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Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America

4.13  ·  Rating details ·  1,059 ratings  ·  159 reviews
Must the sins of America's past poison its hope for the future? Lately the American Left, withdrawing into the ivied halls of academe to rue the nation's shame, has answered yes in both word and deed. In Achieving Our Country, one of America's foremost philosophers challenges this lost generation of the Left to understand the role it might play in the great tradition of de ...more
Paperback, 159 pages
Published September 1st 1999 by Harvard University Press (first published 1998)
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Jul 31, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: political-theory
Not too long after the 2016 presidential election, a passage from Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country (1998) went viral on social media. Rorty, that amicable bulwark of the Old Left and purveyor of pragmatist philosophy had, so we were told, predicted the election of Donald Trump from beyond the grave in a prophetic passage dating from 1998. The passage was reprinted by such prestigious publications as the New York Times, Vox, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and Slate, and Rorty’s ostensible sooth ...more
Jan Rice
Feb 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Two people recommended this book: a somewhat younger friend and my son-in-law. Actually the friend gave it to me. The idea behind today's recommendations of this book, which was published in 1998, is that it predicted the election of Trump or someone like him.

I recently got hold of an audio version of the book in its least expensive version, an mp3 CD from Amazon (unless of course your library has it--but mine didn't have the hard copy, much less any e-versions), and that has enabled me to get
Apr 26, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: critical
Argues Left has sold out the working class/poor by focusing on the politics of sex and identity. He's right, but fails to convince (me, at least) that we can't care equally for both. ...more
Sep 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
Its amazing that this critique of contemporary left-wing politics was written more than twenty years ago: its lessons feel immediately applicable today. Rorty was a stalwart of the old left in the United States and this short book is a broadside, albeit a cultured and civil one, against the chic nihilism that has begun to overtake those who consider themselves leftists. Following the 1960s there was a big transition in left-wing political movements that Rorty describes as a desecularization of t ...more
robin friedman
May 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Richard Rorty, The Promise of American Life, and American Patriotism

I read Richard Rorty's 1998 book, "Achieving Our Country" as a result of two dovetailing considerations. First, I had the good fortune to participate in a philosophy conference on the subject "Metaphysics and Political Thought", and several speakers presented insightful papers about Rorty. Second, I had recently read a novel written in a sharply satirical, angry style offering a broad postmodern criticism of the United States an
With the goal of inspiring a resurgent political Left in America, Rorty fails beautifully at uniting every historical left-of-center school of thought and action into a single moral community. A fascinating read, in that I've never before had moments of such passionate agreement and vehement disagreement stumble over each other, often multiple times in the course of a few pages. Rorty's societal priorities are commendable, but his pragmatic push for good old-fashioned reforms and renewed patriot ...more
Boy, this is one I went back and forth on. I'll start with the good. Richard Rorty wants a good, pragmatic, honest Left, and I concur. He is mortified by the culturally obsessed Left, and realizes that much of the impulse of the '60s New Left was an idiotic, egocentric counterculture that wound up producing a whole new – and perhaps particularly vile – breed of dressed-down capitalists. He rightly realizes that a lot of the work of the so-called postmodernists is most valid in the context of sha ...more
This wasnt initially the book i wanted to read by Rorty, but ‘ a cultural left’ caught my attention.
I will not explain too much the content. It’s basically about the advantages and disadvantages of the American left (both reformist left and the new left), and it is also about a longing for an American that reduces sadism and which take care of its people. Isn’t that what we all want from our government, eh?
What I really liked about this book is the simplicity of the wording of ideas, and the
Feb 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
This a short book about how the American Left turned from trade unions, labor rights and protecting the poor to nowadays' cultural or identity politics, focusing on symbolic violence and such. The author argues that unless the Left recovers and starts working for social reform, this will lead to very shitty situation and he kinda „predicts” the rise of a Trump-like figure: „the nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—some ...more
Dec 07, 2016 rated it it was amazing
If you are at all wondering how the hell 2016 happened and align even slightly left of political center, I urge you to take a look at this short book of lectures. Philosopher Richard Rorty offers some fairly amazing explanatory and predictive insights about our current American political reality.

