them because the must have “understood” its inner workings in order to have “predicted” it. It’s that trust which I fear: if we think that because Rorty got some things eerily correct, then he must have some privileged information about what really happened, we will limit ourselves to the story he told. We won’t ask about other events that are not a part of his story, and we will over-weight those which he did get right.

    There’s obviously a flatly political dimension to this: it seems to me that Rorty’s “prediction” justifies a tactical retreat from identity politics which is already being heralded as the best strategy for a reconstruction of the left. “Let’s call a temporary ceasefire in the fight against sadism and focus on the war against inequality,” one might say. I disagree with that strategy, and it concerns me that Rorty’s prediction might be useful in elevating such a plan to the level of political necessity or plain common sense.

  7. I agree that Rorty himself did not think he was being a prophet, “the ironist theorist [being] the prophet of a new age” aside (LD Burnett gives the right kind of prophet above), and your analysis of the obstacles in the way of reading him that way is astute. I add this: Rorty was not a prophet-predictor because his central political idea was timeless: there is no beautiful theory, no set of concepts and institutions, that is proof against regress. Politics is only the hard work of connecting to people’s suffering and organizing into movements. The Rorty quotation going around looks prophetic because he recognised the fragility of equality gains that it seems many are only just coming to understand.

  8. Andy, your comment above, plus Dan’s comment, point to the crux of the matter, which is where the two senses of “prophet” come together: the (supposed) prescience of someone who “saw what was coming” is accepted as a retroactive endorsement of his/her entire project. The logic is that if “Rorty was right” about the rise of Trump, then Rorty was right about [fill in the blank] — and, by implication, “so are we who think [fill in the blank].”

    At the same time, the irony (!) of using “getting it right about what’s going to happen” as the litmus test to distinguish the true prophet from the false prophet — and it’s the litmus test set forth in Deuteronomy, no less — is that prophetic warnings are meant for the hearers in the present, because they are calls for some immediate action. So even if we concede that “Rorty got it right,” in part or en bloc, what we’ve discovered is that he was a prophet for his time. But that doesn’t help us at all in figuring out who is a prophet for our time, since the “test” of whether we should be listening to somebody right now is a test that can only be administered retroactively, when the decisions facing us right now will be in the past. (FWIW, I think the whole point of the Deuteronomist’s impossible-to-use litmus test is to double down on moral/ethical responsibility in/for the present.)

    Anyway, as I said elsewhere, you knocked it out of the park on this post, and I can’t wait to see where you go with this.

  9. Since historians are trained to examine events in context, I wonder what the role of the 2006 midterm election plays in this narrative about white people having “lost control” of the country. Why did the electorate toss out Karl Rove’s “permanent Republican majority,” and not only elect an African-American with a foreign sounding name to the Presidency, but also give the Democratic party control of not only the Executive branch but also both houses of Congress with a filibuster proof majority in the Senate for a short time?

    Also how often has a political party held the Presidency for three consecutive terms since the passage of the 22nd Amendment? Why does Obama still have high popularity ratings in the polls? Why are we seeing the emergence of Trump like politicians throughout European countries with homogeneous populations?

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