Philosopher Paul Weithman (Notre Dame) writes:
As many readers of this blog will already know, the New York Times recently ranan article about some predictions of Richard Rorty's which Brian referred to on November 16. The predictions were made in Achieving Our Country, where Rorty forecast the election of someone who could channel just the discontents that Trump tapped into so successfully.
According to the Times article, Rorty thought that when his prediction came true, some of the blame would go to academics, who would be at least partially to blame because "in universities, cultural and identity politics replaced the politics of change and economic justice." If academics do bear some responsibility for Trump's election, it must be because adherents of "cultural and identity politics" in the universities have some influence on the agendas of the political activists and candidates who overlooked what Trump saw. Perhaps they do. But if so, this raises the questions why so much of political philosophy -- in which questions of equality and distributive justice have been the focus of intense interest since the publication of A Theory of Justice -- has had so little impact and of how it might have more.
I have some idea of how ideas get translated into agendas and policies through a network of think tanks on the right. At a time when what passes for the left in American politics is trying to figure out how to speak to the discontent Rorty described, is there an opportunity for political philosophy to contribute? And if so, how? Perhaps philosophy's lack of influence is explained, in part, by the fact that I and many others have no idea how to answer these questions. But it would be interesting to hear from people who do.
A couple of observations of my own, but comments are open for reactions and thoughts about Prof. Weithman's question. First, I'm not sure Rorty's causal hypothesis is accurate: the cultural and identity politics rampant in parts of the academy in the 1980s (and now having even reached academic philosophy) had a separate life outside the academy, and a pre-history outside the academy, with, e.g., civil rights movements for women, African-Americans and gays. Second, what has been influential with right-wing think tanks has not been normative political philosophy, but certain economic theories, which presented themselves as identifying means for purportedly uncontroversial ends. Of course, the triumph of "Chicago school" economics in the Reagan era had more to do with the fact that it matched the short-term interests of the ruling class, not with its intellectual merits. Third, there are few if any examples I can think of where normative political philosophy had a direct impact on policy, but perhaps some readers will have examples. Again, other responses to the issues raised by Prof. Weithman are welcome.