I first learned of Achieving Our Country when a paragraph from the book circulated on social media last month (and even made its way into the New Yorker) which almost miraculously predicted the rise of D
Dec 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2017-year-zero
Absolutely essential for any American with a pulse.
Apr 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A perfect time to read (or re-read) this one.
Mitch Flitcroft
Jul 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
“National pride,” Rorty writes in the opening line of the book, “is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement”. At the core of Rorty’s argument for national pride is that it creates politically engaged agents, while a lack of national pride creates politically withdrawn spectators.

The American Left in the 20th century embodies this difference between agents and spectators. Rorty proposes the term “reformist Left…to cover all those Americans who,
May 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
Great short introductory work on Pragmatism. Provides an interesting historical perspective on the left that elevates the progressive pragmatists as the heroes, like Roosevelt and Dewey - and excorciates the religious fanatics - like Marx and Lenin. All in all, reading the book provides a strong theoretical background to what today my be considered Warrenism - the moderated, pragmatic, big tent progressivism of someone like Liz Warren. It also covers a lot more ground in the history of thought - ...more
Jean Bosh
Dec 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Highly recommended for people on the Left who are wondering (rather than merely pointing fingers of blame) how our present situation could have arisen and what can possibly be done about it. While many on the Left certainly have their hearts in the right places, their strategies and actions are often ill-suited to accomplishing the hopes and goals that they have for this society. Bottom line for Rorty: less empty revolutionary talk and philosophizing, more reformist action in specifically figuri ...more
Jeffrey Howard
Sep 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: pragmatism, politics
Twenty years later and this is just as prescient. A leftist writer critiquing the American Left, Rorty distinguishes between the Reformist Left, which was eclipsed in the 1960s, and the Cultural Left, which has taken over leftist discourse since the Vietnam War.

In short, there are those on the Left who believe America is irredeemable, born in sins that can never be overcome. And then there are those who acknowledge the list of things America should be ashamed of while calling attention to the hi
Apr 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Reading this in my senior year of college as an English/some gender studies major I thought it was insulting and patronizing. Now I'm having conversations with liberal friends or my parents and I can't help thinking of sadism vs. selfishness, reform vs. theory, identity vs. campaign, and I don't say anything, I just feel worried and anxious. It is way too easy for people in academic bubbles and liberal cities to dismiss his argument.
I forgot how generous and fair Rorty really is to the academy a
Feb 11, 2017 marked it as to-read
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 sys
Adam Gurri
Sep 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I do not share Rorty's politics. But I think our country would be in much better health had he been listened to back when this was published in 1998.

Whether or not you share his politics, this is an extremely engaging and informative look at the history of the American left in the 20th century, along with Rorty's own views on how one should engage in politics in the first place. The relevance of the divide between what he calls the old reformist (union organizing and New Deal) left and the new c
Simon Brass
Aug 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Overall it is certainly not Rorty's finest work. However, his essay on the eclipse of 'reformist left' by the 'cultural left' is simply fascinating and worthy of five stars in itself. Rorty's ability to predict the state of modern day American politics (back in 1998) / how the left's focus on identity over economic considerations would lead to the emergence of a Trump-like figure straddles the line between the incredible and the unbelievable. I found the section riveting and would consider it a ...more
Ben Handshue
Jan 20, 2018 rated it liked it
Achieving Our Country” (AOH) by Richard Rorty’s book I think leftists should read. They might not agree with his conclusions but I think some of his arguments are philosophical grounded and at times can be quite compelling. I have divided my review as where I think succeeds and where I think he is wrong.
The first thing i like is that left needs to be proud of its nation if it wants to America to a beacon of justice for the world. He compares National pride to self-esteem for individuals. Too muc
Jun 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: philosophy
Rorty does two major things in this book. First, he presents a narrative of liberal efforts in the U.S. over the previous century; this provides an essential context under which we can see the current American Left and understand its critical blindspots that must be overcome if it is to lead to political change. Second, Rorty provides genuine motivation and hope about the possibility of political change and our duties to act now. Rorty's writing is beautiful, persuasive, and highly readable. His ...more
Aug 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
In many ways, it is easy to see where such movements as feminism or liberalism in general have lost their way on some things. Most notably, the left in recent years has bent over backwards to shame itself and America for its past "sins," with an almost religious fervor. However, Richard Rorty saw through this roughly twenty years ago when he put together the lectures that make up this book. The left often gets criticized for idealism and utopian thinking, but such thinking is necessary in order ...more
Mar 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a series of lectures written in 1996-7, which, at heart, are calling on the Left in the US to abandon the uninspired sterility of what used to be called post-structuralism, and get on with the business of 'achieving our country' through reconstructing a reformist Left, or as he puts it, through agency rather than spectatorship. My attention was attracted to this book by social media messages highlighting his prediction that the disenfranchisement of the skilled and unskilled workers will ...more
Jason Friedlander
Sep 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
“The cultural Left has a vision of America in which the white patriarchs have stopped voting and have left all the voting to be done by members of previously victimized groups, people who have somehow come into possession of more foresight and imagination than the selfish suburbanites. These formerly oppressed and newly powerful people are expected to be as angelic as the straight white males were diabolical.

