the rise of an american "strongman" was predicted in 1998 -- 2/13/17

Today's selection -- from Achieving Our Country Richard Rorty. In 1979, children from the top socioeconomic quarter of Ameri­can families were four times more likely to get a college de­gree than those from the bottom quarter; now they are ten times more likely. In 1998, American philosopher and academic Richard Rorty wrote of the emerging political and social divisions in America and predicted the emergence of a "strongman" in American politics. Whether readers agree or disagree with Rorty's writings [which includes some statements more pungent than those included below] , the fact that he wrote so directly about this phenomenon almost twenty years ago is intriguing and merits reflection:

"[America's] newly acquired cultural cosmopolitanism is limited to the richest twenty-five percent of Americans. The new economic cosmopolitanism presages a future in which the other 75 percent of Americans will find their standard of living steadily shrinking. ...

"Sometime in the Seventies, American middle-class ideal­ism went into a stall. Under Presidents Carter and Clinton, the Democratic Party has survived by distancing itself from the unions and from any mention of redistribution, and moving into a sterile vacuum called the 'center.' The party no longer has a visible, noisy left wing -- a wing with which the intellectuals can identify and on which the unions can rely for support. ...

"Union mem­bers in the United States have watched factory after factory close, only to reopen in Slovenia, Thailand, or Mexico. It is no wonder that they see the result of international free trade as prosperity for managers and stockholders, a better stan­dard of living for workers in developing countries, and a very much worse standard of living for American workers. It would be no wonder if they saw the American leftist intelli­gentsia as on the side of the managers and stockholders -- as sharing the same class interests. For we intellectuals, who are mostly academics, are ourselves quite well insulated, at least in the short run, from the effects of globalization. To make things worse, we often seem more interested in the workers of the developing world than in the fate of our fellow citizens. ...

Cover of "It Can't Happen Here" by

Sinclair Lewis published in 1935

"Edward Luttwak ... [suggests] that members of labor unions, and 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. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis' novel It Can't Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes of­fice, nobody can predict what will happen. ...

"One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. ... All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unaccept­able to its students will come flooding back. All the resent­ment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet. ...

"After my imagined strongman takes charge, he will quickly [betray the expectations of his supporters (editor's note)] make his peace with the international super-rich. ... People will wonder why there was so little resistance to his evitable rise. Where, they will ask, was the American Left? Why was it only rightists like [Pat] Buchanan who spoke to the workers about the consequences of globalization? Why could not the Left channel the mounting rage of the newly dispossessed?"


Richard Rorty


Achieving Our Country : Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America


Harvard University Press


Copyright 1998 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College


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