If I shared this expectation, I too would want to live under this new dispensation. Sin
Geoffrey Fox
Aug 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
If for no other reason, you will want to read this book for its explanation and gloomy prediction— in 1998, 18 years before the event —of the sudden emergence of Trump in what we thought was a mature democracy:
It’s largely because (Rorty argues) the Left in the U.S. has become so pre-occupied with cultural issues (identity, sexism) and global rather than local issues that it has lost its historical connection to and advocacy for our own working class, giving little or no attention to (for examp
Samuel Gee
Dec 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
I can’t tell what I think about this book. I agree in a broad, generous sense — the (visible) American Left offers no alternative vision for the country, we’ve descended into cultural squabbles in the ivory tower, and we need to return to class concerns to further the cause. Foucault/Derrida/Lyotard/et al. produced excellent dissections but give no life, no program, no strategy, no way forward. Got you there. I don’t agree with how he gets to his conclusions, and maybe he’s too quick to disparag ...more
Aug 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
A few lectures from the 1990s giving an excellent critique of how the left in America has ceded political agency and economic goals that can speak to globalization, in favor of dismay and cultural observation. His short rants about the dangers of Buchanan-ist populism and the left's willingness to let the right set the framework even for cultural debates ring very true still today, just an all around punchy call to political involvement by standing for utopian possibilities. ...more
Xan Shadowflutter
Nov 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Excellent partial diagnosis of what currently troubles western democracies, certainly the U.S. I'm not sure the cure offered is realistic given the political hostilities that exist. Besides the essays are too short to get into the "How To." But as a description of part of the problem, Rorty's essays are a must read. ...more
Dimitar Krastev
Dec 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Concise philosophical explanation of the main conceptual divide in the modern Left.
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Richard Rorty (1931–2007) developed a distinctive and controversial brand of pragmatism that expressed itself along two main axes. One is negative—a critical diagnosis of what Rorty takes to be defining projects of modern philosophy. The other is positive—an attempt to show what intellectual culture might look like, once we free ourselves from the governing metaphors of mind and knowledge in which ...more

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“What makes us moral beings is that...there are some acts we believe we ought to die rather than commit...But now suppose that one has in fact done one of the things one could not have imagined doing, and finds that one is still alive. At that point, one's choices are suicide, a life of bottomless self-disgust, and an attempt to live so as never to do such a thing again. Dewey recommends the third choice.” 12 likes
“But you cannot urge national political renewal on the basis of descriptions of fact. You have to describe the country in terms of what you passionately hope it will become, as well as in the terms of what you know it to be now. You have to be loyal to a dream country rather than to the one to which you wake up every morning. Unless such loyalty exists, the ideal has no chance of becoming actual.” 9 likes
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